Taking a Test

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify test-taking strategies to improve your performance
  • Identify strategies for answering typical kinds of test questions

Once you get to the exam session, try your best to focus on nothing but the exam. Focusing can be very difficult with all the distractions in your lives. But if you have done all the groundwork to attend the classes, complete the assignments, and do your exam prep thoroughly, you are ready to focus intently for the comparatively short amount of time most exams last.

Getting Ready on Test Day

Don’t let yourself be sidetracked right at the end. Beyond the preparation we’ve discussed, give yourself some more advantages on the actual test day:

  • Get to the testing location a few minutes early so you can settle into your place and take a few relaxing breaths.
  • Don’t let other classmates interrupt your calmness at this point.
  • Sit where you are most comfortable. Sitting near the front has a couple of advantages:
    • You may be less distracted by other students.
    • If a classmate comes up with a question for the instructor and there is an important clarification given, you will be able to hear it better and apply it, if needed.
  • Bring water if allowed. Water can help calm your test nerves and you won’t be distracted by thirst.
  • Wear ear plugs if noise distracts you.
  • Get to your designated place, take out whatever supplies and materials you are allowed to have, and calm your mind.

Strategies for Test-Taking Performance

In many respects, test-taking is a skill. If you learn some key strategies, you can be quite successful in taking tests. There are many skills and strategies you can employ to help you be a better test taker.

Once the instructor begins the test,

  • listen carefully for any last-minute oral directions that may have changed some details on the exam, such as the timing or the content of the questions.
  • make a quick scan over the entire test as soon as you receive the exam sheet or packet. Don’t spend a lot of time on this initial glance, but make sure you are familiar with the layout and what you need to do.
  • decide how you will allocate your available time for each section using your quick scan of the test. You can even jot down how many minutes you can allow for the different sections or questions.

Read the Directions

The time you spend at the beginning of the test reading the directions is an investment in your overall results. For each section, if the exam is divided this way, be sure you read the section directions very carefully so you don’t miss an important detail. For example, instructors often offer options—so you may have four short-answer questions, but you only need to answer two of them. If you had not read the directions for that section, you may have thought you needed to provide answers to all four prompts. Working on extra questions for which you likely will receive no credit would be a waste of your limited exam time.

This same concept applies to reading questions. Read the entire question carefully even if you think you know what the stem (the introduction of the choices) says, and read all the choices. You don’t want to get an answer wrong simply because you misread a question stem or didn’t consider every answer option. Skip really difficult questions or ones where your brain goes blank. Then you can go back and concentrate on those skipped ones after you have answered the majority of the questions confidently. Sometimes a later question will trigger an idea in your mind that will help you answer the skipped questions.

Budget Your Time

If you know what the point allocation is for each test item, be sure to budget your time accordingly. You don’t want to start off at the beginning of the test and slowly work your way through without time for the essay prompt at the end if the essay portion is worth half of the test grage. Scan the test, first, to get the big picture of how many test items there are, what types there are (multiple choice, matching, essay, etc.), and the point values of each item or group of items. Let’s say your exam has one essay question worth fifty percent of your grade, and five identifications worth ten percent each. If you have two hours to take the test, you have one hour to complete the essay and ten minutes for each of the five short-answer questions. You will have ten minutes in reserve to review your work before turning it in.

Start with What You Know

If you are taking an exam that contains multiple-choice questions, go through and answer the questions about which you are the most confident first. This strategy applied to other types of tests, too. Answering easy questions will build your confidence to move on to the more difficult exam questions.

Answer Every Required Question

If you can, answer every required question on the exam. Even if you don’t complete each one, you may receive some credit for partial answers. Whether or not you can receive partial credit would be an excellent question to ask before the exam.

Review Your Test

Allow yourself a few minutes at the end of the exam session to review your answers. Depending on what sort of exam it is, you can use this time to check your math computations, review an essay for grammatical and content errors, or answer the difficult multiple-choice questions you skipped earlier. Finally, make sure you have completed the entire test: check the backs of pages, and verify that you have a corresponding answer for every question on the exam. It can be easy to skip a question intending to come back to it but then forget to return, which can have a significant impact on your test results.

Try It


Another list of strategies, widely used, is LAB B2OWL—an acronym to help you remember critical aspects of successful test-taking strategies.[1] Watch the following video, which describes the strategies in detail. Then review the main concepts in the table below.

You can view the transcript for “Exam Strategies – Test Skills” here (opens in new window).

L LOOK: Look over the entire exam before you start. Take care to read the directions, underline test words, and circle questions you don’t fully understand.
A ASK: If you have any questions at all, ask. For example, if the exam doesn’t indicate total point allocation, be sure to ask your instructor.
B BUDGET: Budget your time based on the point allocation for each question. For instance, let’s say your exam has one essay question worth fifty percent, and five identifications worth ten percent each. If you have two hours to take the test, this gives you one hour to complete the essay, and ten minutes for each of the five short-answer questions. You will have ten minutes in reserve to review your work before turning it in.
B2 BEGIN X 2: Begin with an easy question in order to build your confidence and get warmed up for the rest of the exam. Begin each answer with a thesis topic sentence. Restate the question in a single sentence to help you focus your answer.
O OUTLINE: Be careful to write a quick outline for your essay on a separate page before you begin. This outline will help you organize your facts and focus your ideas. It might also serve to show your professor where you were going if you don’t have time to finish.
W WATCH: Watch for key testing words like analyze, define, evaluate, and illustrate. These keywords help you understand what your instructor will be looking for in an answer.
L LOOK: Finally, look over your exam before turning it in to make sure you haven’t missed anything important.

Link to Learning

In this test-taking strategies video, you will see multiple students sharing their personal success strategies for studying and test taking. This video acknowledges that each student is unique, and therefore no two students approach tests in exactly the same way.

  1. "Student Success Skills: Test Taking Strategies." St. John's River State College, 2 Nov 2021, http://www.learningresources.sjrstate.edu/c.php?g=1039758&p=7542469. .