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Level-Up Your Test-Taking Skills with These Beginner to Expert Strategies

The art of test taking is a skill that can be improved over time with the right strategies. This guide offers valuable test-taking skills sorted by beginner, intermediate, and expert so that you can level up your exam performance for college and beyond.

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Author: Angela Myers
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Brian A. Carroll

As a doctoral candidate focusing on language assessment at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Brian A. Carroll knows about test taking from many perspectives. His main academic areas of interest include classroom-based language assessment, second language pragmatics assessment, educational measurement, education technology, and machine learning for educational purposes. Carroll co-founded the edtech company Tiro, which helps classroom teachers design, deliver, and statistically analyze student assessment data.

A cheerful young woman with glasses and earphones, carrying a backpack and books on study techniques, looking over her shoulder with a smile outdoors near a building.

True or false? Test taking is the source of ABUNDANT anxiety for college students everywhere.

If you guessed “True,” you’re absolutely right. And in fact, studies show that anywhere from 13% to 71% of undergraduates experience test anxiety—which means there’s a good chance you even felt a bit clammy and jittery simply reading the words “true or false” above!

While test taking is almost universally disliked, it’s no secret that exams will likely play a big role in your college experience—especially if you’re majoring in a healthcare field. As a STEM student, you most likely have to juggle multiple exams for each class as well as study for a standardized professional exam, such as the MCAT or NCLEX. So, to succeed in college, a critical first step may be to learn tactics for tackling all those tests.

This guide covers everything you need to know about how to prepare for tests in college—strategies that will allow you to succeed without sacrificing your sleep, social life, or mental health. Read on for insider hacks, resources, and test-day tips to ensure you can score as high as possible on your exams.

Start Here: Beginner Level Test Prep Skills to Master

Whether you’re an experienced test taker or you’re completely out of practice, it’s important to start at the beginning: mastering basic techniques for taking your college exams. Check out the following five beginner-level recommendations, which will serve as a foundation for studying throughout your academic career. With these tips in mind, you can say goodbye to test-day jitters and tackle those tests with a solid plan of attack.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time to Study

While it can be tempting to pull an all-nighter the day before the exam, don’t cram it all in at the last minute. Instead, start studying as soon as you know when your test is going to be and have all the material that will be covered on the test. Studying in small increments over a longer time frame, such as studying 30 minutes a day for the two weeks leading up to the exam, helps you retain more information and keeps the last-minute panic at bay.

Give Your Brain a Break from Studying

Your brain can only process so much at one time. That’s why it’s good to take breaks when needed and truly rest between study sessions. If you try to study for five hours straight, you most likely will feel mentally and physically exhausted. When you routinely study 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off, you give your body and mind the time it takes to recover from periods of intense focus. If you do find yourself needing to study for long stretches, keep in mind it’s best to take a few longer breaks instead of taking only short breaks.

If you want to supercharge those breaks, avoid scrolling TikTok. Instead, take a walk outside, drink some water, chat with a friend, or eat a healthy snack.

Use the Provided Study Guide

Most professors will provide a study guide. This is a great place to start since it’s directly from the person who will be creating—and grading—your exam. When reviewing your study guide, take notes on important points and any questions you have. You can also highlight content areas that you are less confident about as a reminder to pay more attention to those lessons in your study sessions.

Take Advantage of Review Sessions Offered Beforehand

Many professors will offer a study session before the exam. No matter how prepared you think you are, attend the session! You never know what kind of helpful information this session will provide you.

If your professor doesn’t provide a study session, you can create your own study group. Reach out to a couple of classmates and ask if they want to meet up at the library to review the test information together. You can also attend your professor’s office hours if you have questions and there’s no official review session offered.

Get Enough Sleep the Night Before

While your main focus might be getting A’s, you shouldn’t ignore those z’s. The importance of sleep cannot be stressed enough. By getting eight to nine hours of sleep a night, you’re giving your body the time it needs to rest and recuperate. When you cram all night and don’t get enough sleep, your brain is more frazzled and it will be harder to retain important test information. Luckily, the tips above allow you to schedule your study time in advance, leaving plenty of time to sleep—and not cram—the night before your exam.

Level Up: Intermediate Exam Study Skills to Work Toward

Already mastered the beginner-level skills? Congratulations—you’re on your way to being a test-taking whiz. Now it’s time to tackle those intermediate skills, some of which may take slightly more time and effort, though the results will be well worth the extra initiative. Check out the following five approaches to test taking that will help you overcome any exam anxiety you may be feeling as your next assessment approaches.

Find Out as Much About the Test as Possible

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to tests that measure how much you’ve learned in class. Before taking your next test, find out as much information about it as possible. You’ll want to learn the format of the test, the most important content to focus on, and what your professor expects for different question types. To gain this information, show up to your professor’s office hours with specific questions about the test format and content. Alternatively, you can also ask these questions in class or during any review sessions that may be offered.

