Test-Taking Tips

General Test-Taking Tips

1. Know the testing rules for each class

  • Are you allowed to leave the test to go to the restroom?
  • Are you allowed to ask questions during the exam?
  • Are you allowed to have food/drink with you?
  • Are you allowed additional materials?
    • Calculator, note card, periodic table, etc.?

2. Know yourself and your best routine

  • Eat/drink/exercise as is appropriate for you. This is not the day to try something new!

3. Get a good night’s sleep: Do NOT pull an “all nighter”!

4. Arrive on time (that is, early) so that you’re ready to go when the time starts.

5. Once you get your exam, read the directions carefully.

6. Go through the entire thing at least once before writing anything: you want to be sure you have all the pages, that the question numbers are contiguous and how many points each question is worth (you need to pace yourself so you allow ample time for the high-value questions).

7. Is there an essay question?  Jot down, in the margins or on back of the page, anything you know about the topic and keep it in mind as you go through the other parts of the exam.

Multiple Choice Questions

Plan to work through the entire exam at least three times:
1.    Read each question carefully and

  • if you know the answer right away, answer it!
  • if you know it, or how to do it, but you know it will take some time, mark it (maybe +).
  • if you don’t know it and/or can’t remember anything about it, mark it (maybe with a -).

Work your way through the exam, doing these easy ones first.  If you come across anything that will help you with the essay question, turn to it and jot this down.

2.    Start at the beginning of the exam and do all the questions you marked with +.  Again, make notes on the essay question if you find helpful hints in other questions.

3.    Once you’ve done all these, go back and start working on those questions you marked – you may find that another question on the test has given you a hint and now you know how to work through it or at least eliminate some of the options.

4.    Mark up your questions in any way that is helpful.

  • Watch for qualifiers, such as “always”, “never”, “true”, “false”; you may want to underline them.
  • Be aware of any conditions or changes in conditions, such as temperature, pressure, molarity, etc.  Again, you may want to circle them.
  • Same thing for the answer choices – read them and mark information that is helpful -- you may find that two are contradictory and both cannot be correct.

Constructed Response questions

1.  Read the directions!  Make sure you know exactly what you’re supposed to do and pace yourself.  Be sure you know how you’ll be graded – does spelling count?  Grammar?  Proofread your work to correct these and to make sure your response is clear.

2. Outline your answer before you start.  Make sure you’ve covered everything the question asks of you.

3. When writing your answer, leave space between your lines so you can add items that may come to you later or make corrections.

4. Use the wording of the question to inform the way you answer it:                  

  • Analyze: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
  • Compare: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences.
  • Contrast: Show differences. Set in opposition.
  • Criticize: Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism often involves analysis.
  • Define: Give the meaning; usually a meaning specific to the course or subject. Explain the exact meaning. Be brief.
  • Discuss: Consider and debate or argue about the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
  • Enumerate: List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.
  • Evaluate: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
  • Explain: Make an idea clear. Show logically how a concept is developed. Give the reason for an event.
  • Illustrate: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
  • Interpret: Comment upon, give examples, describe relationships. Explain the meaning. Describe, then evaluate.
  • Outline: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events.
  • Predict: Use concepts you’ve learned to explain what you think might happen in a novel situation.
  • Prove: Support with facts (especially facts presented in class or in the text.)
  • Relate: Show the connections between ideas or events. Provide a larger context.
  • State: Explain precisely.
  • Summarize: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.
  • Trace: Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.


Some Thoughts on Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can be the downfall of many students.  While some nervousness is a good thing, test anxiety can keep you from doing your best in an assessment.  Some students report an inability to concentrate, blanking out on answers they know, stomach upset, and hyperventilating.  Overcoming test anxiety starts with understanding some of the most common causes:

  • Being underprepared.  If you didn’t study enough or didn’t study well (like cramming the day/night/weekend before the test), this can add to your level of anxiety.
  • Performing poorly in the past.  For students who do poorly on an exam, either because they were underprepared or because they were nervous, the next exam triggers the same fears and this becomes an endless cycle with every subsequent test.
  • Fear of failure.  Some students feel that their self-worth is connected to how well they do in their classes, causing them to put more pressure on themselves.

There are some ways to overcome test anxiety by addressing the causes and alleviating the symptoms:

  • Be prepared!  Study for every class every day, weaving in the concepts of the previous classes so that you develop a broader, richer understanding of the material – don’t cram!  If you aren’t sure of the most effective ways to study, ask your instructor or TA for help, or visit the tips on this website.  Being well-prepared will boost your confidence and that will lessen the anxiety.
  • Get enough sleep.  Research tells us that sleep aids in learning:
    • a sleep-deprived person cannot focus and therefore will not perform well on an exam
    • sleep itself plays a part in the formation and organization of memories, which is essential for learning
  • Don’t rush to get there.  Feeling rushed will increase your anxiety, so pack everything you need for the exam long before you need to go, then make sure you allow yourself ample time to get there early.
  • Get to the testing site early.  Sometimes you can choose your seat – if you’re there early enough.  Sometimes you can bubble in your name & date before the exam starts, saving you precious testing time.   Arriving early also allows you to get settled in, get comfortable, and calm your nerves.
  • Don’t pay attention to what others are doing!  Don’t worry if others are working furiously and you aren’t, and don’t allow yourself to get nervous when others get up and leave early.  Just keep working at your pace and stay focused on YOUR work.
  • If you feel the anxiety creeping up on you during the test, work at slowing down and calming your nerves:
    • Stop the negative messages.  Don’t expect perfection - everyone makes mistakes.  What’s important is to work hard and do your best.  Learn to replace the negative thoughts (“I can’t do this”) with positive ones (“I’ve studied, I know this, I’ve got this”)
    •  Practice mindfulness: focused attention on the moment
      • Breathe deeply.  Take four or five deep breaths, concentrating on this action and nothing else.  The very act of “being present” with and noticing your breathing – and nothing else – can reduce your anxiety.  (Practice this at home so you’re good at it when you need it!)
      • Count backward from 100, by 3s.  Like concentrating on your breath, doing math in your head forces you to focus on the math and not on whatever is making you nervous.
      • Bring a good luck charm.  I’ve seen students who carry a rabbit’s foot, a worry stone, or a small stuffed animal to a test, and we all know people with a lucky shirt or hat.  These items keep the student centered and calm.
      • 5-4-3-2-1: Identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste.  Again, you’re bringing yourself into the moment and not allowing your thoughts to carry you off to a place of worry.
  • If you feel you need extra help, go to CAPS and speak with a counselor, or make an appointment to discuss this with your physician.