Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Examinations: A Retrospective

16 Apr 2010

From grades 1-7, I was forced to take 7 subjects a year. The subjects were always the same: Maths (not Math, but Maths), Science, Moral Science (hehe), English, Social Studies, Hindi, and Arabic. Each of these courses had 3 exams a year: a quarterly, a half-yearly, and an annual. That was 147 exams over 7 years.

In grade 8, Science was split into 2 subjects: Physics & Chemistry was one and Biology was the other. Social Studies on the other hand was split into History/Civics and Geography. That was a total of 9 subjects and 9x3=27 exams that year.

In grade 9, both Arabic and Moral Science were dropped from our curriculum. They figured there wasn't much point in imbibing morals into us once we had all turned into adolescents. I guess they were right after all. That made the total get back down to 7 subjects for a set of 21 exams that year.

In grade 10, History and Civics were split into two subjects and a new subject Economics was introduced in addition to Geography. Physics and Chemistry were also split into 2 different subjects taught by two different teachers. That was a total of 10 subjects that year, the highest I've ever had. Luckily I only had to write the quarterlies before I fled the country, so I got away with only 10 exams/papers in 2002.

I wrote a couple more easy exams in grade 10 when I got to Canada, then a couple more in grades 11 and 12, about 7-8 more BC grade 12 provincial exams, and then fifteen final papers for IB. Not to mention all the end-of-chapter and "unit" tests which were the functional equivalent of midterm exams.

At the University of Waterloo, I took a grand total of 65 courses, 46 of which had mandatory final exams. And almost all these 46 courses also had midterms. That's a total of roughly 92 exams over 4.6 years.

I also took the GREs, and a couple of music theory exams (maybe 3 or 4). I also had to take the BC driver's learner test twice since my first license had expired. Getting into IB required another entrance exam to qualify. Oh, and let's not forget the four or five written tests that were used for interview screening.

All put together, I estimate to have sat in a total of roughly 350 exams since grade 1. That's a lot of exams over 17 years if you think about it. Roughly 21 a year. It means I've spent all my life so far either preparing for an exam or writing one.

Of these 350 exams, a number of them were quite interesting. Some of them even challenging, but some of them were so easy it made me wonder why I even bothered studying for it. Once you write so many exams, you get so good at them that you can sometimes just walk into an exam without having studied at all and simply wing it. I was able to do this for a number of exams at UW, and although it doesn't make me proud, it goes a long way to prove how little some exams measure actual knowledge.

If there's any truth to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, it means that we must all be grandmasters at writing exams by now. But the truth is, we aren't. Not by a long shot. We still stress about exams. We still fool around and do stupid stuff the night before an exam. We still doze off and let our minds wander during an exam. We still suck at open-book and time-pressured exams due to lack of sufficient experience with them. And we still do terrible on multiple-choice exams where there could be multiple right answers to each question and you need to get them all for the full point.


This afternoon, I wrote my very last examination. I was so disgusted with it, I rushed to finish it as quickly as I could. I was done in an hour even though the allotted time was 2.5 hours. I was the first to leave the exam hall even though that's a pretty rare occurrence.

As I was leaving the exam hall to walk back home to celebrate my apparent freedom, it hit me. And it hit me hard.

I had spent 17 excruciating years micro-managing and fine-tuning a skill I will probably never have to use ever again.

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