Reminders of how to sit an exam, especially BCS exams

When I was at school every teacher would repeatedly tell us to make sure to read the paper thoroughly, to assess which questions to answer first, to answer the question that is being asked, and to manage time. Isn't it funny how we forget these wise words when we are older, and supposedly more competent.


How good are you at sitting examinations? When was the last paper you sat? How well would you do now if you were faced with a paper?

Why am I am asking? I am not questioning your knowledge, but my experience of setting, invigilating and marking BCS papers on Business Analysis suggests that we forget how to tackle exams.

No matter how intelligent the candidate, no matter how experienced, and no matter how much revision they may have done, the instant they open the paper there is a danger that native wit and wisdom flies out of the window. To help, this brief note is aimed at those who have not sat an exam for a while.

To my mind the key points to remember are:

  • Read the questions
  • Do not just dive in
  • Answer the questions, no more no less
  • Don't panic!
  • Answer all the questions

Read the questions

OK, so let's imagine you have just opened the envelope and removed the exam paper. What now? Well, assume that there is some pre-reading time. (This is certainly the case for all BA practitioner examinations. For information, they are also open book, with questions based on a scenario.) Use this time well, even though it may feel too long and you are itching to start writing.

Read the scenario a couple of times. Try to associate the text with topics you have covered from the syllabus. Read the questions; ask yourself which ones ought to have an answer directly from the scenario.

Remember what the invigilator said “There are no trick questions and the majority of the answers will be in the scenario”. That makes sense doesn't it – unless the exam is on a topic where you are expected to be inventive, the likelihood is that the answers are in there somewhere. Keep a mental count of how many answers you can tick off and then compare that with the required pass mark – the paper or the invigilator will have told you this.

Do not just dive in

Reading time over; now for the writing.

But don't just dive in on the first question. You have to manage your limited time so jot down the sequence in which you intend to tackle the questions and note how long you can afford to spend on each.

This last point is really important. Time and again candidates say that they ran out of time. When you look at their scripts it is often obvious that they spent too long on some questions.

It is very easy to become so immersed in a question that you lose track of the time. It is equally easy to waste time by trying to be too precise or just too clever.

Maximise your return; grab the easy points but leave yourself time to work through the more difficult questions – the diagrams, or more complex calculations – that may well carry more marks.

Answer the questions, no more, and no less

But there is still more that you need to do. Recognise that you will gain few marks for a well-constructed answer which misses the point of the question. Examiners pose questions which are focused on key topics in a syllabus. Your answers should be equally focused. Don't play the politicians' game by giving a great answer to a question for which you have an answer but which was not actually asked. You won't gain points and you will waste time!

Recognise also that examiners and markers are not fools. By and large they will have been there, seen it, done it. So when a question asks for three examples of something, perhaps it would be a good idea to give, let's think, oh yes, perhaps just three examples.

If you were the marker what message would you read into a script that gives five? I know what I read into it – you're not sure of the answer and are throwing in as many possibilities as you can think of in the hope that some of them will be correct!

It doesn't work. After a while examiners become pretty hard-nosed. You could well find that they take the first three entries as your answer and merrily ignore the rest, no matter that they are correct. It really is worth keeping your answers focused and not using a scatter gun approach!

Don't panic!

Time is rolling along. You have answered all the easy questions; now you really do have to attempt the more difficult ones. There is no easy way to address this. But, in the words of Douglas Adams, “Don't panic”.

For open book papers, find examples that are like the question you are answering. You should have located these during the reading period so now make use of them. But remember again that “the answers are probably in the scenario” so don't just copy from the text.

This is a second example where the examiners and markers give greater credit to answers that are relevant to the business case in the scenario. OK, so the text book may provide some credible and potentially meaningful answers, but the exams are supposed to be checking an ability to apply concepts and techniques to real world situations. The scenario is supposed to be an example of a situation you may be asked to address, so isn't it obvious that the examiners are expecting you to answer from the specific context of the scenario? Isn't that how you would apply your knowledge of techniques in real life?

See how I keep coming back to the same points?

Answer all the questions

It's getting to the end of the exam. The invigilator has given the ten minute warning. Check that you have answered, or at least attempted, all the questions. It is immensely frustrating for a marker when a whole question is omitted. We genuinely do not want candidates to fail so get something down on paper. A few marks picked up at the end can make all the difference so do not waste the opportunity.

It's over. Time to heave a sigh of relief, but now the worry really sets in! Don't. There's nothing you can do to change the outcome so just sit back and wait for the result.

There is no golden rule to passing an exam, and everything I have written here is predicated on the candidate knowing something of the topics being examined. But we can improve our prospects, just by doing the obvious. Give it a try and good luck.