9 things you have to do in exams that would be terrible if you did them in a real job

At the time you read this I will most likely be engrossed in a business law exam lasting a little under 4 hours. It is the first of what will hopefully be the last ever significant set of exams I have to sit.

By now my attitude towards them something like this:

It may be fatigue talking but I really have to wonder how this strange process came to play such a large (and growing) part in how we measure intellectual ability. In so many regards they testing you on your ability to do the exact opposite of what you would do in actual job. Here are some examples:

1. Do all your work immediately in a single sitting without taking any breaks

Sometimes if deadlines are really tight you’ll need to do this but it’s not a great way to approach things. Generally work is a marathon not a sprint.

Everyone knows that taking shorts breaks every so often will boost your productivity. In fact, you get told as much in most workshops on how to revise for exams. Yet come the big day it’s a frantic dash to the end.

2. Don’t redraft

You’ll hardly ever get anything right the first time, so it’s best to give it a second try. It’s even better to a draft, sleep on it and come back to it with fresh eyes. Of course, that’s not really possible in an exam where you are lucky to get time for corrections let alone for a full rewrite.

3. Don’t clarify your instructions

Unclear exactly what you should be doing? Best practice is to ask your boss for clarification. In an exam you’ll hardly ever be able to.

4. Avoid teamworking

Exams make the single most important skill for the working world into a form of cheating.

5. Don’t research

Need to clear something up, check it or expand on it? Best just blag it instead.

6. Devote a substantial amount of time to stuffing incidental details into your short-term memory

This one is closely related to #5.

In order to get a good mark on the academic legal course I did last year, I had to memorise at a conservative estimate upwards of a hundred case names as well as the sections numbers for various legislative provisions. A year later, how many do I remember? Probably about half a dozen. What is more on the vocational law course I’ve done in the mean time, I was warned that such details are generally irrelevant to clients.

And that makes sense: would you rather have a lawyer who could tell you that the guidelines on applying for an interim injunction were established  American Cyanamid Co v Ethicom Ltd or one who can get you an interim injunction if you need it?

7. Communicate only in writing

You know that thing where you use your tongue, lips and teeth to manipulate the flow of air into particular sounds which have a meaning to other people? Think you might use that in your future career?

8. Write only with pen and paper

Some organisations have adjusted their exams to account for the fact that personal computing is now a thing. Most haven’t.

9. Work in silence in a school gym on the worst desks ever made surrounded by dozens of other panicky people

You are never going to do this again!


That’s not to say exams don’t have a place. They have the not insubstantial merit of being hard to cheat in. However, it would be better if they stopped being the principal way we test what people can do. Rather they should be part of a suite of assesement methods including alongside coursework, take home exams, group projects, vivas and presentations.

And when we do use exams they should be (where possible) open book to avoid pointless memorisation and let people choose between word processing and writing by hand.

Alas as my exams will be underway by the time this is published, it’s probably too late for me!


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