Test Taking

The following links will take you to tips and activities to help with various aspects of test taking.

Preparation | During the test | After the test
Taking... objective tests | problem solving tests | essay tests
Essay test terms and definitions



The following are a few general tactics to use to help prepare for tests.

  • Take good notes. Many professors test just as much (or more!) from their lectures as they do from the book. Also, your notes should help clarify material from the text.
  • Take care of yourself. One of the worst things you can do is go into a test without enough food or sleep. Your body won't be happy, and it will distract your mind and will prevent it from working at its fullest potential.
  • Learn the vocabulary of the course. Treat it as a foreign language, and use flashcards and other memorization techniques.
  • Read the material. (Of course!) But what if you haven't already read the material? Make a solemn vow that you will keep up with the reading after this exam is over, and then do your best job of reading the night before the exam.

If you have to, here's some information about Cramming: How to, when you have to. Keep in mind, however, that effective regular study will produce much more positive results, better grades, and greater long-term memory than intensive, stressful, and time-pressured study.


Make a "review sheet." Make a list of the MOST IMPORTANT items you need to know. Imagine you could have your "review sheet" with you, and think what you would put on there. Then memorize it.

Make sample tests. Try to anticipate test questions. Write them down, and then answer them.

Talk to your professor: What kind of questions or problems will be on the test? What content will it cover? Do they have any old or sample exams?

Figure out what kind of output is expected from you. Do you have to repeat facts, draw connections between them, analyze them, make inferences from them, or give your opinion about them, etc? Talking to your professor and examining the material you are working with will help you to answer these questions.

How to Study for Different Types of Tests

  • Studying for Short answer tests:
    • List the important terms and their definitions.
    • Note examples, illustrations, pictures, etc. of terms.
    • Why is the term relevant to the course? What is its relationship with the other content of the course?
  • Studying for Problem-solving tests:
    • Do practice problems
  • Studying for Essay tests:
    • Figure out the main points to be covered, and/or create possible test questions.
    • Write down notes about these topics.
    • Review these notes with your professor to see if you're on the right track.

During the test

  • When you first get the test, write down any formulas, definitions, or lists you memorized on the back of the test or on scratch paper.
  • Look over entire test first. Read the directions completely.
  • Carefully read the questions. An "almost" or "never" or "not" can make a HUGE difference in whether you get it right or not.
  • Do the easy questions first, then move on to the harder ones.
  • If you get stuck on a question, move on and return to the question later.
  • Mark questions that you may want to return to if time permits.
  • Make notes or outlines for any essays.
  • Don't panic, even if you don't have a clue.
  • Don't overanalyze or oversimplify.
  • Relax physically. Close your eyes for a few seconds and concentrate on your breathing.
  • If you have a lucky pen or hat or anything else, bring it with you. It can't hurt, it may make you more confident, and, if you use it while studying too, it may help you remember things better.
  • Be confident. Smile.

If you are frequently nervous prior to and during exams, try some test anxiety coping techniques.

After the test

Here are a few activities to try after you get your tests back:

Activity: Where'd they get this question from?!

Materials: Past tests and/or quizzes from a specific class.
  • Figure out where the questions came from. For example, did they come mostly from lecture, text, or handouts?
  • Study these elements more carefully next time. If the questions came mostly from handouts, for example, spend more time before the next test studying the handouts than studying the text.
  • Better understanding of what your professor is likely to test you on.
  • Better preparation for the next test.

Activity: I don't understand why I get such a bad grade on this test!

