In the first post of this series on examinations strategy, we had highlighted how important it is to plan the order in which a candidate should answer the questions.

That is just one aspect of having a good examination strategy. Another aspect is that of minimizing the risk of losing marks.

Remember, most of the entrance examinations have some sort of negative marking built in to the mark scheme. This is simply to penalize guessing.

The Role of Negative Marking

Negative marking plays a big role in determining the final ranking of candidates. So let us set up the problem. The mark scheme announced for the JEE Main is as follows. Each question is worth 4 marks and carries -1 marks for an incorrect response. So this means that a candidate is awarded 4 marks for answering a question correctly, penalized by 1 mark for answering a question incorrectly and has an unaffected score if he or she skips the question.

Assessing Confidence Levels

In evaluating the risk you face while answering a question, the saying “know thyself” of the Oracle at Delphi is crucial.
Without knowing your abilities and your strengths and weaknesses, it is impossible to evaluate the risks involved with negative marking.
And if you do not understand your abilities you run the risk of either overestimating or underestimating your performance.

So suppose you are 100% sure of knowing how to answer a question. It is obvious that there is no risk involved. Given 100 such questions, you will return with a score of 400 – a perfect score of 100%.

But what if your confidence level is different – say 90%? What would your final score be?

You would answer 90 questions correctly – earning 360 marks – and 10 questions incorrectly – getting penalized 10 marks. Your final score would be 350 – a score of 87.5%. Corresponding final scores for different confidence levels are shown in the table.


Confidence Level in %

Final Score in %






















Now it is next to impossible that you will have a uniform confidence level for all questions in an examination. So how do we go about interpreting and using this table?

Since this has to happen during an examination, you must ask yourself, “How many marks have I earned so far?” This is an evaluation of the marks you are 100% confident of having earned.

Importance of Knowing Where You Are

Why bother with this? Simply because how much you have scored determines how much you actually are risking.

Here is an example to clarify. Suppose the marks required for admission to a certain program in a certain college is 250. If you have already scored, say 252 marks with 100% confidence, then answering even 3 questions at a lower confidence level and risking going below 250 is a huge risk in terms of what you have already gained!

However, if you have already scored only 240 marks, you are not going to gain admission to the program of choice. So you have very little to lose in answering 3 questions at a lower confidence level.

Where you are, with respect to where you would like to be, determines how you should proceed!

Planning Your Attempt

An attempt at an entrance examination should be likened to a 1600 m race. In order to complete the race successfully, you need to take four laps through the same territory. But in each lap you are trying to do something a little different.

This is why reading the paper is crucial. Reading the paper should be counted as the first pass through the paper and, while reading, you should prioritize questions under four categories:

  • Category 1: Questions I am 100% sure of solving correctly
  • Category 2: Questions I am at least 75% sure of solving correctly
  • Category 3: Questions I am between 50% and 75% sure of solving correctly
  • Category 4: Questions I have no clue about

In the second pass through the question paper, you should answer all the questions that you are 100% sure of. This will put some marks in the bag and most likely will push you over any cut-off thresholds that may exist. At the end of this pass you should total your expected marks.

In the third pass, you should tackle the questions in category 2. Here you will need to assess the risk in terms of how much you have already scored. If you have scored very little, then you risk losing nothing by answering questions that are risky.
If you have scored a lot, more than what you had hoped, then answering these questions could get you a better rank without making you lose a rank altogether.

If you are just over the borderline, the risk is too much as a few wrong answers might put you below the threshold. In this case, you should spend more time on these questions, seeing if there is any way you can eliminate options so as to increase your confidence levels in these questions.

In the fourth pass, you should tackle the questions in category 3. These should be attempted only if you are still below the threshold or just barely at the threshold. The risk involved in attempting these questions is great, but if you are below the threshold, you have nothing to lose!
If you are above the threshold, however, you have everything to lose. You should not then answer any of these questions. Rather spend your time ensuring that you have not made any errors in the second and third passes.

To summarize this the above


Make at least 3 passes of the entire paper

Pass 1            To Read

Pass 2            To Attempt the easisest questions

Pass 3            To Attempt questions requiring a little effort

After Each Pass

If you believe you have done well and should qualify : DON’T TAKE RISKS

If you believe you are borderline or below : You must take the risk and guess


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