Use Test-Taking Strategies on Exam Day

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Exam day has come, and you know you have prepared adequately, but you may still be anxious when the time comes to actually take the exam. Don’t be embarrassed. Many students feel stressed, nervous, and worried when they have to demonstrate what they’ve learned through an exam.

The following tips will guide you through exam day. 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.

Preparation for exam day

  • Avoid cramming the night before. You will retain more both on test day and afterwards for comprehensive exams if you study regularly and at a reasonable pace. While a brief review will help, avoid an exhaustive cramming session that leaves you facing the test tired.
  • Prepare your equipment. You should have two or three pens or pencils with good erasers, as well as books, note cards, or “cheat sheets” your instructor permits. If you are taking a math or science test, bring a calculator with good 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.
  • Be physically ready. Your previous preparation can go to waste if you don’t get a good night’s sleep before test day. You should also eat a healthy meal and be well hydrated before the exam begins. Avoid overeating or consuming excessive caffeine before your test. Also, use the restroom before the test begins, and if it is permitted, bring a bottle of water.
  • Find out as much as you can about the exam before it begins. Find out details about the format of the test. Ask your professor if you will have to write any essays. If essays are your weak point, research potential essay topics and create an outline in order to save time for other sections of the test. Also, remember to ask about the rules for test day. Will you be permitted to go to the restroom during the test? Is there a strict time limit?

During the exam

  • Read the test directions closely. If you have questions, ask your instructor to clarify the matter, 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.
  • Remember to breathe. If you feel yourself panicking or stressing out, put down your pencil and take several long, deep breaths. Do this several times throughout the test to clear your mind and fill your blood with oxygen. Imagine yourself relaxing and visualize a calm image.
  • Survey the test before beginning. Glance over the entire test and form a loose plan for how you will spend your time. You do not need to closely inspect every question, but your plan may be very different for a test with fifteen multiple-choice questions and six essay questions than for one 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.
  • 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.
  • Strategize for multiple-choice and true/false questions. Read the question thoroughly, and if it helps, solve the problem on scratch paper. If the answer is not immediately clear, you may wish to skip it for the moment and solve problems that you know you can handle quickly. For multiple-choice questions, rule out as many options as you can, and make an educated guess. You won’t get it right if you don’t try. For true/false questions, remember that absolute or near-absolute answers, such as those that use “always” or “never,” are often false.
  • 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.
  • Don’t get distracted by other students taking the test. If they 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.

After the exam

  • Once you have completed your test and double-checked it for mistakes, try not to dwell on how it went. Even if you felt you did poorly, it is now beyond your control. Do something that relaxes you, like playing a sport or listening to music, and go about your routine otherwise.
  • If you receive your test paper back, look at where you made mistakes to determine your strengths and weaknesses for future attempts. In particular, professors often provide commentary on answers to essay questions if you have had problems presenting your argument or recalling factual material. 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.
  • 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 posttest review session.