Test Taking Strategies

There are two main factors that contribute to good test scores. One is preparation. The other is sound test-taking strategies. If you have prepared well, then you are probably able to answer at least 80% of your test material correctly. Putting this handout into action will help you increase that percentage even higher.

  • Understanding Your Test
    • Exam Information
    • Objective Questions
    • Essay Questions
    • Open Book
    • Knowing What to Study
  • Master Review
  • Last-Ditch Effort

Understanding Your Test

If you knew exactly what was going to be on the test, then you would probably ace it. You would at least know exactly what to study. You can get a great feel for exactly what will be on the test by applying the following strategies.

Exam Information

Make sure you have obtained all available test-format information from your instructor before beginning your course review, so you can spend study time emphasizing the same areas of course content that you instructor does. You should know:

  • Topics that the test covers (chapters from the text, units covered in class, etc.)
  • Percentage of questions that will be asked from each topic or unit.
  • Types of questions that will be asked (essay, multiple choice, matching, etc.)
  • Time limits.
  • Weighting given to lecture notes, textbook readings, handouts, lab work, etc.)

Objective Questions

These include multiple choice, matching, fill-in-the-blanks, etc. When answering objective questions you should:

  • Read the directions carefully
  • Get a running start. Skim the entire exam to become familiar with it. Note how many points each section is worth so that you can make an appropriate time plan.
  • Don’t let yourself get stuck. If a question begins to take a long time, mark it, leave it, and return to it later.
  • Read all the choices before selecting an answer. Some questions have more than one “right” answer, but require you to select the most correct answer.

Essay Questions

When answering essay questions keep in mind the following:

  • Read directions carefully. Notice whether you must answer all questions or choose only some of them.
  • Read all essays before beginning. Start with the easiest.
  • Write down a few key phrases or words next to the essay question before beginning to give your mind clarity and will help you make an outline.
  • Make an outline. It will help your answer flow. Also, if you run out of time, sometimes the instructor will give you partial credit for at least an outline.
  • Set up a general time plan for answering each question.
  • Avoid flowery explanations. Get to the point and specifically explain your position.
  • Summarize and conclude.
  • Pay attention to what words mean i.e. if the question asks you to “describe” then don’t “criticize”. Some commonly used words on essay questions are:
    • Comment - write an observation; usually allows more freedom.
    • Compare - point out similarities and differences.
    • Contrast - point out differences only. Criticize- judge as a critic. Point out good and bad characteristics.
    • Define - give the meaning of.
    • Discuss - present various points of the subject. Intended to be a little longer.
    • Describe - list characteristics.
    • Explain - make plain. Consider you audience knows nothing about the subject.
    • Evaluate - express an opinion concerning worth.
    • Summarize - present in a condensed form. Include the most important details.

Open Book

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that an open book test requires no preparation. Because you have all the answers right in front of you, your instructor will expect more of your answers. Prepare by becoming very familiar with your text book and lecture notes.

Knowing What to Study

Look for the following clues to get a better feel for what will be on the test. Then you can focus your study time appropriately.

  • Does my instructor get excited about the subject?
  • Did my instructor say this would be on the test?
  • Did my instructor spend more time on the subject?
  • Is there a lot of material overlap from the lecture, text, etc.?


  • Brainstorm test questions that could have come from the lecture that day.
  • Try and predict test questions that you think the instructor would include on the test.

Master Review

Properly reviewing your lecture notes and the text book will help you get a clearer picture of the material covered in class. After adequately preparing for the test, do the following:

  • Create an outline - Summarize the most important topics or the topics you think will be on the exam. Make it as detailed and concise as possible.
  • Review - Study your outline the night before and the morning of the test.
  • Recite - Try and recite your outline from memory, using it only when you get stuck.

Last-Ditch Effort

The best test-taking strategy is to prepare well in advance of the test date. There is no adequate substitute for proper preparation. However, in the event that you are not prepared, the following strategies MIGHT work.

  1. The most general alternative is often the correct one.
  2. If the alternatives range in value from high to low then choose the middle values.
  3. If two alternatives have the same meaning, eliminate them; they cannot both be right.
  4. If two alternatives have the opposite meaning, then the correct answer could be one of them.
  5. The correct alternative agrees grammatically with the question. If the question ends in “an”, the answer should begin with a vowel. Also, if the question indicates a plural, choose the answer that is in plural form.
  6. The correct alternative can sometimes be found with word association. For example, if the question contains the word "neurons", then the answer may have words in it such as "synapse" or "membrane".
  7. Avoid answers with that contain absolute terms such as always and never.
  8. Choose answers that contain words opposite of absolutes such as often, seldom, perhaps, etc.
  9. When the alternatives allow you to choose more than one alternative, eliminate the ones that
  10. contain those you know to be incorrect. For example, if the question reads, “J.K Rowling wrote:”
    • The Casual Vacancy
    • Treasure Island
    • Lord of the Rings
    • Harry Potter
      1. 3
      2. 4
      3. 1 and 2
      4. 1 and 4
  11. Eliminate a and c, and now at least you have a fifty-fifty chance. 


  • Remember that many professors know how to write a test around these hints.