On Writing Examinations (1954)

By Major A.G.M. Maitland, Royal Canadian Electrical And Mechanical Engineers
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 1, January 1954

[The author was commissioned with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders in 1941 and transferred to the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in the following year. In 1944 he transferred to the RCEME. He served in Italy and Northwest Europe, and following his return to Canada he served at Army Headquarters as a staff officer with the Directorate of Weapons and Development and the Directorate of Armament Development. He is at present attending the 1954 course at the Canadian Army Staff College at Fort Frontenac, Kingston, Ontario. – Editor.]

With the approach of the spring examination period, many officers, both Active and Reserve, are faced with the problem of convincing the Army Examiners that they are worthy of promotion or staff training. It is felt that this article and the one following, entitled "Examination Tactics", will provide officers with some helpful information on how to apply the knowledge they have gained during months of hard study. The second article is written by a British officer for the guidance of British Army candidates, and while the Canadian Army system of setting and marking examinations differs in some minor respects from that described, the suggested approach to the problem of writing examinations is as applicable here as in the United Kingdom. – Editor.

elipsis graphic

Now that the Christmas and New Year's festivities are behind us, many readers of this Journal will be turning their thoughts to the Promotion, Staff College Entrance or Military College of Science Examinations they plan to write in the Spring. It is to those readers that this article is addressed, in the hope that the suggestions contained herein will be of assistance to them in obtaining higher marks. You have all written countless examinations before now and I am sure none of you needs to be reminded that, to make marks, you must first know your subject. The necessary knowledge will only be acquired through a reasonable amount of conscientious study on your part, and if you are wise you have already started. There are, however, many ways in which even the well-prepared candidate can lose marks unnecessarily in an exam, and this was brought to my attention repeatedly when, during the past two years, I assisted in the marking of promotion examination papers. I plan to review some of the more common errors I have noticed and to offer a few helpful suggestions.

Allot Your Time

Perhaps one of the principal reasons why candidates fail to achieve a passing mark on a written examination is that they do not complete the paper in the time allotted. If this has happened to you, you will agree that it was because you spent too much time on the more difficult questions or wrote too much on those to which you knew the answers. Allotting your time in accordance with the value of the questions will help you to avoid these errors. Most army papers allow three hours and are marked out of a total of 300 marks. A good plan is to allow 2 1/2 hours for the actual writing of the paper, taking 15 minutes at the beginning to read the questions through completely and carefully before attempting to answer any of them, and reserving 15 minutes for review at the end. This plan has several advantages. The time taken to read through the paper allows you to settle down and recover from that pre-exam tension, and to select the questions which you can do most easily. It will also give you confidence when, if you have done a fair amount of preparation, you find you can answer most of the questions without difficulty. The 2 1/2 hours breaks down very conveniently into one minute for every two marks, and this makes the allotting of your time a simple matter of dividing the marks for each question by two. Although you can do this mentally if you like, I would suggest that you actually write the minutes allotted to each question in the margin as you read over the paper, and thus leave nothing to chance. Now there is absolutely no sense in allotting your time unless you stick to it. You will find that you can do some questions in less than the time allowed. That is all to the good, since the minutes saved will be very useful at the end of the paper. If however you find yourself running overtime, leave the question and a space and go on to the next. You will still have 15 minutes, plus those you have saved, in which to come back to this tough one. It is difficult sometime, I agree, to leave a subject you know when "a few more minutes" would round out your answer. It does not take many of these situations, however, to use up half an hour and thus prevent you from answering another question. Don't fall into this trap. Allot your time and stick to it.

Do the Easiest Questions First

Having read the paper over and allotted your time, you will now be ready to start writing. You might think it wholly unnecessary for me to suggest anything as simple as answering the easiest questions first, yet I have seen any number of papers where the candidate has plodded methodically through an examination with apparently little thought of doing those questions to which he knows the answers before attempting the more difficult ones. By doing the easiest questions first, you not only make sure of getting every possible mark for what you know, but you can then afford to spend any time saved on the more troublesome ones. I would caution you, however, against missing questions, a thing which can happen all too easily. This can be avoided by checking off each question on the paper as you do it. Then you can see at a glance those you have not yet attempted.

Read the Question

It should hardly be necessary to repeat this time-worn warning, yet each year candidates lose marks because they fail to answer the question asked. Read the question through carefully several times and decide what type of answer is required. If the question says "list", don't write an essay. If you are asked to "discuss" a topic, don't write down a number of unrelated facts. Many candidates start to answer a question correctly and then wander from the subject. Frequent reference to the question as you answer it should help you to avoid this error. Should you come upon a question which appears ambiguous and requires an assumption on your part, preface your answer with a statement of the assumption you are making. Even if you have missed the point of the question you should get some marks for a reasonable answer to your interpretation of it. Also, if there is more than one part to a question, make sure that you answer all parts required. Finally, try to plan your answer in accordance with the marks allotted. There is no sense in writing several pages on a question worth ten marks and three lines on one worth fifty, although it is done all the time.