Create a Study Schedule and Stick to it

You typically know when tests are coming up, so create a study schedule ahead of time and make sure you stick to it. To make this schedule official, add it to your online calendar or physical planner. For example, designate one-hour slots, like 6 pm to 7 pm nightly, and block them on your calendar as study time. Seeing these blocks—and receiving calendar reminders ahead of them—makes it much harder to procrastinate or avoid studying.

Study for the Exam Type

There are many different ways to study for an exam, such as writing out important content, rereading chapters from your textbook, and quizzing your friends in a study group. While you should use a variety of study methods, make sure to study specifically with the types of questions that will appear on the exam. If a test includes essays, write out a few mock essays. If the quiz is multiple choice, come up with some multiple-choice questions related to the study content.

Create Your Own Study Guide

While we fully endorse using your professor’s guide as a starting point, study guides are notorious for missing information or not including important content that will actually be covered in the exam. So commit to creating your own study guide, one that is more comprehensive than the official one. This technique allows you to focus on chapters or modules that are especially challenging for you. Customizing your own study guide is a great way to be overprepared for the exam.

Master Good Note-Taking Skills

Effectively taking notes during class or while reading can make your study session a breeze, while failing to take notes can leave you confused, frazzled, and stressed.

During each class lecture, you should be taking detailed notes that you can refer back to in study sessions. To make your notes even more useful, consider these three note-taking hacks:

  • Highlight or underline important terms so you can find them quickly when studying.
  • Write out examples to help you better understand the main concepts.
  • Organize your notes with bullet points, numerical lists, and lots of white space so you can find the information fast when studying.

Masterclass: Expert Study Skills to Ace Your Exams

You’ve tackled the study guide, created a solid study schedule, and attended review sessions. What more can you possibly do? Turns out, there are some master-level hacks that will take you to the next level as you study for that big test. Below are four techniques that will help you become an exam pro.

Create Your Own Practice Test

By studying the content in the format of the test, you are preparing for the format of the exam as well as mastering the content. To quiz yourself, you can create physical flashcards or sample questions. You can also create virtual flashcards on Quizlet, a free website that lets you type in the needed information for online flashcards. Quizlet also will auto-generate practice tests in a variety of formats.

Organize Classmates for a Study Session

If there isn’t a study session offered by your professor (or even if there is), recruit some classmates for a self-directed study session. This session could take place on a weekly basis if you’re in a class with a lot of exams or at one set time before a big exam. During these study sessions, you and your classmates can quiz each other on important concepts, clarify any points of confusion, and talk through what the test might look like.

Practice Breathing and Relaxation Techniques to Help with Test Anxiety

We’ve all experienced the shaking hands, fast heartbeat, and sweaty palms before a big test. While test anxiety is normal, it doesn’t have to be a part of your study routine. A mindfulness practice can help you beat test anxiety and feel more at peace before, during, and after your exam. While mindfulness routines can vary, deep breathing, visualization, yoga, and meditation can be used right before the exam and study sessions to help you feel calmer.

Eat a Healthy Meal Beforehand and Stay Hydrated

A growling stomach or thirsty, dry mouth are not the best test-taking mates. Feeling hungry or dehydrated often damages your focus, alertness, and ability to recall important information when taking an exam. Make sure you take care of these basic needs ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about them during the test. If you often miss meals or don’t drink enough water, prepare your meals in advance and create a water tracker to record how much water you drink each day.

Taking the Test: Exam-Day Success Tips

Many of the study tips already offered in this guide focus on giving yourself ample time to prepare for your upcoming test. But it’s common knowledge that the day of the test is when the real anxiety can kick in and potentially sabotage all your best efforts. Showing up on exam day in the right headspace is often just as important as studying the right information. Review these eight exam-day tips so you can cruise through your tests with far more ease.

Arrive Early

If the early bird gets the worm, the early student gets the passing grade. Even arriving a few minutes ahead of time can help you to settle in, take one last look at your notes, and feel ready to go. Plus, if you leave early for the exam, you add in cushion time in case you face traffic or other delays on the way to the classroom or test-taking center.

Listen to or Read the Test Instructions Carefully

You may find that the test is different from what you were expecting or the professor may change something at the last minute. It’s good to pay close attention to any instructions written on the test or any verbal instructions a professor gives when handing out the exams. If you have any questions on the format (not the content) of the exam, you should be able to ask when the professor hands out the exams.

Do a Quick Read Through of the Test

Before starting on question one, take a glance at the entire exam. A quick read through helps you figure out how you want to tackle the exam and come up with a game plan. As you read through the exam, you might even want to start with the most time-intensive questions, such as essay questions, to make sure you can finish within the testing period.

