How To Minimize Exam Stress And Maximize Exam Scores

How, did I, a normal kid, manage to top the boards across India? More importantly, how can you?

Gaurav Sood Updated: Jan 20, 2020 11:16:30 IST
How To Minimize Exam Stress And Maximize Exam Scores

To be the best is an indescribable feeling, especially when it’s in something as important as the board examinations. I wasn’t an exceptionally gifted student, just a decent one. Which is why I’m often asked, "How (on earth) did you top the boards!?"

So how, then, did I, a normal kid, manage to top the boards across India? More importantly, how can you? Fortunately, the secret isn’t 'study till you’re a sleep-deprived zombie.' Neither do you need to be a prodigy to ace an exam—you just need to work smart.

Here are some simple, actionable tips from my recently released book, How I Topped The Boards and You Can Too! (Rupa Publications) that will teach you how to deal with a question paper.

Keep to the right length

It’s up to you to decide how you want to present the information in your head in the form of an answer. Too long an answer, and you risk losing the interviewer’s attention and end up wasting time that will hurt your score on other answers. Too short, and you risk leaving out essential information. It’s always about finding the right balance and that’s something you should determine before you start writing.

Do not answer an extra question

You’ll end up wasting valuable time and get nothing for it. In fact, you’ll only sacrifice your own marks, because you’ll have that much less time to finish the rest of your paper.

Submit a presentable paper

I was born with a condition called hyperhidrosis—a fancy word for sweaty palms. I hated shaking hands with people because it was embarrassing. Writing was even worse. Within minutes my notebook would turn into a swimming pool. I tried placing handkerchiefs between my hand and the paper, and I even tried those plastic gloves doctors wear—nothing helped. Eventually, I just had to grin and bear it, and my teachers had to accept puddles instead of papers.

Because I didn’t want my sweaty palms to linger on the page too much, I never bothered to write neatly. One day I saw my friends’ answer sheets and realized that a good fraction of the papers that every examiner goes through are poorly presented. Why, then, was I giving up a chance to stand out from rest of the hundreds with a tweak that would cost me no extra effort? While you may not receive any explicit tangible benefit from presenting a neat, legible paper, you can rest assured that doing so will please your examiner. And a happy examiner is always better than an indifferent one.

It isn’t just about legibility. It’s important that you frame your answer in a way that the most important parts catch the examiner’s eye. These are the parts that will get you the marks. If they’re buried somewhere deep within a long-winded answer, chances are that the examiner might miss them and give you a poor grade. So, be neat. You could even take it a step further and write with two different-coloured pens to make your answer more legible.

Leave time for revision

Leave at least ten minutes for revision after you’ve finished writing your paper. I can’t stress how important this is. No matter how well we think our paper has gone, we all make mistakes. A quick ten-minute revision is more than sufficient to spot and rectify those errors and will improve your grade by at least two to five marks.

What if you’re running short on time?

For whatever reason, there’s always a chance that we might find ourselves in the unenviable position of losing the race against the clock.

If such a scenario were indeed to arise, the odds are that it will happen towards the tail end of the exam, when you just have your last answer to go. The best thing to do in such a case is to prioritize.

  • Forget the niceties. Forget about the perfect introduction that you were planning or the calculations that you were going to show. It’s time for you to consolidate all of that into as small a step as you can manage.
  • Play the money card first. Your job now is to put across the most important topics/ideas/arguments/calculations right at the beginning of your answer.
  • Use bullet points and abbreviated sentences, if required. Examiners sometimes prefer bullet points, which are easier to read than lengthy sentences. There’s a good chance that for this reason, bullet points can work in your favour now.
  • Work your way down the ladder of importance. The most important parts of your answer should be right on top. Chances are that if you mention the most important few points at the beginning, the examiner will assume that you know your answer and will give you the full score even if they do not have the time to read it fully.
  • Don’t leave it hanging … Even if you haven’t been able to put in all the points that you wanted to in your answer, spend that last-minute writing a conclusion to wrap it up. Do not waste that last minute trying to add another point. The examiner is far more likely to notice that the answer is incomplete if there’s no proper ending, and may decide to penalize you for it, as opposed to noticing that a less important point is missing. Remember, you’ve already written the most important parts of the answer at the beginning. Those should be enough to get you the marks.

Alternatively, if you find yourself with more than one question to solve and only enough time to answer one, here are my tips: 

  • Prioritize: Choose the question that is easier to answer and tackle that first. This might be a question that you know the answer to perfectly or it might be an objective question, as opposed to a subjective one, or it might be a question that involves calculations, as opposed to descriptions. Choose the one that will fetch you the maximum marks in the minimum possible time. Alternatively, if the calculation is too long to complete in time (remember that it’s harder to do maths when you’re under pressure), it might be smarter to go for a descriptive answer. Leaving a descriptive answer incomplete can still fetch you marks, perhaps more so than an incomplete calculation or definition.
  • Don’t have time to answer both? Answer both! This might seem counter-intuitive, but using the points from the above section (answering a single question when running short on time) try to answer both the questions. I’ll explain why. Let’s say that both questions, 10 marks each, require descriptive answers. Were you to take all the time to write the perfect answer for one, maybe you’ll get a 10, maybe you’ll get an 8. Since you’ve left out the other question, you’ll definitely get a 0 there. Your total? 8/10 + 0/10 = 8/20 On the other hand, assume that you incorporate inputs from the above section and submit two abbreviated answers. Because of the reasons mentioned above, chances are that you’ll score 6 or 8 on both questions. It’s also possible (even likely) that if you’ve perfectly followed my advice, you might actually get the same score as you might have got had you answered the question perfectly. In this case, you might get an 8/10 on both answers. Add up the first case? 6/10 + 6/10 = 12/20. And the second? 8/10 + 8/10 = 16/20. In both cases, you’re better off than if you’d only answered one question perfectly. The reason for this is that, because we’ve prepared so well, chances are that, in our quest to provide the perfect answer, we have provided the examiner with more than is required. Say, instead of providing one example, we’ve provided two; we’ve added some figures and dates; we’ve provided an illustration; we’ve shown extra steps of calculation, just to be safe. But chances are that we’ll still get the perfect score, even if we don’t provide some of these details.


Gaurav Sood graduated from The Doon School as the all-India ISC Board Examination topper in 2008, securing 99 per cent—the highest marks in India's history. He is the author of How I Topped The Boards And You Can Too!, Rupa Publications.
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