10 Proven Test Taking Strategies

Whether it's graduate school, a professional certification, or the written portion of your motorcycle license test, exams don't end after college. Utilize these strategies to guarantee a good grade, even if you don't know all the answers.

I’ve been going to school for many years—close to 20 I think. In that time I think I’ve become fairly adept at test-taking. Part of test-taking is simply remembering information and how to apply it. However, I use several strategies unrelated to the information being tested that I think consistently improves my scores.

  1. Look over the entire test before you begin. Quickly read the problems, but don’t start working. Mentally note the easiest and most difficult questions, or easy questions that require information you don’t remember. Look for this missing information throughout the rest of the test. Clues to it may lie in problem descriptions, or it may be given outright. Know what you’re looking for and be looking for it.
  2. Work the easiest problems first. If you’re OCD then resist the urge to work the problems sequentially just because they are numbered. This will not only build your confidence, but may jog your memory about some of the information you discovered that you didn’t remember during step #1. It’s also about time management. This tactic will ensure that you earn the easy points first. You don’t want to squander a great deal of time on a tough problem at the beginning that you are likely to get incorrect anyway and then run out of time before working an easy problem at the end of the test.
  3. Work as much of the test as possible before asking any questions. First, you may discover or remember answers to early questions towards the end of the test. Asking questions of the instructor is a subtle art, and you must plan your attack carefully for best results. You want to present only the absolute most difficult questions to the instructor for “clarification.” More on this in #7.
  4. In true or false questions, look for qualifiers. Qualifiers are words that make a statement less absolute, like “may, sometimes, might, often, some, many, few, generally, etc.” Contrast those words to absolutes like “none, all, never, always, etc.” Statements that use absolutes will very seldom be true. Very few instances exist where something “always” or “never” happens. Statements with qualifiers are much more likely to be true. This may not apply if you’re being tested in a scientific or mathematical discipline. You should know if that’s the case.
  5. Look for a pattern in multiple choice tests. Some professors are good at randomizing their selections. Some are not. Examine the answers you know to be correct and determine if the professor tends to put the answer towards the beginning of the bank (A) or towards the end (E). Because of the popular culture maxim that you should choose (C) when undecided, I have found that very few instructors will allow the majority of the correct answers to fall on (C). That’s unsubstantiated speculation, but it’s my experience. Use this to your advantage in trying to select the more difficult answers. Try to narrow down the choices by crossing out obviously incorrect answers. This will help your brain focus on the relevant information and ignore the irrelevant choices.
  6. If you are totally clueless on a short answer or essay question, follow these rules
    1. Don’t write anything that is blatantly incorrect. If it’s a hard fact that can be clearly right or wrong, then don’t write it if you’re not sure it’s correct.
    2. Write in vague terms. Write some loosey-goosey garbage that doesn’t really mean anything. Use the term “infrastructure.” That word has so many meanings in so many contexts that you’ll look educated without having said anything of substance.
    3. Move the discussion into an area you know. Even if the topic is just tangential to the question, if you can relate the two then find a way to write what you know. The professor will probably assume you got off-track while composing your answer, which is much better than if you prove you don’t have a clue about the actual topic of the question.
  7. You’ve worked the entire test and found a couple tricky questions. Perhaps you don’t have a flippin’ clue or perhaps you’re just missing one critical bit of information and you don’t remember how to find it. It’s time to ask the instructor a question, but this is a test, so they won’t help you with the guts of a problem…or will they? Here’s where the magic begins.
    1. Take your one or two most difficult questions, or the questions worth the most points, and determine why you can’t go any further. What data point do you need? Does the problem require a method that you can’t remember? Work the problem as far as possible. If it’s multiple choice then eliminate as many obviously incorrect answers as possible.
    2. It’s time to approach the instructor, but you can’t openly ask for help with content. This is a test, after all. What you must do is ask for help in clarifying the problem statement in such a way that the instructor will reveal the content you need.
    3. Give the instructor a very quick synopsis of your progress with the problem. Show the professor you’ve eliminated incorrect answers if the question is multiple choice. He/she will probably appreciate your progress and be more willing to help than if you haven’t tried at all.
    4. After stating your progress, ask a question that involves the information you need, but that merely asks for clarification of the problem. Don’t openly ask for what you need. You’ll need to think hard and formulate your question before you approach. Subtlety is everything.
    5. Listen to the professor’s response and evaluate it. Did you get what you need? If not, go back for round two of the conversation.
    6. Show bewilderment and that you haven’t found the clarity you’re looking for. Ask a related question about the same topic and see if the professor responds differently. Point to your paper while explaining, and more importantly, see if your professor points to your paper or writes anything on it. I once had a professor underline the idea I was missing, completely solving my problem.
    7. As a last resort during this process, listen closely to intonation and look at facial expressions while you explain competing ideas on how to solve the problem. The professor may divulge the correct option in this way. Listen for sighs or see if the instructor interrupts you during an explanation. If they interrupt you then the method you were explaining is almost certainly incorrect.
    8. All of this should go down in about 30 seconds. After 60 seconds your returns are diminishing quickly. Don’t appear desperate, and don’t badger them. At the risk of being repetitive, subtlety is paramount. Every professor is different, so be creative in your tactics and always consider the instructor’s personality.
  8. After completing the test go back to the beginning and read through every question and answer again, if time allows. I usually correct one mistake per test in this way. Just like Santa Claus, check it twice.
  9. During your final check in #8, or any time you revisit a multiple choice problem, don’t change your answer from your first response unless you have significant evidence that you should. Just a hunch? Don’t change it. Not feeling good about the answer? Don’t change it. Remember new information? Change it. See a trick or nuance in the question that you didn’t see before? Change it. Your first guess is surprisingly good on marginal questions. Only change your answer if you know exactly why you are changing it.
  10. Take every bit of available class time if you need it. This is not the time to be worried about leaving class early. Even your final review in #8 is well worth your time. Chill out and don’t hand in the test until you’re positive that you cannot contribute anything further to improve your score.

Disagree or have your own test-taking tips? Join the discussion in the comments below.

Jeff Barnett

Jeff Barnett is an entrepreneur, fitness enthusiast, and former Marine. He has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA. When you don't find him wakeboarding, writing, or eating meat off the bone, he's at his startup, CrossFit Impulse.