Pop quiz: you’re in your favorite class, scanning your syllabus, and you see that there are going to be two major tests, a midterm and a final. How do you feel? If you’re like a lot of students, chances are that the answer isn’t “Awesome!” and definitely not “Excited!” However, with a little bit of work in the right areas, you can find out how to be a better test taker on all kinds of tests. No longer will multiple-choice questions floor you! No longer will you live in fear of the essay section! Take our quiz to find out: what kind of test taker are you? Then come back to find out how to be a better test taker and say goodbye to test anxiety!
What Is the Best Way of Studying?
First things first: polishing your study skills can vastly improve your test-taking skills. Nobody ever teaches us how to study, which means that a lot of students can end up just reading their notes over and over in the hopes that somehow, it’ll sink in. While this is better than not studying at all, it can be a waste of time! (This is particularly true if your notes aren’t organized.)
There are lots of things you can do to improve your study skills. First of all, create a schedule and stick to it. Cramming doesn’t work (really, it doesn’t!). This is a marathon, not a sprint. Studying for even fifteen minutes a night can work wonders if you start early enough. Try using a planner where you set goals for the week as well as each day, or use a calendar where you map out your tests for the semester.
Study materials are also key. Make a “cheat sheet.” No, not one you take into the test with you; instead, a small piece of paper with the most important things you need to know on it. Don’t cheat yourself and use a large sheet! By narrowing down the info you need to know to things like important formulas or vocabulary, you’ll ensure that you can memorize it before test day. Flashcards are a great way to test yourself on these.
Finally, make sure that you’re focused on studying the hard stuff as well as the enjoyable stuff by getting it out of the way first. It’s really easy to put on the Hamilton soundtrack before your AP US History exam, but it might be a bit harder to actually dig into those Federalist Papers. Save the fun stuff for a treat and dive into the deep end!
How to Be a Good Test-Taker on Multiple-Choice Questions
What kind of test taker are you? Students who struggle with multiple-choice questions tend to face one of two issues: either they hesitate when choosing between answer choices, or they run out of time. Not surprisingly, one of these problems tends to lead to the other. So what can you do to master the multiple-choice question?
The key here is not to get distracted by the answer choices. Easier said than done, right? Try this: cover up the answer choices before you read them. Now, read the question itself until you’re sure you’ve understood it (be sure to keep an eye out for “nots” or “excepts”!). Then, tell yourself in your own words what the answer should be. Only now should you read the answer choices. Read all of them, eliminating choices you know must be wrong. Then select the best choice. It might not be exactly what you predicted, but it should be close.
What about guessing? If you’re running out of time, read as many questions as you can, eliminating as many answer choices as you can. Then, make your best guess. Even if it’s not ideal, you’ll still vastly improve your odds by eliminating even one answer choice per question!
If your issue is accuracy, rather than distractors or timing, make sure that you use all the time available to you. As tempting as it may be to hand that test in early and pull out a novel, you’re not doing yourself any favors! Use all remaining time to check your work and make sure you haven’t skipped any steps or entered anything wrong.
Mastering Essay Questions on Tests
Mastering essay questions involves three things: understanding the prompt; organization; and being careful with timing.
The quickest way to get a low score on an essay test is to misunderstand the prompt. Are you being asked for three examples? Make sure you outline them. Are you being asked to make an argument? Be sure you make one! Jotting down the basic requirements of the essay (e.g. “3 ex.”) on scrap paper can help you ensure you don’t miss anything. While you’re at it, review this list of common verbs so you cover what the exam is asking you for.
Because essay questions can be intimidating, a lot of students will just dive in and start writing. This is dangerous, because a little bit of planning can make their answers so much better. Take a few minutes at the beginning of an essay exam and outline the points you want to make. Organize them into paragraphs (how many will depend on the complexity of the question and length of the exam, but three body paragraphs is a very rough guide). Be sure to include a brief introduction—with your thesis statement!—and conclusion. This system is also helpful because it ensures you have a thesis statement.
Finally, be strategic with your time. Plan to spend a small portion of it brainstorming, then outlining, at the beginning, and proofreading at the end. Do you have an hour for your essay? Five minutes for planning and five for proofreading is a good guideline. Twenty minutes? Spend two planning and two outlining. As much as you may dislike writing essays, practicing this at home during test prep can be a great way to master the timing (as well as the ideas you’ll be tested on!).
(Studying for a test with other types of test questions? This guide can help!)
How to Be a Confident Test Taker: Test Anxiety
Maybe you’ve prepped strategically for weeks, you know multiple-choice techniques down flat, and you’re a master at writing essays—and yet you freeze when your teacher hands out an exam. You may be suffering from test anxiety.
If so, follow the 3Ps: preparation, perspective, and planning.
By preparing, you’ll know that you’re doing everything in you power to master the exam. Make sure you get as familiar with the test materials (or in the case of standardized exams, practice tests themselves) as possible. Familiarity breeds comfort!
Keep a sense of perspective about the exam. In most cases, it’s not going to be your entire grade; think about the other parts of the class that will also help boost your grade. If you’re thinking about a standardized exam, the same thing applies: it’s not your entire college application—far from it! (And remember, you can always retake it.)
Finally, plan ahead to make sure you get enough sleep and you have healthy food on the day of the test. If you can, get a little exercise in before school or at lunch. You’ll be amazed at how much of a difference your physical health can make when dealing with anxiety.
Slow Test Taker? Timing on Tests
How to be a better test taker? If you struggle to finish tests, working on your timing can be helpful. Here, both planning and practice are key. If you know (or can find out) in advance what the format of the test will be and how many questions there will be, you can find (or create) practice questions to help you get your timing down. Figure out in advance how long you will have for each question.
Now, forget that for a minute. Sit down with a set of ten practice questions and start a timer (but don’t watch it!). Once you’ve finished, take a look at how long they took you and how accurate your answers were. Compare that to how long you will have for ten questions on test day. Set the timer for ten seconds less than the first set took you and try another set. Score yourself for accuracy and time. Keep yourself at this timing level until your accuracy scores are as high as they were during the untimed set. Then, shave another ten seconds off of your time and work on another set!
This strategy works best over a period at least several days, but it will help you get faster while remaining comfortable with the test materials.
A Final Word
What kind of test taker are you? No matter what your style is, you can figure out how to be a better test taker by zeroing in on your strengths and weaknesses; evaluating the exam materials beforehand; starting early; and polishing your study skills. When you do, you’ll find that your new, improved test skills have the potential to help you out in college—and beyond. Happy studying!
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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!
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