Do a Memory Dump of Relevant Information

Once you know what is on the test, jot a few quick notes from your memory that you want to cover. The points can be helpful, particularly on essays. If your professor lets you bring in blank notebook paper, you can write these notes down there. If not, feel free to use the test margins, especially if you’re writing notes with a pencil or erasable pen.

Plan Your Time Wisely

As you take stock of what is on the exam, determine how much time you will spend on each section. As mentioned above, it might even be beneficial to tackle the most time-consuming elements of the test first. Along with planning ahead, check in throughout the exam to make sure you’re on track to finish on time.

Answer Every Question to the Best of Your Ability

You might not be 100% sure of the answer, but it can’t hurt to give it a try. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t leave any questions blank. You can’t get any points if you don’t answer, so at least write down your best guess.

Look for Key Directives

In essay questions, look for keywords—such as “define” or “compare”—that tell you exactly what your professor is hoping for you to accomplish in your response. Identifying these keywords at the outset can also help you avoid a common mistake in essay responses, which is supplying a response that does not fully answer the question. For example, if the question asks you to “list five examples,” this is far different than a prompt to “argue your viewpoint” about a certain concept.

Focus as Much as Possible During the Exam

Try not to let your mind wander during the test, especially if you have a lot to cover in a short amount of time. You don’t have time to waste in a timed exam so staying focused can make or break your exam day. To help stay focused, make sure you’ve gotten enough sleep, have a small mindfulness technique to address any anxiety or panic that may come up during the test, and eat a filling, healthy breakfast before taking your exam.

Post-Exam Wind Down & Takeaways

You did it: The exam is over! Whether you feel like you nailed it or failed it, it’s important to take stock of the entire experience and engage in some post-test best practices. This is the ideal time to reflect on what worked, identify what didn’t, and give yourself some well-deserved self-care. Check out these four post-test recommendations.

Do Something Fun or Relaxing Immediately Afterwards

Studying for an exam drains your time and energy. Afterwards, it’s important to wind down and practice some self-care. This helps to close the stress response cycle and avoid future burnout. Some popular self-care ideas for after your test include:

  • going for a walk
  • trying a new yoga class
  • reserving an hour to hang out with friends or indulge in a hobby
  • treating yourself to a latte or smoothie
  • meditating or devoting some time to mindfulness

Learn from Your Mistakes

Review your returned exam to see where you could improve. As you review, jot down any notes about content that might show up on future exams, such as the midterm or final. When you’re looking for test takeaways, don’t focus so much on the grade that you lose sight of what you can learn from it.

Attend the Test Review Session if Offered

Many professors offer test review sessions to answer any questions and go over key concepts that will show up on future exams. Attending may help improve your performance on future exams and possibly improve your grade on the current exam if the professor offers extra credit or the chance to redo commonly missed test questions. Even if your professor doesn’t offer extra credit or redos, the test review sessions often provide valuable insight on what your professor looks for when grading.

Keep Everything for Future Reference

File your notes, study guides, and exam results for use when studying for future exams if needed. This is especially important in classes with cumulative midterms and finals or if you’re in a degree with a standardized industry exam, such as the NCLEX for nurses.

Test-Taking & Study Resources for Students

Still looking for ways to improve your test-taking and study sessions? Check out these 21 resources that are all available online. While some are geared toward getting you in the right studying mindset and others provide tactical tips to make studying easier, they all have the potential to boost your grade.

  • Beat test stress: Want to beat test anxiety? Check out our guide to dealing with stress as a college student.
  • Breathwork: This mindfulness strategy can improve focus and lower test anxiety. Try this free YouTube video from breathwork expert Wim Hof.
  • Cornell Note Taking: This guide reviews the Cornell Note Taking system, which is often considered the best note-taking system to retain information from lectures.
  • CrashCourse: While known for their content-specific videos, CrashCourse also has a free video series on how to improve your test-taking skills.
  • Crush the MCAT: Looking to attend medical school? Check out our guide on how to crush the MCAT.
  • Effective Note Taking: This guide from Oxford Learning covers the five most effective note-taking strategies for college students.
  • Google Drive: Looking to create a collaborative study guide with some classmates? Google Drive is a free platform that lets you create docs among multiple Gmail users.
  • Grounding exercise: Looking for a quick way to lower your test anxiety? Try this five-minute grounding exercise.
  • Guide for first-time college students: Our guide for first-time college students can help you ace your first university-level exam.
  • Guide to getting enough sleep: Those z’s are important to get those A’s. Check out the ultimate guide to getting enough sleep while at college.
  • Guide to healthy eating: Staying hydrated and following a healthy diet can improve test performance. Here’s the ultimate guide to healthy eating for college students.
  • Kahoot: This free platform lets you create an exam that people can take together via their phones–it’s a fun addition to any study group!
  • NCLEX Test Plans: If you’re a nursing student, you most likely will have to take the NCLEX before getting your license. Check out the test plans offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.
  • Notion: Organize your notes, to-dos, and study sessions with this free test management software.
  • Post-exam reset: This video covers everything you need to do to unwind and make the most of your post-exam routine.
  • Quizlet: A free website that lets you upload test information as flashcards. It can also create practice tests based on the information you upload.
  • Study playlist: Classical music can help you focus and boost your memory during study sessions. Check out this free study playlist from YouTube.
  • Study smarter, not harder: Looking to reduce your study time without lowering your grades? Check out these tips from the University of North Carolina.
  • Test anxiety meditation: Got test anxiety? Try this free meditation specifically designed for students.
  • Test-prep checklist: These ten steps from The Princeton Review provide insight on how to ace your next exam.
  • Tips to start a study group: Looking to start a study group? Check out these tips to ensure that the group is successful and productive.

