10 Test-Taking Strategies for Success

Posted on April 11, 2024

Posted on April 11, 2024

Tests are part of the academic experience, whether you’re taking in-person or online courses, prepping for the SATs, ACTs, or AP exams, or sitting for admissions tests like the MCAT or GRE. 

In addition, if you’re planning a career that involves exams for your credentials, such as the state bar exam, the NCLEX for nurse licensing, or the USMLE to become a licensed medical physician, you will need to have strong test-taking techniques. 

As tests become more challenging, studying may not be enough on its own. Effective and consistent preparation is the key to success with your exams. Here are 10 tips to prepare for tests, no matter how big or small. 

Before the Test 

1. Develop Good Study Habits 

Understanding and recalling information for a test takes more than an all-night study session. Coursework is scaffolded and cumulative, meaning each new concept builds upon the previous ones. If you never crack a book and try to cram all your studying in at the last minute, your test scores may suffer for it. 

It’s important to develop good study habits long before your big test. Do all your homework assignments and assigned readings, review your notes, and prepare your own study guides. If you have an opportunity to prepare with practice tests or optional assignments, take advantage of them. Sophia courses include a mix of flashcards and other study tools, interactive practice opportunities, and practice Milestone tests to help you prepare. 

2. Get a Good Night’s Sleep 

Showing up to a test well-rested is one of the most crucial aspects of success. Being well-rested helps your recall and your ability to articulate your thoughts in a clear and concise manner. If you’re tired and foggy, you may not be able to think clearly. 

In fact, good sleep habits are important for your entire academic performance before, during, and after testing. Lack of sleep impacts both short- and long-term memory, and regular rest is integral to memory consolidation, the process of preserving vital memories and discarding irrelevant information. 

3. Give Yourself Time  

Taking an exam often comes with a little anxiety and stress, even if you’re confident in the material. The last thing you need is to be in a rush before or during the test and adding to your stress. 

On the day of a test, get up a little early and take your time. Eat a healthy breakfast (or lunch, depending on the time), and review your notes or flashcards one last time. Avoid excess sugar or caffeine, which can leave you feeling tired in the middle of your exam. If your exam time is flexible, choose a time of day when you know you can really focus.   

4. Find the Right Location 

If you have to travel for your test, get there early and give yourself time to get organized and settled before the test begins. If you have materials for your test, such as notecards, a calculator, or other permitted tools and materials, make sure you have them ready to go the night before. 

Something simple, such as a traffic jam or car trouble, can leave you locked out of your test. Giving yourself extra time ensures you’re not rushing, or worse, showing up to locked doors because you were late. 

If your exam is offered remotely, choose a quiet, comfortable place with a stable internet connection where you can take the test without interruption.   

5. Don’t Cram 

As mentioned, if you cram, you may not earn high scores, but there are bigger things at stake. Some people have excellent recall and can cram for a test and ace it. However, that often comes with forgetting most of the information shortly after. 

All of your courses have value in your academic journey. Some are even essential to prepare for your advanced coursework that will prepare you for your career. If you only retain the information long enough to get a good test score, you’re only getting a good grade – not the true education you need for success in your job role. 

In addition, cramming has a negative impact on your sleep quality, stress levels, and overall preparedness. Your education is a marathon, not a sprint. 

During the Test 

6. Read the Instructions Carefully 

Though it may be tempting, don’t dive right into the test. Read – and re-read – the instructions to ensure you understand any rules or guidelines for the test. Make sure you understand the test structure, length, and time limit before you begin. 

If possible, look over the entire test briefly before beginning, which may give you insights into which sections may take a little more or less time. Then, you can plan how you want to approach the test to complete as much as possible within the allotted time. 

7. Answer the Questions You Know Early 

It can be tempting to tackle the hardest or most time-consuming questions first, but that can leave you without adequate time to complete enough for a good score. When you’re looking over the test, answer the questions you know first. If you come to a question that you can’t answer quickly, skip it and come back later. If possible, mark the questions that you’ve skipped so you can easily find them again. 

Don’t rush your first pass, but try not to dwell on any questions. You want to be sure you’ll have time to go back and answer the questions you skipped. 

While this technique can be helpful for some types of tests, including Sophia Milestones, some testing formats don’t permit you to skip questions and go back later. With these, you will need to work through each question before moving onto the next. This is often by design. 

8. Return to Skipped Questions 

After your first pass, return to the questions you skipped. It’s possible that the warmup from answering the other questions will make these easier. 

However, if you’re still struggling, you have more leeway to take your time. Don’t be afraid to use the same technique of skipping questions if you’re stuck and moving on, then returning to them later. It’s better to have a few missed questions than running out the clock while you dwell on one. 

9. Make Sure Your Test Is Complete and Check for Errors 

This can depend on the format of the test. If your exam is timed, you may not have an opportunity to check it over one last time. If you do, make sure you’ve answered all the questions. Even if you think you’re finished, check through the entire test again to ensure you haven’t missed any questions. 

While it’s good to check for errors, avoid second-guessing yourself. There’s a difference between realizing an earlier answer isn’t correct and doubting yourself. Only make changes if you’re sure you’ve made a mistake. 

After the Test 

10. Reflect on the Experience 

Take a breather once the test is complete but prepare to think about where you can improve for the future. Consider strategies or techniques that would have helped, questions you struggled with or couldn’t answer, and how you can prepare better for the next test. 

If you did well, you should consider what contributed to your success and how you can use that information in the future. If you didn’t do as well as you had hoped, consider it an opportunity to learn from your test-taking experience and develop better strategies moving forward. 

Develop Your Test-Taking Skills

Tests and exams can cause anxiety and stress even if you’re prepared, but far more if you’re not. When you can approach an exam with confidence that you know the material and did the work, it’s much easier to perform well. 

Category: Student Success

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