Be Brief Where Possible

There are many ways in which you can save precious minutes in an exam. There are even more ways of wasting them. One of the most common faults is the use of long involved sentences when a word or a phrase would do. The marker is normally looking for a number of key points or facts which will indicate your knowledge of a subject. While it is very nice to put these down in flowing prose, time does not always permit, and since the facts earn the marks, concentrate on them. A lead sentence followed by a neatly arranged and numbered list of facts can bring you as many marks as a whole page of prose containing the same facts, and incidentally is much easier to mark. Many candidates waste valuable time writing out each question before answering it. I remember one case where the question called for twenty-five abbreviations. One officer laboriously wrote out each word in full before giving the abbreviation, instead of merely sub-numbering his answers. Perhaps he was afraid the marker would not recognize his abbreviations! I am afraid we all have a tendency to pad our answers a little when we run short on knowledge. By and large this does not fool anyone, but it does waste time—time which might be spent to better advantage on other questions. So take a tip: don't "waffle". Put down what you know and leave it at that. The marker will appreciate it.

Write Legibly

Unfortunately we are not all gifted with good handwriting and most of us tend to write our worst when under tension. If you are one of the many, I can only say, "Write as legibly as you can." Marks are seldom lost directly for poor handwriting, except on staff duties papers or in essays, but many may be lost indirectly. The marker is human after all, and if after ten tries he still does not know what you have said he is likely to become a little exasperated and give himself the benefit of the doubt. Taking the extra time to make your writing readable, even if you say a little less, may earn you more marks in the end.

Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation

Although, as pointed out earlier, the use of prose is to be avoided in some papers in the interests of speed, an officer's ability to express himself clearly and concisely in writing will be tested in the essay he is required to write in one of the papers. In the essay the mechanics of good writing are, if anything, more important than the subject material, and in some papers as much as fifty percent of the total marks for the essay may be deducted for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. Many spelling errors are no doubt due to carelessness, although some may result from the writer's attempt to impress by the use of big words. Simple words, as Sir Winston Churchill has pointed out, are the best. Not only will they make your writing more effective, but you will have less difficulty with their spelling. Particular attention to your spelling during the next few months, with frequent reference to the dictionary, may help you to obtain higher marks in the coming examinations. Errors in grammar are frequently due to habit rather than to lack of knowledge. We are all guilty, to some extent, of the use of ungrammatical expressions in our everyday speech, but these can not be tolerated on paper. Typical examples are: the use of "who" for "whom", ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, the use of the wrong case with the verb "to be" and prepositions, and the use of the past participle for the past tense. Other errors to avoid in your essays are: sentences without verbs, mixing of verb tenses, using adjectives for adverbs, long involved sentences with unrelated clauses or the use of subordinate clauses without a main sentence, and the indiscriminate use of slang. If you know that your grammar is weak you might have your family or your friends check on obvious errors in your speech. Practise writing in your spare time and look for errors. Use short sentences when you write your essay. The correct use of punctuation is a controversial subject at best. The indiscriminate use of commas, and failure to use periods or question marks at the end of a sentence are probably the most common errors. Should you wish to refresh your memory in this subject, there is an excellent section in the DED "Technical Report Writing Manual" on punctuation which may help you.*

[* The reader's attention is also drawn to two articles published in the Journal which contain information of value to examination candidates: "Military Writing" (March 1949 issue); "Thinking and Writing" (January 1953 issue). – Editor.]

Other Points

This article would not be complete without mention of a few minor points. Say what you mean. The candidate who wrote, "Only that part of an Operation Order which might tend to confuse people will be written and handed out," obviously knew what he wanted to say but did not manage to express it. Don't make up quotations. One officer quoted Napoleon as saying: "An Army without morale is like a vehicle without an engine." Such obvious fabrications do not impress, and certainly earn no extra marks. Avoid the careless use of capital letters and periods. I have seen papers where nearly every noun started with a capital. This is correct in German, but not in English or French. Some officers also have the bad habit of making a period every time they pause in their writing. This practice cost some of last year's candidates dearly because by placing periods at the end of abbreviations which should have none, they made those abbreviations incorrect.


To sum up, may I just refer you once again to the titles of the paragraphs in this article. The intelligent allotment of time in relation to the value of the questions and the correct interpretation of the questions, are, in my opinion, the most important points. None of the points covered, however, will make up for a lack of knowledge, so back to your studies and the best of luck in your exams.