How to Avoid Common Exam Mistakes at A Level

Here are a few guidelines from our expert tutor, David, to help you to avoid some of the most common pitfalls that A-Level students encounter, using the example of Geography.

Misreading exam questions.

If I had a pound for every time I have read an answer on volcanoes when the question is asking about earthquakes (or vice versa) I would be a rich man! Sadly, misreading question errors claim quite a few casualties every year among the A-Level geography candidates. So here is some advice to ensure that you don’t succumb.

1. Command words.

Learn the meanings of the examiners’ command words and practice using them correctly.

  • Do you know the difference between ‘describe’ and ‘explain’?
  • What does the command ‘assess’ require you to do in your response?
  • ‘Study Fig 3 …’ is also a command.

It is common for students to miss important details in the data given in the map, diagram, table or photograph provided with the exam question.

When you see the command ’study’, you should interpret that as interrogate the data. Ensure that you extract every last piece of information from the resource (that is what interrogate means). Read the title of the figure carefully.


Fig. 1 shows mean wind speed and wind direction recorded in Newquay, Cornwall, UK.
Note that the data shows mean wind speed and wind direction.
You should know what a mean wind speed is, and that wind direction is expressed as the direction the wind is coming from.

Why does the examiner tell you that the data was recorded in Newquay, Cornwall, UK?
Newquay is on the north coast of a windy county in the west of England exposed to the prevailing south-westerly winds from the Atlantic Ocean.

Remember that the examiner doesn’t like to waste ink, so every piece of information on the paper is relevant. When interrogating a map extract, ensure that you take note of:

Map Extract Graph
Map title Title
Scale Labels on axes
Orientation Scales on axes
Key Graphing technique used
Labels Patterns
Other relevant details Anomalies

Much the same level of scrutiny of the detail needs to be applied to tables and diagrams as well.

2. CUBE the question.

  • CIRCLE the command words.
  • UNDERLINE the key geographical words that give you the topic of the question.
  • Draw a BOX around any figures you must refer to.
  • EXPLAIN the question to yourself in your head.

Content Overwhelm

Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of content you need to learn for geography? You are not alone. Here are some tips to help you to assimilate the content:

Have a revision plan.

      • Look up your specification content on the exam board website and print it out.
      • RAG each unit with different coloured highlighters.
        • Red = I have a poor understanding
        • Amber = I sort of get it
        • Green = I feel confident that I know this topic
      • Create a revision schedule for the weeks left before the exam and prioritise the Red topics first.
      • Once you have gained some mastery of a Red topic change it to an Amber.
      • Having revised all the Red topics then focus upon the Ambers.

Reduce the volume of case study material to learn

      • Most textbooks and online sources provide quite detailed and extensive information on each case study and to learn all this material is a daunting prospect.
      • Familiarise yourself with the types of questions the examiners ask – it should be possible to identify the important themes to learn for each case study. Your teacher can also advise on this.
      • Edit down the material to no more than one side of A4 paper and this will be easier to learn.

Making it real

      • Making content meaningful and relevant to your own experiences is a great way to remember it.
      • Try to relate the theory to your own experiences.
      • It is quite acceptable to incorporate your own examples and case studies into exam answers.
      • From this examiner’s perspective, to see that a candidate has written from first-hand experience often makes the answer a more interesting read.
      • Have a think about all the places you have lived in or visited and try to relate these experiences to what you are learning.

Non-exam Assessment worries

Don’t be tempted seek help beyond what is allowed in the exam board regulations.

The non-exam assessment is designed to test the student’s ability to conduct an independent geographical investigation. If you receive extra help beyond what is allowed, there is a chance that this will be considered to be malpractice, and this could affect your final grade. Students have been downgraded because they have sought extra help beyond that offered by their centre.

1.Top quality data collection

When collecting data in the field, take care with the quality of your data collection. (‘Rubbish in equals rubbish out’). So even if the weather is awful, aim to collect accurate and reliable data. (Accurate data has been measured and recorded with care, reliable data has been sampled in a sensible manner).

2.“My data is wrong”.

The real world does not fit the models precisely or may not fit them at all. This is not a disaster for your NEA. It is interesting.

3. Don’t leave the writing-up to the last minute

I wish you all the very best with your studies. Geography is a fascinating subject, so do try and enjoy your learning.