  • Past tests and/or quizzes on which you performed poorly
  • Pen(cil) and paper
Actions: Look over the test. Make a list of all the mistakes you made, and why you made them. Try to find patterns. Some of the reasons may include, for example:
  • misread or misunderstood questions
  • "stupid" mistakes (computational errors, misplaced accent marks or spelling errors, etc.)
  • just plain didn't know the answer
Also, think about the testing environment and atmosphere, and make a list of things that may have negatively influenced your performance:
  • Was there anything that particularly distracted you?
  • Were you or other people very tense?
  • Did you feel particularly pressured by time constraints?
Look over your lists of problems on the tests and environmental factors. List one or two things that could help fix these problems. Take a look at the During the Test page and other appropriate Test Taking Skills pages. The following chart lists some possible solutions to typical problems, though they may not be the answer for you. The only person who can truly understand why you got a poor test grade is you.
Problem Possible solutions
misread questions
  • make an effort to take more time reading the question
  • highlight or underline important elements of the question
  • rewrite the important elements of the question in your own words
misunderstood questions
  • make an effort to take more time reading the question
  • don't be afraid to ask the professor if you need clarification on a question--they may be able to rephrase it for you
stupid mistakes
  • make an effort to take more time reading through the question and working the problem out
  • carefully double check your work
  • for mathematical problems work them out again backwards with your answers
just plain didn't know the answer
distractions during test
  • figure out what distracted you--other people, thoughts about something that's bothering you, worries about the exam...--and then try to figure out what you could do to help stop those distractions next time, such as moving to a different seat, or trying out some test anxiety coping techniques.
pressure from time constraints
  • better understanding of factors influencing your performance
  • better performance on the next exam, if appropriate steps are taken

Activity: Compare notes

  • Past tests and/or quizzes
  • The notes that those tests or quizzes covered
Actions: Compare your test to your notes. Figure out:
  • What were your notes missing that was on the test?
  • What was in your notes that you still missed on the test? Why did you still miss it?
  • How could you have been more effective in note taking as a preparation for your exam?
Examine your note taking techniques, and modify them according to your answers to the above questions.
  • better preparation for the next exam
  • better notes (which will help with the final!)

Activity: Use your imagination

  • your imagination
  • pen(cil) and paper
Actions: Imagine yourself doing very well on the next test. Imagine the moment of elation when you get your test back and see that fantastic grade. Think about taking the test, what it felt like taking it. Write down some of the feelings you have during the exam. Then move backwards to the hours before the test. What did you do? Write that down. What did you do the day before the exam? Write that down. And the day before that? And the two days before that? The week before that? Write down what happened on each of these days--what you studied when, and how much time it took you. Stay in your imagination, working backwards, until tomorrow. Look over your list of feelings during the exam. Answer the following questions:
  • Are these different feelings from how you usually feel taking this class' exams?
  • In what ways?
  • What can you do to make these feelings happen instead?
Look over the list of what you did in the hours before the exam. Answer the following questions:
  • Is this different from what you normally do right before the exam?
  • How?
  • How can you make sure you do these things before the next exam?
Now, with a practical eye, examine how feasible it would be to do each of the tasks you imagined you did on each of the given days before your successful exam. From this list, make a realistic study schedule to prepare for the next exam. Follow this schedule.
  • a solid study schedule and a compelling reason (your image of doing well on the exam) to follow it
  • better preparation for the exam
  • an image of what it feels like to do well on the exam (Psychologists tell us that imagining yourself doing something actually makes it more likely that you will in fact do that thing.)

