Testing: Turn the Nightmare into a Breeze with these Seven Tips

February 23, 2013

Written by ACT tutor, Foster L

What are some tips for making sure your test goes smoothly? I've found the following works for me, and I've listed these (not an exhaustive list, but the ones that come to mind) in order of importance. Maybe I'll get it up to ten some day, so I can call them commandments, but for now they're just seven rules:

Rule 1. Know as well as you possibly can what the test will be like.
Bug your professors/instructors about this if they haven't told you. Believe it or not they lead strange and sequestered lives and will often be happy to talk about their material with you and how they judge mastery of it (that's the exam). If you don't both know the format and have a good idea of how much you'll need to study to do well, you need to ask more questions.

For example, are you likely to finish the test? Some tests are actually designed so you aren't expected to finish. If that's true for your test, knowing this gives you a huge advantage over test-takers who don't, since you won't be sweating the fact when you have more problems left than minutes to do them in and you'll be skipping around to the easy ones!

Is it multiple choice, true-false? Knowing these facts--or even better--taking last semester's test for the same class, assuming your professor allows you to do this (Ask if you're not sure! Academic Dishonesty if detected can mess you up in ways that will make failing this test seem like a pleasant memory), will make test day much more predictable, help you allocate your study time/personal time wisely, and minimize your stress.

Rule 2. If you don't know a question, move on.
So easy to say, so hard to do. But you've got to make sure you don't miss out on the low-hanging fruit while you're busy booking a cherry-picker to get that apple hanging from the highest bough. Perfection is not the goal. Doing as well as you can is, so answer everything you can easily first, then give those hard nuts to crack a second look.

Rule 3. Eat healthy and get those 8 hours of sleep.
It's tempting to make this number one, but not following Rules 1. and 2. can ruin you even if you've done everything else right, while even a sleep-deprived student can often pass. Still, pulling all-nighters may seem like a good idea, and if you've been naughty and partied when you should have been studying they might even raise your grade from the abysmally low score you would have earned with no studying at all, but for best results, you need a healthy diet and exercise, and most importantly, you need sleep. Sleep deprived brains function poorly on many levels including recall and reaction time. You need to be kind to yourself and get the studying done over long periods rather than cramming and/or all-nighters.

Rule 4. Don't change answers based on your gut.
Only change answers when you have a logical reason why you KNOW what you have down is wrong. For example, if another question implies that your answer is wrong, that would be a good justification for changing an answer. Or if you recalled a key piece of information that logically implies a different answer than the one you have down. But "the answer is usually C, and I'm not sure it's D" or "The previous two answers were D, and I'm not sure this one is D, so I'm going to change my answer to C," are not good reasons to change your answer. Your first gut instinct is usually as right as you're going to get, and people who change their answer based on their gut more often change to a wrong answer than a right one.

Rule 5. Write down early in the test memorized facts you'll need.
If there are formulas, dates or identities or any memory intensive items that you have memorized but may forget when you're stressed and short of time toward the end of the test, write these down at the beginning. In fact, if you are allowed to use scratch paper, start writing these down on your scratch paper as soon as the first paper is handed out. That way you're making good use of your time while others are still sitting and dreading the exam when they could be doing something useful, like you.

Rule 6. Use all the time. Yep, all of it. Use all the "spare" time you might have looking for information to help you get the right answer, checking your answers, improving your essays, etc., BUT keep Rule 4. (above) in mind and keep that gut instinct of yours in check: after the first shot you take at a question, it does more harm than good if you let it!I mean think about it: in most courses the exams are a HUGE portion of your grade, so it's now or never. Give your professor a performance he'll shout "Encore!" for, because you won't get many chances to shine.

UNLESS of course it's finals and you've got another killer exam you NEED to study for. This is an acceptable reason to peace-out early.

Rule 7. Pick a good place to study
Preferably one similar to the one your test will be in. Your brain is a highly tuned fact-crunching machine, and it likes sameness when it comes to recalling information. So give it a break and help yourself by studying in a classroom like the one your test will be in. The similar environment will help cue your mind when you need to recall information.

More importantly, make sure it's a quiet place. Got screaming children? That's why God invented babysitters and libraries. Noisy room-mate and/or neighbors, repeat solution without babysitter.

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