Use Test-Taking Strategies on Exam Day

Exam day has come, and although you are well-prepared, you might still feel a bit anxious. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal for students to feel some stress when it comes to test-taking, even if they have studied well and know the material.

The following tips will guide you through exam prep and the exam itself. Remember that every exam is different. This test-taking guide is written in a general sense, with an eye toward the typical college-level exam.

4 best test-prep practices

supplies - post it notes, markers, pencils - for exam prep
#1: Find out as much as you can about the exam beforehand
In the class meeting prior to the exam, ask your instructor for information about the test, if they do not provide this information voluntarily. Ask about the format of the exam; what tools and materials you will need to bring, and if things like restroom breaks will be permitted during the exam. Also, if there are any topics that will be included on the exam that you are still unsure of, ask your professor to review that material. If you still have questions about a particular topic, it’s likely some of your classmates do too.

#2: Avoid cramming the night before
Spending several hours cramming before an exam is not as helpful as you may think. Not only does cramming prevent you from developing the deep understanding of materials necessary for learning, it may increase your stress levels prior to an exam. The information you learn through cramming is stored in your short-term memory and quickly forgotten once you turn in your test. This makes it harder to study for final exams when you need to recall everything you learned during the term.

If you have been following your study plan, there shouldn’t be a need for an intense cramming session right before an exam. You should already be well-versed in the material that will be tested, and a brief review of your notes should be sufficient to prepare for the test.

#3: Prepare your supplies
Make sure your bag is packed with plenty of sharpened pencils, pens (blue or black ink), and erasures, as well as your textbook, notebooks, and any study materials you may be allowed to use during the exam. If you are taking a math or science test, bring a calculator with charged batteries. Also, since you won’t be allowed to use your cell phone, bring a watch to keep track of time. Lastly, if allowed, bring some chewing gum to deal with nervous tension.

#4. Be physically ready
Getting a good night’s sleep is key to preparing your brain for optimal performance during an exam. Avoid staying up late the night before an exam, even if you’re at home and doing something relaxing like watching a movie. The day of the exam, eat a healthy meal, avoid excessive caffeine, and stay hydrated. Use the restroom before arriving for the exam, and bring a bottle of water, if permitted.

7 strategies for a successful exam

student taking a multiple choice test
#1: Read the test directions closely
When you first receive the test, take a moment to read over the directions. If you have questions, ask your instructor to clarify, either to you personally or to the entire class. Don’t be embarrassed: your fellow students will likely have the same questions. If other students ask questions, don’t get so engrossed in your test that you miss out on answers to their questions.

#2: Survey the test before beginning
Glance over the entire test and form a plan for how you will spend your time. You do not need to closely inspect every question, but your plan may be different for a test with fifteen multiple-choice questions and six essay questions versus a test with ninety multiple-choice questions and one essay. If the professor provides the point value of each question or section, focus on the sections with the highest point value if you expect to be pressed for time. Briefly look at any bonus questions, and answer those you know before spending time on complex, challenging questions.

#3: Read every question closely
Sometimes teachers will write questions that are deliberately reversed from what you might expect in order to challenge you. If you feel that a question is nonsensical, hard to understand, or contains typos, ask your instructor for clarification; misprints and editing accidents can happen.

#4: Prioritize how you will answer questions
You don’t have to answer the test questions in order. Start with the easiest questions that you can answer quickly. This will guarantee that you get points for correct answers, and also give you a confidence boost. You can then focus the rest of your time on more challenging questions that require more thought and work.

If you’re working on a tough problem and the answer is not immediately clear, don’t get stuck and waste valuable time. Move on to another problem, and come back to the harder problem later. For multiple-choice questions, rule out as many options as you can, and make an educated guess. For true/false questions, remember that absolute or near-absolute answers, such as those that use “always” or “never,” are often false. No matter how stuck you are, always take an educated guess. You have no chance of getting an answer right if you don’t try.

#5: Look for key words in essay questions
Read the question thoroughly and be sure you understand the specific topic, as well as what you are supposed to “do” with your essay. Keywords include “define,” “explain,” and “compare.” Prepare a short outline on scratch paper to organize your thoughts, and consider the time you have. Address the topic with a direct response, and address all aspects of the question with specifics, not just general statements. You should use technical vocabulary from the course correctly, but don’t feel you need to show off. Even if you and your teacher differ in perspective on a course topic, you can write an informed answer that reflects you knowledge of different angles on this topic.

#6: Don’t get distracted during the test
If other students are being disruptive, ask them to be quiet or inform the instructor. Avoid looking toward their papers. Don’t feel pressured if other students complete the test quickly and leave early; some students take tests very quickly, and this has little bearing on their actual performance on those tests. If you find yourself racing to finish and “get it over with,” be sure to review your answers and check your work to spot mistakes or questions you overlooked.

#7: Remember to breathe
If at any time during the test you feel yourself panicking or stressing out, put down your pencil and take several long, deep breaths. Imagine yourself relaxing and visualize a calm image. This will help clear your mind and fill your blood with oxygen.

3 things to do after the exam

group of friends running into the ocean on a sunny day
#1: Do something fun and relaxing
Once you have double-checked your test for mistakes, and handed it in, try not to dwell on how it went. Even if you felt you did poorly, it is now beyond your control. Reward yourself for your hard work by doing something you enjoy, like playing a sport, socializing with friends, or watching your favorite TV show.

#2: Review your test for mistakes
When you receive your test paper back, don’t focus too much on the grade you received, but look at where you made mistakes to determine your strengths and weaknesses. Professors often provide commentary on answers to essay questions if you have had problems presenting your argument or recalling factual material. If you don’t know why an answer was wrong or how to correctly solve a problem, ask your instructor for feedback. Save your tests to study for midterms and final exams. Even if the exact questions aren’t repeated, you can learn a lot from the way a professor asks questions.

#3: Attend test review sessions
If your instructor has a test-review session, don’t skip it. Reviewing the material will help you learn and will enhance your performance on future tests. Sometimes, instructors even award credit for errors they made (which may require you to be present). Some professors allow you to “revise” your test for an improvement in score, and others award bonus points simply for attending the post-test review session.

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