Taking objective tests

  1. Read (During your test) Read all directions carefully, and reread anything not clear. Read ALL the choices for multiple choice questions.
  2. Fill in (ALL) the blanks. If there is no penalty for wrong answers, be sure to answer all questions. Even if you are penalized, answer all questions about which you have some knowledge. For fill-in-the blank questions, never leave a question blank. Give it your best guess. You might guess correctly. And even if you don't, you might get partial credit.
  3. Speed Testing Work through the exam quickly once, answering all questions, even with a best guess as you go. Identify those you're not sure of with a tick mark off to the side. Return to review these questions if time permits. Items are usually of equal value, so the more correct answers you give, the higher your score.
  4. First impressions count. In rechecking your answers, change an answer ONLY if you are CERTAIN that your first answer was incorrect. First impressions (initial guesses) are often correct.
  5. Match Making In matching questions, mark out those items as you use them, unless directions say the items may be used more than once.
  6. Multiple Distracters (a.k.a. Choices) In multiple choice questions, eliminate obviously wrong choices first, then carefully consider the remaining ones. If the directions for multiple-choice questions specify BEST answer, mark only one answer. If the directions say more than one answer can be correct, treat each choice as a true-false question.
  7. Fill in (some of) the blanks. For fill-in-the-blank questions, write in your best answer even when it does not fit the number of blanks. Use a different phrase or fit in the number of words that work for your answer instead of leaving it blank. Your rephrasing, though not what the instructor was initially looking for, may still get you the points or partial points.
  8. HUH? Ambiguous questions, statements which can be taken two ways, should tactfully and quietly be brought to the attention of the instructor. Or you can pick the answer which lies within the scope of the course, and write a note in the margin as to why another option could also work.
  9. Grammar counts too. If an alternative doesn't grammatically follow the question, it's probably incorrect. For example, if a question asks for a plural answer, make sure you pick the plural.
  10. Partly true and partly false statements are false.
  11. Reading too much into it. Interpret questions literally.
  12. Use your test to help you take your test. Answers often pop up in other questions. This is especially helpful on foreign language exams.
  13. Random revelations. If an answer comes to you from out of the blue, it's probably a pretty good guess. Don't fight this intuition unless you're sure it's wrong.
  14. Picture pages. When a question is difficult to visualize, draw it.
  15. Assume a possible answer. Then work backwards to see if you're right.
  16. Teacher's Pet? Sit in front of class. Ambiguous questions can be cleared up much more easily when you're near the instructor.
  17. Stick around. Stay until the very end. Questions may be clarified by the instructor as an afterthought or if a student quietly and tactfully asks for a clarification.
  18. Guess Intelligently.
  19. Multiple Choices II In answering multiple-choice questions, you may come across a question for which the "best choice" is not necessarily true but is the best among the choices offered. In a multiple choice question for which you don't know the answer:
    1. Cross out statements which are false or impossible.
    2. Cross out statements which are partially false.
    3. Cross out statements which are more general than the remaining choices.

Taking problem solving tests

General tips

  • When you first get the test, list all formulas you might forget.
  • First look over the test quickly.
  • If anything comes immediately to mind when looking at a specific problem, write down a few notes in the margin.
  • Make sure you are absolutely clear on what each problem is asking.
  • Watch out for "stupid" mistakes. Check your decimal places, positives and negatives, and other easily screw-upable items.

Tactics for problem problems

  • Note the givens and unknowns in your own words.
  • Turn words into variables and numbers, or vice-versa, depending on your preferences.
  • Draw pictures for relationships.
  • List all the formulas with any possible relevance. Compare them with what variables you have values for, and work from there.
  • Simplify: Substitute variables or numbers for complex numbers or other unknowns.
  • Break the problem up into small parts.
  • Guess. Check if it works. (The way you check it may help you figure out how to find the right answer.)
  • Let it sit. Work on other problems and come back to it.
  • If you run out of time, try to at least set up the solution plan for a problem; you might get partial credit.

