You may have faced exams in course of your academic life which were just too tough to handle – the kind where you get very few easy questions to get going.
Majority panic, especially if it’s tougher than expected.
How do you come out of such situation?
To be honest, I’ve no cookie-cutter formula to suggest which can bail you out of every such situation. But I can talk about my experience of handling two such situations – both utterly hopeless, in fact – and doing better than I expected.
Note: This is not for self-glorification, but more for sharing the methods that worked for me, which may probably work for you as well.
National Talent Search Examination (NTSE)
When I wrote NTSE, the most difficult exam at secondary level in India, it comprised of two rounds of written tests. The first, organized at the state level, was a qualifying round: only those who qualified it could take the second round. Similarly, those who qualified the second round were invited for interview, and the combined marks of second round and interview determined whether you made it to the final list of NTSE scholars.
I had qualified the first round, and was appearing for the second in Jaipur, India.
There were two papers in the second round, both multiple choice type – first, subject paper and second, general aptitude paper (also called mental ability paper). The subject paper was divided into eight subjects (or sections), each carrying 25 questions. Out of eight subjects, one had to attempt questions from any four.
Now, students rarely prepared more than four subjects, as each additional subject meant additional study, while also pursuing the regular school work.
I was no different.
Come the test day.
The first was the subject paper.
As soon as we were given the signal to start the test, I glanced through the four subjects (history, civics, math, and geography) I had prepared to gauge the difficulty level of the test.
Geography was extremely tough, and I could barely answer 7-8 questions (out of 25).
For few minutes it seemed as if it was all over and that I wouldn’t make it to the interview. Although perturbed, I gathered my composure and, somehow, pushed geography out of my mind and got on with the other three subjects. And did reasonably well.
Finishing the three satisfactorily restored my confidence, gave me some momentum. Now, I came back to geography. But instead of proceeding with it straightaway, I decided to glance through other subjects (the four I hadn’t prepared) too, just to see if there was any possibility of doing better in one of them.
Of the four, I sensed an outside chance in economics, this despite the fact that I had never studied economics as a subject. And yet, I felt I could answer some of the questions correctly by applying bit of commonsense and smart-guessing (remember, it’s a multiple choice test).
(In hindsight it sounds weird and risky to choose a subject which I had never studied over a subject where I could answer at least few questions, but it didn’t in those few moments.)
I took the plunge.
If you know a subject well, you’ll get majority of the answers spot on. But if you don’t, then you hit few and, after narrowing down the options, make educated guess on others. That’s what I did in economics.
After a short break, I then took general aptitude paper, which too, similar to the first three subject sections, went reasonably well.
To cut a long story short, I qualified the second round of NTSE. Because, back then, marks weren’t shared with the examinees, I don’t know how I fared in economics. It could be that my performance in the three subjects and general aptitude test was good enough to compensate for a poor score in economics.
Or, possibly, my score in economics was respectable (of course, it couldn’t be great), or else it would have pulled down the total score by lot. And, in an exam like this where one mark can make the difference, it would have probably resulted in a ding before the interview.
The toughest exam (in terms of quality of questions) I’ve ever faced
It came in the mid-semester exam in Numerical Analysis, a math elective I took in the fifth semester at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur.
Test papers were distributed and we were asked, as was the practice, to keep the front-page (facing) down on our desks.
The moment professor asked us to start, I quickly went through the length of the paper just to gauge how it was. It seemed tough in the first glance: there were no low-hanging fruits, no easy ones to start with.
With no easy question to start, I had a second, detailed look at the test paper, and this time I realized how tough it was. I looked around in the room to see how others were doing; majority was still looking at the test paper.
“OK, I’m not alone,” I thought.
I started with the least tough of all the questions. Did it partially, then left it. Moved on to other. Then other. It wasn’t happening; it was hard.
But for solving one of the subparts of a question fully, I could barely move the needle. Nevertheless, I did whatever I could on most questions.
Soon the test ended, and with that my misery.
(Because most had left before the test ended and it was the last test before the mid-semester break, I couldn’t meet anyone to get others’ reactions on how tough the test was.)
Fast forward a week…
I went to the professor’s room to get my evaluated answer sheet.
I knew what was coming.
The professor went through the pile of answer sheets, dug mine out, and pushed it across the table. I quickly grabbed it and turned it around.
5 out of 40!
Although I hadn’t done well, I, as most do, was expecting miracle or rather professor’s mercy. But, alas, neither happened.
Still standing there, I had barely come out of the shock when the professor interrupted my thoughts, “Congratulations!”
I thought he was very sarcastic.
“You’re in top three.”
“What do you mean?”
“I said you’re in top three … Third highest.”
I was stunned. That’s the lowest ever I’ve probably scored, and yet …
Later on I found that nearly half the class (class size: 30+) failed to score.
These two have probably been the most challenging situations I’ve faced as far as getting stuck on an exam is concerned, but there have been plenty of moderate situations. And the same methodology (captured in first bullet below) improved my performance on most occasions.
Reflecting upon these two tests, I think the single best thing I did was to not panic in the face of a difficult situation (an almost impossible in case of the second test), stay in the moment, and give my best.
. You can outcompete them by staying calm, staying focused, and trying your best. This is the best way I know to come out of such situations.
If a test is tough, then it’s tough for every similarly-prepared test-taker
Don’t calmest teams/ players win more often in tense situations?
If partial marks are allowed for completing part of the question (I’m referring to subjective-type questions), then don’t leave questions unattempted if you can make some headway. If you don’t attempt, you’ll certainly get zero, but if you do, then you’ve a chance to score some. And believe me or not, majority just give up
If the test is multiple-choice type, eliminating options and guessing smartly can pull you ahead
Question: What tactics have you adopted to make a comeback when stuck in a difficult exam?