Test Taking Strategies


For better or worse, exams are a fact of life for students. Class or standardized tests come in all shapes and sizes. Being a good test taker is yet another factor contributing to student success.


Overall Strategies

  1. Be well prepared, but also relaxed and alert.

  2. Listen to oral instructions given at the beginning of the test.

  3. Make sure you put your name on all test papers!

  4. Preview the entire test. How many questions are there? What are the point values?

  5. Know the time limit and make a plan for how best to use your time. For example, spend more time on questions with higher point values.

  6. Skim through all the questions. Think about each one long enough to understand it.

  7. Use the triage method by putting questions into three categories, those you know the answer to, those you are uncertain of, and those that stump you. Answer the questions you know first. Then answer the ones you are unsure of. Finally, tackle the hardest ones.

  8. Use all of the time allotted. If you finish the test, go over answers you are unsure of.

  9. Don't get stuck on a question. If you don't know an answer, skip it and go back and try again later.

  10. If you are using an answer sheet, make sure you have marked only one answer for each question. Erase changes or other markings completely.

  11. If you are not certain of an answer, give the best answer you can and move on. Generally, your first impression is the correct one.

  12. Neat work scores higher than sloppy work. This has been tested and proven in formal studies. Write legibly.

  13. Review your answers before turning your paper in. Everyone makes careless mistakes. Check carefully for accidentally deleted words, extra words that confuse your meaning, spelling errors, confusing punctuation and missed points.

Suggestions for Objective Tests

Objective tests use true/false, multiple choice, and fill in the blank questions. Both instructors and standardized testing agencies tend to like objective tests because they are easier to grade.

True/False Questions

  • Look for words such as always, all, none, or never. Statements that do not allow any variation are often false.

  • Go with your first impression. Studies have shown that they are usually right.

Multiple Choice Questions

  • Read all the answers before making a selection.

  • Look at the verb in the question or stem. Which answer offered best completes this verb?

  • Look for singular and plural words in the question that require answers in the same form.

  • Eliminate answers that are obviously wrong.

  • Always put something down. You'll get more points for an educated guess than skipping the question.

Sentence Completion Questions

  • Use the length and number of blanks as a hint.

  • Make sure the grammar is consistent.

  • When in doubt, GUESS! You'll stand to get more points for a guess than a blank answer.

Suggestions for Math and Science Tests

  1. List formulas from memory that you'll need to solve problems.
  2. Clearly show all the steps you've taken to get an answer. Instructors often give partial credit if you used the correct method, but got the wrong answer.
  3. Double-check all your answers.

Suggestions for Essay Tests

Here are some suggestions for succeeding on essay tests:

  • Make sure you understand the question. Check for Key Terms [link]. Underline or circle words that tell you what to do. Number the parts of a question so you address each part.

  • Take time to brainstorm and list various ideas.

  • Outline the essay. Assemble and organize the main points. The following is a standard suggested essay format:

    • Introduction
    • Background - historical, philosophical
    • State the main points including cause and effect, methods used, dates, places and results
    • Conclusion - give the significance of each event. Write a summary.

  • Begin your essay using the same words that are in the question.

  • Be concise and to the point.

  • Don't spend too much time on a single question. Two brief answers are worth more than one lengthy one, or a blank space.

  • Don't pad - say it completely, but concisely, then leave it.

  • Don't make generalizations unless you can support them with facts.

Key Terms Used on Essay Tests

These key terms tell you how to answer essay questions (adapted from Exam Cue Words):

Comment - When you are asked to comment on something, write your personal opinion about the subject. Comments explain, illustrate or criticize.

Compare - Look for qualities or characteristics that resemble each other. Emphasize similarities and differences.

Contrast - Stress the dissimilarities, differences between things, etc.

Criticize - Express your judgment about the merit or truth of the information presented. Provide evidence and/or analysis. Pose questions.

Define - Give concise, clear and authoritative meaning to what you are asked to define.

Describe - Recount, characterize, sketch or relate in sequence or story form.

Diagram - Provide a drawing, chart or plan. As needed, you should label a diagram and give a brief explanation or description.

Discuss - Examine, analyze and discuss the material/problem being presented. Give a complete, detailed answer.

Differentiate or Distinguish - Point out the peculiarities that enable the reader to tell two or more things apart. These things are usually in the same category. Otherwise, if in different categories, the words compare and contrast would be used.

Enumerate - List and give supporting points. Evaluate and appraise the information/problem being presented, stressing both advantages and limitations.

Evaluate - Carefully appraise the problem citing both advantages and limitations. Emphasize and try to analyze causes.

Explain - Clarify and interpret the materials you present. Give reasons for differences of opinion, and try to analyze causes.

Give an account of - Provide a brief narrative that summarizes the subject.

Illustrate - To clarify by giving concrete examples, comparisons or analogies.

Interpret - To give the meaning by using examples and personal understanding.

Justify - To state why you think something is so. Give supporting evidence for your statement or conclusion.

List - To draw out a list of words, sentences or comments. Same as Enumerate.

Outline - To list the main features or general principles of a subject, omitting minor details and emphasizing structure and relationship. In other words, give a general summary.

Prove - To show by argument, evidence, or logic that something is true. However be careful, this word has a very specific meaning in math and physics.

Relate - To show the connection between things. Point out how one causes or is like another.

Review - Make a survey or summary to examine the subject critically.

State - To fully and clearly describe the main points in precise terms. Omit any details or examples.

Summarize - To give a brief, concise description of the main ideas.

Trace - To chronologically follow the progress or history of the subject.

Learning from your Exams

Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.
Truman Capote,

No matter what kind of a score you receive on your exam, you can learn from the results. Determine what material the instructor considers important. Also, note how the instructor thinks about this material. Understand why items were marked as incorrect and what the right responses should have been. If you disagree with an answer or believe you were graded unfairly, talk to your instructor.


Online Resources