Interview With a Test-Taking Expert

As a doctoral candidate focusing on language assessment at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Brian A. Carroll knows about test taking from many perspectives. His main academic areas of interest include classroom-based language assessment, second language pragmatics assessment, educational measurement, education technology, and machine learning for educational purposes. Carroll co-founded the edtech company Tiro, which helps classroom teachers design, deliver, and statistically analyze student assessment data.

We asked Carroll his thoughts on the following:

Q: What is the most underrated test-taking tip?

A: If you think an answer is obvious, you’re probably wrong. The key to this is understanding a professor desires two attributes in their test. First, they want every question to be answered correctly by 20% to 80% of the class. They also want each question to separate the class into three groups: high performers, middle performers, and low performers. These two attributes are called “item facility” and “d-index,” respectively.

As an example, look at the multiple-choice question and answer choices below. The professor wants to design a moderately difficult question that only 50% of the class answers correctly, so they need to distribute the probabilities across the key (50%) and the incorrect choices (i.e., distractors) so that the total equals 100%:

Question #1: This is an example of a question stem?

  1. Distractor 1 (15%)
  2. Distractor 2 (20%)
  3. Key (50%)
  4. Distractor 3 (15%)

However, usually professors are not master test designers, so they make some mistakes with how they calibrate the key and distractors. Typically it happens like this:

  1. The professor will design the correct answer first (50% will choose).
  2. The professor will then design the most logical second choice, which is extremely attractive but incorrect (40% will choose).
  3. The professor will then design the third most logical choice, which isn’t as attractive as #2 and is incorrect (8% will choose).
  4. Usually, by the time a professor gets to the fourth choice, they run out of attractive options, and they give you something that is obviously incorrect (2% will choose).

The result here is that the first choice (50%) and the second choice (40%) are really attractive, but the third (8%) and fourth choices (2%) will be really unattractive. Then this question is essentially a 50/50 choice between choice 1 and choice 2. Usually, the highest probability distractor will be based on a logical mistake that many students have made on past tests. Plug the first and second choice into the answer stem, and see which one works best. This is good for math and science.

Q: What do you wish students did more often when studying for a test?

A: On the first day of class, look around the room to see who is taking a lot of notes and is asking a lot of questions. These are attributes of students interested in understanding and learning the content. After class, go find those students and start a study group. Meet for just 45 minutes a week. In the study group, you should design a mini test with the answers based on the week’s learning objectives. Review these mini tests every week. By the end of the semester, you will have designed a prototype test that is probably pretty close to what you will see on the final.

Q: What is your number-one tip for test day?

A: Go for a hard run two to three hours before a test, and try not to eat a heavy meal for at least eight hours before a test. Higher and lower order cognitive processes are at maximum efficiency when your body is in “survival mode.” If you’re hungry, eat some protein and fruits or vegetables, something to give you energy but not make you tired. This will clear your mind and keep you focused.

Q: What resource do you wish students utilized more often when studying for tests?

A: Utilize your peers and your professor’s office hours. Study groups and interacting with your classmates about the content will help you contextualize the information. Contextualizing information helps your memory connect the content to something in the real world. If you go to your professor’s office hours and ask good questions, they will give you tidbits that help you out. A lot of times, you’ll learn exactly what they think is important or not so important about the course content. Show them the test you designed with your study group, and see what they think. Then, report back to your study group.

Q: How can students learn from their mistakes and improve on future tests?

A: This is another data-and-stats answer. Ask the professor for the assessment analytics. Compare your score to the class average. This will help you understand to what extent your performance was an outlier or in the average. Find out which questions were the most frequently missed questions, and review those first. Do some analysis and figure out if you missed those questions too. Conversely, find out which questions were most frequently answered correctly by the class. Review these also, and figure out whether you also answered them correctly. This will help you understand whether you’re performing poorly, average, or above average, and why. This takes about 15 minutes and it will help you immensely — do it with your study group, too.