Taking essay tests

  1. Read all directions carefully and reread anything which is not clear. Write on the question: Underline important words in the question to help you when you look back at the question.
  2. Be sure you know what is meant by directional words such as "name," "define," "compare," or "discuss."
  3. Read the entire exam. This allows you to have more time for any blocked information to surface as well as to write answers which do not overlap.
  4. Make informed, conscious decisions on optional questions.
  5. For each section budget your time in proportion to the credit value of the answers. If one question is worth more than another, make a comparable adjustment in time for that one.
  6. For each question spend a few minutes jotting down key words or phrases which will serve to stimulate other ideas. Note any technical vocabulary which needs to be mentioned.
  7. Allot specific amounts of time for each essay. Stick to these limits-a partial answer for #1 is better than no answer for #3.
  8. Begin with the easiest essay. Ideas about the more difficult questions may occur to you as you write.
  9. As ideas about the other questions occur to you, immediately jot them down on scratch paper before they slip away.
  10. Figure out what your main point is. State it clearly and directly as a thesis statement. Think of the thesis as the trunk of a tree, and the examples, arguments, facts, and details are all roots and branches that lead back to and support the tree.
  11. Before starting to write, jot down a quick outline. A little time spent on a brief outline pays big dividends. A planned answer saves you from a lot of excess wordage which wastes time and could be detrimental to your grade.
  12. If you don't know the answer to a question, try to reason it out. If you can't, don't waste time giving an erroneous or absurd answer.
  13. Say as much as you can, use short paragraphs, write legibly, and use proper English. Volume, quality, clarity, and neatness pay off. You may also want to skip lines for neatness and in case you want to add something in later.
  14. Star or underline important ideas appearing late in the question or in your answer.
  15. If information you have given in one answer connects to a different answer, point out the interaction-It may be worth the credit.
  16. If you run out of time, quickly outline or note the rest of what you would say if you had time.
  17. Reread directions before turning in an exam. Did you define terms when you were asked to compare them?
  18. Proofread. Use the entire period to double check. Check your paper thoroughly before you turn it in.

Essay test terms and definitions

Here are some terms that frequently appear on essay tests. It is important that you understand what they are asking of you in order to do well on your exam.

  • Analyze: Break down the subject at hand and talk about each point.
  • Comment: Talk about the subject in an organized way.
  • Compare: Show similarities. Examine qualities or characteristics in order to discover resemblance. The term implies that you are to emphasize similarities, although differences may be mentioned.
  • Contrast: Show differences. Dissimilarities, or how associated things, events, or problems are not alike should be emphasized.
  • Criticize: Express your judgment with respect to the correctness or merit of the factors under consideration. You are expected to present the results of your own analysis and to discuss the limitations and strengths of the plan or work in question.
  • Define: Tell what this word or phrase means. Supply concise, clear, authoritative meanings. In such statements details are not required but boundaries and limitations of the definition should be briefly cited. You must keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.
  • Demonstrate: Support an opinion with facts, experience, citations, or theories.
  • Describe: Help the reader understand something, or 'see it' by 'showing'. Recount, characterize, or sketch, or relate in a narrative form.
  • Diagram: Present a drawing, chart, or plan, or relate in narrative form.
  • Discuss: Examine, analyze carefully, and present considerations pro and con regarding the topics involved. Provide a complete and detailed answer.
  • Enumerate: Concisely recount one by one the points required, either in a list or outline form.
  • Evaluate: Make conclusions about the value of something. Present a careful appraisal of the problem, stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.
  • Explain: Tell about the issue and give reasons why it is the way it is. Clarify and interpret the material you present. State the "how" or "why", reconcile any differences in opinion or experimental results, and, where possible, state causes.
  • Give examples: Provide specific instances, places where this has occurred or is discussed, people who have said the same thing, etc.
  • Identify: Name.
  • Illustrate: Explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example.
  • Interpret: Translate, exemplify, solve, or comment upon the subject and usually give your judgment or reaction to the problem or topic.
  • Justify: Give strong, compelling reasons or evidence to explain and support an opinion. Prove or show grounds for decisions, opinions, or conclusions in a convincing form.
  • List: Just what it says. Make a list of whatever is being asked for.
  • Outline: An organized description. Give the main points and essential supplementary materials and present the information in a systematic way.
  • Prove: Establish something with certainty by logical reasoning or by evaluation and citing experimental evidence.
  • Relate: Show the relationship of or analyze and comment briefly in organized sequence upon major points of the problem.
  • Review: Provide a critical examination. In an organized sequence, analyze and comment briefly upon the major points of the topic.
  • State: Express the important and significant points in brief, clear narrative form. Details, illustrations, and examples usually may be left out.
  • State the significance of: Place the item in context, possibly historically, chronologically, or within another framework discussed in class. Tell why the item is important, to the content of the class, to the present day, or to the other items with which it interacts or is in relationship.
  • Summarize: In condensed form, give the main points or facts. All details, illustrations, and elaboration are to be left out.
  • Trace: Give a description of progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin.