“Well, tests ain’t fair. Those that study have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.”
― Allan Dare Pearce, Paris in April


As a foreigner living in Spain I get the impression that the Spanish love exams. At primary school, secondary school, university and “oposiciones”, there are a lot of exams to do before you can finally relax and stop revising.

If you’re not suffering directly because you have exams to revise for yourself, then it’s more than likely that a child, partner or friend is making your life a misery because of theirs.

It’s that time of year when students are studying hard, so now seems a good time to teach a bit of exam vocabulary and related idiomatic English.

Phrases and idioms for exams:


To pull an all-nighter – depriving yourself of sleep to do things that need to be done or you want to do, usually used for studying. Andy pulled an all-nighter on Thursday to get his essay finished for Sociology by the deadline today

Burn the midnight oilwork late into the night. I have a big exam tomorrow so I’ll be burning the midnight oil tonight.


Come up trumps (or turn up trumps)unexpectedly produce just what’s needed at the last moment. I came up trumps in the exam. The questions were exactly what I had studied.

In the bag – virtually guaranteed; success assured. Once we’d scored the third goal, the game was pretty much in the bag.



Keep your nose to the grindstone – apply yourself conscientiously to your work. If he kept his nose to the grindstone a bit more, he could be a pretty good student.

Knuckle down – focus on a project or a task. You need to knuckle down and work harder if you want to pass your exams.

Learn something off by heart – learn something in such a way that you can say it from memory. I’ve learnt the first chapter off by heart, I don’t need the book anymore.

Make a pig’s ear ofbotch something up; make a complete mess of something. I made a pig’s ear of the exam. I’m sure I’m going to fail.

To flunk an exam or course – fail to reach the required standard in an examination, test, or course of study. Brian has flunked his exams again. He’ll have to resit them all in September.

Make the grade – be satisfactory and of an expected level. Keith didn’t make the grade. He didn’t do well enough in his final exams to get into the university of his choice.

Draw a blank fail in attempts to remember something. The exam was terrible! I drew a blank and couldn’t remember a thing.

Sail through – succeed in doing something without difficulty. He sailed through his exams without a problem.

On course for likely to achieve something. If you continue to do well, you’re on course for a distinction in your Master’s degree.

Pass with flying colours do very well in a test or exam. She passed all her exams with flying colours. She got straight A’s!

Rise to the occasion – manage to do something successfully in difficult circumstances. Despite not feeling well on the day of the exam she rose to the occasion and passed with flying colours.



Essay Exams

Most examinations in Humanities subjects require students to write essays in answer to a series of questions. The basic essay-writing rules apply (clear argument, good essay structure, accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation etc.), but with time constraints!

Open Book or Take Home Exams

In an open book exam you are allowed to refer to certain materials whilst completing the exam. The exam may be taken at home or completed in the classroom. Sometimes you will see the question(s) in advance, sometimes not.

Multiple Choice Tests

Multiple Choice Tests (MCTs) or Multiple Choice Questionnaires (MCQs) may be done on paper or online.

Oral Exams

If you are studying a foreign language, you are likely to encounter an oral examination. The oral exam tests your knowledge (often of a foreign language), as well as your presentation skills.




  • Compare
    Examine qualities, or characteristics, to discover resemblances. “Compare” is usually stated as “compare with”: you are to emphasise similarities, although differences may be mentioned.
  • Contrast
    Stress dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems.
  • Criticise
    Express your judgment or correctness or merit. Discuss the limitations and good points or contributions of the plan or work in question.
  • Define
    Definitions call for concise, clear, authoritative meanings. Details are not required but limitations of the definition should be briefly cited. You must keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.
  • Diagram
    For a question which specifies a diagram you should present a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic representation in your answer. Generally you are expected to label the diagram and in some cases add a brief explanation or description.
  • Discuss
    The term discuss, which appears often in essay questions, directs you to examine, analyse carefully, and present considerations pro and con regarding the problems or items involved. This type of question calls for a complete and entailed answer.
  • Evaluate
    In an evaluation question you are expected to present a careful appraisal of the problem stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.
  • Illustrate
    A question which asks you to illustrate usually requires you to explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example.
  • Interpret
    An interpretation question is similar to one requiring explanation. You are expected to translate, exemplify, solve, or comment upon the subject and usually to give your judgment or reaction to the problem.
  • Justify
    When you are instructed to justify your answer you must prove or show grounds for decisions. In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form.
  • Outline
    An outline answer is organized description. You should give main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.
  • Prove
    A question which requires proof is one which demands confirmation or verification. In such discussions you should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence or by logical reasoning.
  • State
    In questions which direct you to specify, give, state, or present, you are called upon to express the high points in brief, clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.
  • Summarise
    When you are asked to summarise or present a summarisation, you should give in condensed form the main points or facts.

 – Thanks go to the University of Manchester for this final glossary.

Exams, more exams and nothing but exams!
Tagged on: