The end of another term has arrived! Though it seems that a lot of schools are out for break, a few of you probably still have your week full of sole-crushing final exams to look forward to. My heart goes out to all of you because I think we can all agree that test-taking kind of sucks and most feel they’re just not very good at it in the first place! However, I feel that test taking is an art that can definitely be taught. And once mastered, school definitely gets a lot easier.
So in honor of final exam season, here’s a post with tips on how successfully prepare for and take tests! I’ve divided this into two different sections: Test Prep and Test-taking Tips. You can skip to either section by clicking on the links.
I also have an old post called Relieving Test Anxiety that mentions some ways to lower your stress levels right before the test so you can kick some exam butt in the best mental state possible. 🙂 Feel free to check that out for more ways to win at test-taking. Now, on to the tips!
Take good notes and review them regularly
The key to being able to recall the information you learned is to take good, effective and understandable notes the first time around. I have a whole post that talks about how to take good notes depending on the lecture style of your professor. However, it’s also important to remember that taking effective notes is only half the battle. After all, they do you absolutely no good when they’re just shoved into the depths of your backpack and forgotten about until days before the test. I highly recommend that you dedicate some time (at least once a week) to go over what you’ve learned in class. This way, you won’t have to cram a bunch of information in your head right before the test and will be more likely to remember the material long term due to constant reviewing.
Schedule your study time
Every time you know when your test will be, grab your calendar/planner/whatever and circle the day of your exam. Now go back at least a week, if not two. That’s when you should start your studying. If it happens to be a big test or you have multiple exams in the same week, even a week before is cutting it close. I usually allocate at least a week of studying per exam. That is, if I know I’ll have three exams during finals week, I’ll start studying at least three weeks in advance. How you allocate those three weeks is completely up to you, however the point is to make sure that you have enough time to review all the necessary material without feeling too overwhelmed. Because what you’re really trying to avoid is cramming everything in the last minute–cramming is always a bad idea.
Don’t rely on memorization
Except for a few classes, brute force memorization is always a recipe for disaster. Especially when you consider that the stress that exams cause really hinder your ability to recall specific information. (Wikipedia has an article on this, if you want to know more.) Therefore, focus on concepts; not facts. If you understand the reasoning behind a specific phenomena or problem you’ve learned, you can very easily begin to apply that to other similar questions. Worst comes to worst, you can at least get partial credit for attempting to answer a question based on what you know.
Don’t study everything
Probably the worst and most common things students do is they try and study every single thing they covered in class. They go chapter by chapter and section by section in a very slow and grueling study session. Having a friend that does exactly this, it’s kind of hard to watch… But, stop and think about it for a second. Is every single thing talked about in your text book fair game for the test? Hardly. Because a teacher only has an X amount of weeks to get through a bunch of material. So, naturally they’ll be an inherent ranking of importance when it comes what material they really want you to know. It’s by figuring out this ranking and predicting the exam questions that you’ll be able to make the most out of your limited study time.
How do you know what’ll be on the test? A good place to start is on any quizzes or assignments that have been handed out prior to your exam date. Those are all fair game when it comes to test material. Next, try and think back and remember if your professor emphasized certain things in class or explicitly said that you should remember a specific topic. Teachers usually want you all to do well, so they’ll drop hints about what’s on the test every so often. Lastly, it’s a good idea to look up sample problems or tests online. You can even ask people who’ve taken the class before what’s been on previous tests. Whichever way you choose, these are ways that will help give you a general about what kind of questions might be asked of you and which topics you should focus on while studying.
Read each question carefully!!
Too many students (including myself) lose unnecessary points all because they didn’t read directions! So be sure to take the time and read each question carefully. Personally, I also like to take the time and underline specific parts of the question that tell me exactly what I need to answer. That way, I have something more visual to make sure I don’t miss anything important or forget to include necessary information.
Look through the whole test first
Just like you need to schedule your study time, you also need to schedule your test-taking to be sure you finish in the allotted time. By looking through the whole test first, you will begin to realize that not all questions are created equally. Once you can identify which questions are easier and which will take longer to answer, you can come up with a plan of attack and decide which order you should answer questions so even if you don’t answer everything, you can still get the most points in the specified time frame.
Don’t get stuck on questions
On that note, I find that a lot of students seem seem to do well until they hit that question that they simply get stuck on. They end up focusing so much time on that one question that they forget about the rest of the test. Don’t do this! If you get stuck on a problem, move on! As I said before, the goal is to get the most amount of points you can before time runs out. So, go to a question you know you can answer and then come back to the one you got stuck on if you have time in the end!
Mark up your test
When I take exams, I have a little legend to mark up each question as I go through the test. I put stars (*) by questions I know the answer to or I know I’ve answered correctly, slashes (/) by questions that I’m unsure of and should go back to if I have time, and squiggles (~) by questions that I need to dedicate more time to so I can hopefully come up with a decent enough answer by the time the test period ends. Again, this serves as a nice visual clue so you know exactly what you have to do in the time you have remaining.
Stop assuming you don’t know the answer
I feel like test taking is 50% studying and 50% your mental state during the test. When you assume that you don’t know the answer, you’re just cause yourself a hell of a lot more anxiety and stress, which in turn can cause you to forget more of the things you studied. It’s like a toxic self-fulfilling prophecy. So, instead of assuming you don’t know the answer try and reframe it in your head. Rather than saying “I don’t know how to answer this question,” try thinking, “I studied and am confident in concepts X and Y. How can I apply them to this problem?”
That’s all the test-taking tips I can come up with off the top of my head. If you have any others, feel free to include them in the comment section below. Also, if you’ve found this helpful, please use the buttons below to share these tips with your fellow test takers!
Happy exam season! Good luck!