Even in exams, less can be more.

So the story goes…  Once a philosophy exam is reported to have asked students ‘What is courage?’ One student is said to have written only two words saying ‘This is.’

Whether true or not,  how much to write in an exam, or indeed for any report, is a question causing much anxiety.  In today’s high pressured world, the temptation is to believe longer essays and more detailed explanations will be better.

Cambridge Assessment,  who manage a broad range of assessments from the iGCSE,  ‘A’ Levels and various assessment tests like the BMAT,  have sought to actually find out by analysing a range of historical exam scripts to see if there is a relationship between how much students wrote and the final grade.

Taking the 2014 GCSE English Literature exam,  they found what might be counter-intuitive to many a student.  There comes a point where less can be more.

In other words,  once you have passed a threshold, writing more may be a waste of time and is unlikely to lead to better marks.

This graph below, from a paper written by Tom Benton (2017) in Cambridge Assessment’s research division, shows a number of interesting things – but most crucially, students getting top grades do not necessarily write lengthy answers in a clear triumph of quality over quantity. The range of words written for an A* grade is wide:  one student wrote 300 words,  whereas a more verbose student wrote over 1200.

word count and GCSE Engl Lit 2014 score

(source: Benton, T. 2017, pg. 39 – Fig 3)

Of course, it is true that students with higher grades were more likely to write more – on average students who scored a B grade wrote an average 597 words, as compared to the 652 words contained in A grade essays. However it is important that students stop and think – as all teachers will advise:

  • Planning an answer is important
  • One’s first answer is not always our best answer
  • Allow a little time to think through difficult questions – draw a mind map, doodle, or employ some other creative thinking tool
  • Don’t panic!  Adrenaline may result in long essays, but there’s no guarantee they will be any good.



Benton, T. (2017). How much do I need to write to get top marks? Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment publication24, 37-40.  link

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