Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You pay attention in class, take notes, study hard for the big test, but when it comes time to take the test, you get anxious and overwhelmed…and you underperform.
There’s an art (and science) to test taking, however, and there are a lot of different strategies you can use to either prevent this from happening again or improve the next test.
The good news is anyone can learn test taking strategies and start doing better on exams and quizzes.
It’s important to learn how to take tests not only because it will help your overall grades, but because it will help you learn the material better.
Even if you’re still nervous about tests, there are plenty of things you can do to change your mindset and take control of your performance on exams.
Numerous studies have been done revealing which testing strategies for students are the most beneficial, and in the guide below, we’ll outline some useful tips to help you do better on your exams going forward.
Here are some ways you can build test taking skills to help excel in school…
1. Start studying for the test early
There’s no substitute for proper test prep.
One of the most important test taking skills is to start studying for the test early. This means you should begin preparing for the test at least a few days (or preferably a week) before the test date.
This will give you enough time to go over all of the material that will be covered on the test and to organize and review your notes, as well as allow you enough time to practice any test taking strategies you may want to use (taking practice tests is a great way to get more comfortable for the real thing!).
If you wait until the last minute to start studying, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed and stressed, and that kind of test taking anxiety can lead to poor performance on the test.
Check out our guide to the most effective study techniques so you can get the most out of your study sessions.
2. Get a good night’s sleep before the test
One of the most important things you can do is to get a good night’s sleep before the test.
This means you should go to bed early and avoid watching television or working on homework in the hours leading up to bedtime.
If you’re well-rested, you’ll be less likely to feel overwhelmed and stressed on test day. Rest can also help reduce test taking anxiety that can lead to poor performance on the test.
Make sure to avoid caffeine and other stimulants before bed, as they can keep you awake and disrupt your sleep cycle.
How much sleep do you need? 8 hours is the generally accepted number, but it can vary from person to person.
Studies show that people who sleep well are able to recall information more effectively, feel less anxious and distracted, and overall perform better on tests.
3. Eat breakfast before the test
Always make sure you eat a good, healthy breakfast before taking the test.
If you’re feeling hungry or weak, you’re going to have a harder time focusing on the test and performing well.
A nutritious breakfast will give you the energy you need to focus and think clearly during the test.
Some good breakfast options include oatmeal, eggs, toast, yogurt, or a protein shake.
4. Arrive at the test early
Another important test taking tip is to arrive at the test early so you can get settled in and avoid feeling stressed from rushing.
This gives you time to make sure you have all the supplies you need for taking the test, like a pen or pencil, paper, erasers, etc.
Getting there early also gives you one last chance to review the materials and feel confident that you’re well prepared.
If you’re rushed and stressed when you start the test, it’s only going to make things worse.
Plus, if you arrive late, you may not be allowed to enter the room and will miss the entire test.
It’s best to show up at least 15 minutes early so you have plenty of time to get ready for the test.
If you’re running late, try calling or texting the teacher to let them know.
5. Read all of the questions carefully before answering
It’s absolutely critical that you read all of the questions carefully before answering.
No matter how well you think you know the material, take your time to read every question multiple times. Sometimes, being too confident can lead to silly mistakes and wrong answers that can cost you dearly all because you didn’t read the question closely enough.
This is important because it allows you to understand what is being asked and to avoid rushing through the questions and making careless mistakes.
It’s also a good idea to read through the questions first and then go back and answer them so you have a better idea of how much time you should spend on each question.
6. Don’t spend too much time on any one question
It’s important not to spend too much time on any one question, as this can cost you precious time and force you to have to rush through other questions later.
Remember, allotting your time is an essential test taking strategy.
If you’re really stuck on a question and are unsure of the correct answer, it’s best to skip it and come back to it later.
This will allow you to make sure you’re spending enough time on all of the test questions and will help to avoid running out of time before finishing the test.
7. Check your work after you finish each section of the test
Always double-check your work as you go through your test to make sure you’ve put down the correct answer. It doesn’t matter how well you know the material, anyone is capable of making a silly mistake when they’re under stress.
It only takes a bit to run your work through one last time when you finish each section of the test.
When double-checking your work, always re-read the entire question slowly and then carefully go over your answer to make sure it’s 100% correct.
If you make a mistake, erase the wrong answer immediately with an eraser so there’s no chance of it being picked up by the grader and put in the correct answer.
8. Pace yourself throughout the test
Knowing how to pace yourself when taking a test is very important.
As soon as you get the test, scan over the whole thing to get an idea for how many questions there are, how much effort each section will take (i.e. essay questions might take more time than multiple choice questions), and how much allotted time you have overall to complete everything. This will help you schedule out your workload during the test and ensure you’re staying on track.
If you’re taking a really big test (one that’s several hours long), it’s important to take breaks throughout the test so you don’t get overwhelmed or exhausted.
Some students only need a quick break, but others may need more than one break during the test.
A good rule of thumb is to take short 5-10 minute breaks every hour and a half or two hours.
A break during a test is also an excellent time to go over the questions you skipped earlier, especially if you weren’t able to answer them when you first saw them. It’s best not to spend too much time on any one question during your break, but there’s no harm in taking some extra time to review it.
9. Stay calm and focused during the test
It’s easier said than done, but you need to stay calm and focused during the entire test.
Anxiety and doubt can quickly spiral out of control and kill your test performance.
When you’re calm and focused, you’re more likely to make fewer mistakes and to think more clearly.
If you’re feeling stressed out or anxious, take a few deep breaths and try to relax.
Positive self-talk can also be helpful in keeping you calm during the test. It might feel cheesy, but repeating positive affirmations to yourself when you’re taking your test can boost your confidence and reduce your anxiety.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification on any test questions you don’t understand
Come across a question on the test that you’re not fully understanding? Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification so you can make sure you’re giving yourself the best chance of giving the correct answer.
The test is usually designed in a way that if you were answering the questions correctly, there should be no reason for you not to understand any of them.
This doesn’t mean that you’re stupid or bad at taking tests, but rather that the question may have been poorly worded and requires clarification, or there could even be a typo that the teacher made by accident.
11. When in doubt…take a guess
Never leave a question blank on a test, even if you don’t think you know the correct answer. If you skipped any questions earlier in the test, go back at the end and take your best educated guess.
At least when you take a guess at a test question, you have some shot at either getting it right (especially on multiple choice exams) or possibly getting partial credit for your attempt.
This is especially important with multiple choice questions where you may be able to eliminate wrong answers and give yourself a better shot at finding the correct answer.
It shows the teacher that you’re at least trying and aren’t giving up.
12. Don’t stress about the exam after it’s over
Once the test is done, it’s natural to play it over and over in your mind, wondering how you did.
Did you get the correct answers? Did you miss test instructions by not paying attention? Did you botch the essay questions?
These are all questions you might be asking yourself over and over again about your test performance.
But try not to stress too much about how you think you did on that big exam.
You can’t change the past, so it’s best that you let go of any negative thoughts and move on with your day. Instead of worrying, give yourself a pat on the back for all of your hard work studying after the test is over. Maybe treat yourself to a nice meal or something else you enjoy.
A Final Word on Test Taking Strategies
With the best test taking strategies, you can reduce anxiety and feel a little more confident that you’re going to perform your very best.
But don’t forget that test taking techniques start well before the actual exam day. There’s no substitute for proper preparation.
Now that you’ve read our article, how will your test taking strategies change? What is your favorite test taking strategy? How did your test go after applying the strategies in this article? Leave a comment below!