The Guardian


Worried about failure? Check out this tried and tested plan for fouling up as effectively as possible...

• Don’t answer the question: If you think that only a fool could accomplish this feat, rest assured that anyone can. Because answering the question means executing a sequence of manoeuvres that few are trained to perform.

The first manoeuvre involves reading the question for what it is, rather than for what you’d prefer it to be. If your experiences at school or university have given you rather less confidence in your ability to think, and rather more of a tendency to defer to others, you’ll be sure to try to bend exam questions so as to reproduce in your answer a safe old essay that scored A or B. You might even ignore the question altogether and just rehash revision notes, study notes, or notes a kind teacher offered you to learn by heart.

• Be vague: In case you accumulated pertinent knowledge inadvertently, fall back on your second surefire waffle strategy: your essay plan. Make it a shallow, half-hearted attempt: fill it with ideas like “etc”. Or even simpler, don’t plan at all. You probably convinced yourself that you can’t anyway, if for years you’ve got away with a “write what comes to mind and redraft endlessly” strategy in homework and coursework.

Even if your revision has included planning practice, with other students in the exam room scribbling away, you’ll want to skip the planning stage, because it’s just too scary to sit and think things through. Follow the crowd, and, like the crowd, produce directionless answers that are too general, don’t define anything in the question that needs clarification and deal with issues in the loosest of ways. Oh, and contradict yourself if you can.

• Contradict instructions: Time pressure will help you bungle the simplest of tasks. Don’t worry, you’re not immune just because you’re clever. An Oxford student, destined for a dazzling first, forgot to turn the pages of her exam paper. So make your mark by misreading instructions, missing out parts of questions, or answering the wrong sections (that will keep the examiner on his toes); show your individuality by refusing to carry out question instructions, particularly if you’re not quite sure what they mean. For instance, “compare” means “show similarities and differences” whereas “contrast” means “show differences only”.

• Explain nothing: This you can probably accomplish in your sleep, as does the mass of students encouraged to learn parrot-fashion, whose revision involves simply accumulating knowledge without thinking about meanings, contexts or implications. Examiners like facts and figures to be interpreted and analysed.

• Be subjective - refuse academic evidence: You’ve probably not been curious to read, as part of your exam preparation, your peers’ essays. You know exactly what grades they got for them. Those who scored higher than yours carry the mark of the devil and you are right to avoid knowing what’s in them that’s so juicy. (As for reading essays written by academics, forget it.) And in school and university debates, instead of listening impartially to others’ points of view, you’ve tried to shout them down, naturally. So the chances are that, in your work, personal anecdotes and rhetorical statements rule Okay. As for academic register, you think that’s what they read out at the beginning of class. You’re probably right —after all, everything’s just a matter of opinion.

• Don’t use specialist terms and ignore those in the question: There might be a list of required specialist terms in your syllabus. You know, that papery thing that you filed away last September? Never mind.

• Be inscrutable: write illegibly and don’t number pages and questions.

• Make silly mistakes with facts and figures.

• Write long, wordy and ungrammatical sentences: What’s great about these last three strategies is that they all stem from the same overall failing — poor exam time-management. So as long as you adopt the latter, the former should all fall nicely into place. In conclusion, you might think this sabotaging mission hard to accomplish - after all, there’s so much to remember, and you’ll be so nervous! Precisely. As long as you let panic get the better of you (a good tip to produce butterflies in your stomach is to hold your breath), you’ll find all these strategies take care of themselves. Good luck! Sorry. Almost forgot…

• Rush your endings.