Preparing For an Exam

No matter how busy you are, learning how to study effectively and efficiently will help you prepare for all your courses. When the time comes for a test, “cramming” at the last minute is not a successful strategy, even if this worked for you in high school. While there are many ways to prepare for and take exams, it is important that you find a system that works for you. How can you set up a study plan that is reasonably simple and most effective?

Strategies for Taking Exams

Task One

Ask the instructor what topics and what types of questions (essay, multiple choice, fill-in, etc.) will be covered on the exam.

  • Attend test review sessions if offered. Not every instructor does this, but if yours does, GO!
  • Create your own study group with students in the class.
  • Find out how the exam will be graded.

Task Two

Create a study plan, counting five days backwards from the exam date.

  • Think about how much time you will need to learn the material well. Now double that estimate. For example, if you think one hour per day will be sufficient, plan on two hours a day.
  • On a calendar, schedule study time by marking blocks of time for each of the five days. You must honor this commitment with yourself. Also make time to study with your study partners.
  • Find all the materials that the test will cover (for example, class notes, textbooks, homework, quizzes, previous tests, or library materials).
  • Arrange these materials so that everything on a topic is together.
  • Study in a group to go over these materials. Compare your notes; review materials with your study partners by quizzing each other.
  • Create an action plan for answering questions on the test. For example, make an essay structure you can use for writing or decide which types of questions you will answer first for math.

Task Three

The day of the exam or test:

  • Arrive at the campus or test site early.
  • Relax and get settled, composed, and organized.
  • Listen to instructions.
  • Write your name on the test.
  • Read the directions carefully. Make sure you understand what to do on the exam.
  • Look over the whole exam before you write anything.
  • Underline exactly what the question is asking for in the answer. Don’t forget to mark “units” (e.g., the numeric answer is “221” but the real answer is “221 liters”).
  • Use your action plan for answering questions on the test.

If this is an essay exam:

  • Carefully read the assignment and identify each required task.
  • Brainstorm ideas quickly and jot them down.
  • Make an outline or write down a plan for the essay before you begin writing.
  • When you complete your essay, leave time to proofread and make necessary changes.

If this is a timed exam:

  • Wear a watch.
  • Every 20 minutes, look up, take a deep breath, and straighten your shoulders.
  • Be mindful of the time left.
  • Don’t leave early. Use all of the allotted time. When you finish, review your work and find ways to make it better. Proofread for errors and clarity. Answer questions left undone.

Dealing With Nervousness

It is normal to experience some nervousness when approaching a test. Cold feet, feelings of tension, clenched fists, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, butterflies in the stomach, and fear of failure can all lead to emotional responses or negative thoughts. This performance anxiety is similar to the feelings a singer or athlete might have when performing in public. Testing opens us to judgment and potential criticism by others.

A student preparing for a “performance” on an exam often feels a similar nervousness called testing anxiety. A certain level of tension at test-taking time is not necessarily a bad thing. This tension can actually work to your advantage by keeping you attentive and focused.

Excessive anxiety, however, is debilitating and can block your memory recall and prevent you from thinking clearly. The most common cause of testing anxiety is lingering doubt about whether you have adequately prepared.

If you feel anxiety coming on during an exam, there are several actions you can take:

  • Write two encouraging slogans to yourself on the back of the exam.
  • Answer easy questions first. This technique helps you get going and can build confidence.
  • Use breathing exercises. Just like a basketball player on the foul line, take some deep breaths to relax and focus.
  • Be aware of the tension in your body. Stretch your legs, your arms, hands, neck, and shoulders.
  • Take another deep breath or two and then go back to the test.
  • Catch negative thoughts that creep into your mind as soon as possible. Say to yourself, “Hey, what’s wrong with me? I prepared for this test. I know most of this stuff. I understand the lectures and the textbook. I can do really well.”

  • Think positive thoughts to eliminate negative “inner voices” and get re-focused on the exam.

Testing Beyond the Classroom

Test-taking is a familiar part of student life, but what kinds of tests will you encounter in the workplace?

There are plenty of real tests. Someone in authority turns to you and asks a question. You are expected to have an answer based on your work. Or you are asked to write a memorandum explaining a process that is being developed in your unit. Or you observe that a system doesn’t work as well as it should and you decide to improve it so you start by observing, drawing, writing – effectively contrasting what is and what could be.

These are all tests. Consider this as you prepare to take a test in your courses. Each test is an opportunity for you to see what you know and what you do not know yet.



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The Companion for the First Year at City Tech Copyright © by Office of First Year Programs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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