Preparing for Tests and Exams

Believe it or not, you actually begin preparing for a test on the first day of the term. Your lecture notes, assigned readings, and homework are all part of that preparation. As the test day nears, you should know how much additional time you will need for review, what material the test will cover, and what format the test will take. It is very important to double-check the exam dates on the syllabus for each class, and to incorporate these dates into your overall plans for time management, such as in your daily and weekly to-do lists.

Here are some specific suggestions to help you prepare well for any exam:

  1. Ask your instructor. Find out the purpose, types of questions, conditions (how much time you will have to complete the exam), and content to be covered on the exam. Talk with your instructor to clarify any misunderstandings you might have about your reading or lecture notes. Some instructors might let you view copies of old exams so that you can see the types of questions they use. Never miss the last class before an exam because your instructor might summarize valuable information then.

  2. Manage your preparation time wisely. Create a schedule that will give you time to review effectively for the exam without waiting until the night before. Make sure that your schedule has some flexibility to allow for unexpected distractions. If you are able to spread your study sessions over several days, your mind will continue to process the information between study sessions, which will help you during the test. Also, let your friends and family know when you have important exams coming up and how that will affect your time with them.

  3. Focus your study. Figure out what you can effectively review that is likely to be on the exam. Collaborate with other students to share information and try to attend all test or exam review sessions offered by your instructor.

Prepare Physically

Remembering these important strategies will help you prepare physically for your tests or exams.

Maintain Your Regular Sleep Routine.

To do well on exams, you will need to be alert so that you can think clearly. You are more likely to be alert when you are well rested. Last-minute, late-night cramming that robs you of sufficient sleep isn’t an effective study strategy.

Follow Your Regular Exercise Program.

Another way to prepare physically for exams is by walking, jogging, or engaging in other kinds of physical activity. Exercise is a positive way to relieve stress and give yourself a needed break from long hours of studying.

Eat Right.

Eat a light breakfast before a morning exam and avoid greasy or acidic foods that might upset your stomach. Limit the amount of caffeinated beverages you drink on exam day because caffeine can make you jittery. Choose fruits, vegetables, and other foods that are high in energy-rich complex carbohydrates. Avoid eating sweets before an exam. The immediate energy boost they create can be quickly followed by a loss of energy and alertness. Ask the instructor whether you may bring a bottle of water with you to the exam.

Prepare Emotionally

Just as physical preparation is important, so is preparing your attitude and your emotions. You’ll benefit by paying attention to these ideas.

Know Your Material.

If you have given yourself adequate time to review, you will enter the classroom confident that you are in control. Study by testing yourself or quizzing others in a study group or learning community so that you will be sure to really know the material.

Practice Relaxing.

Some students experience upset stomachs, sweaty palms, racing hearts, or other unpleasant physical symptoms of test anxiety. Consult your counseling center about relaxation techniques. Some campus learning assistance centers also provide workshops on reducing test anxiety.

Use Positive Self-Talk.

Instead of telling yourself that “I never do well on math tests” or “I’ll never be able to learn all the information for my history essay exam,” make positive statements such as “I have attended all the lectures, done my homework, and passed the quizzes. Now I’m ready to do well on the test!”

Prepare for Test Taking

You can take a number of steps to learn more about upcoming tests and exams.

Find Out about the Test.

Ask your instructor what format the test will have, such as essay, multiple-choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, or short-answer questions. Ask how long the test will last and how it will be graded. Ask whether all questions will have the same point value.

Design an Exam Plan.

Use the information about the test as you design a plan for preparing. Build that preparation into a schedule of review dates. Develop a to-do list of the major steps you need to take to be ready. Be sure that you have read and learned all the material at least one week before the exam. That way, you can use the final week to review and prepare for the exam. The week before the exam, set aside a schedule of one-hour blocks of time for review and make notes on specifically what you plan to accomplish during each hour.

Join a Study Group.

Joining or forming a study group is one of the most effective strategies for doing well in college, especially in preparing for exams. You can benefit from different views of your instructors’ goals, objectives, and emphasis; have your study partners quiz you on facts and concepts; and gain the support and friendship of others to help sustain your motivation.

Some instructors will provide time in class for the formation of study groups. You might also choose to approach classmates on your own. Otherwise, ask your teacher, adviser, or campus tutoring or learning center to help you identify interested students and decide on guidelines for the group. Study groups can meet throughout the term, or they can just review for midterms or final exams. Group members should complete their assignments before the group meets and prepare study questions or points of discussion ahead of time. If your study group decides to meet just before exams, allow enough time to share notes and ideas.

Get a Tutor.

Most campus tutoring centers offer their services for free. Ask your academic adviser, counselor, or campus learning center about arranging for tutoring. Many learning centers employ student tutors who have done well in the same courses you are taking. These students might have some good advice on how to prepare for tests given by particular instructors. Learning centers often have computer tutorials that can help you refresh basic skills.

Prepare for Math and Science Exams

Math and science exams often require additional preparation techniques. Here are some suggestions for doing well on these exams:

  1. Do your homework regularly, even if it is not graded, and do all the assigned problems. As you do your homework, write out your work as carefully and clearly as you will be expected to do on your tests. This practice will allow you to use your homework as a review for the test.

  2. Attend each class and always be on time. Many instructors use the time at the beginning of class to review homework.

  3. Create a review guide throughout the term. As you begin your homework each day, write out a random problem from each homework section in a notebook that you have set up for reviewing material for that course. As you review later, you can come back to these problems to make sure that you have a representative problem from each section you’ve studied.

  4. Throughout the term, keep a list of definitions or important formulas (they are great to put on flash cards). Review one or two of them as part of every study session. Another technique is to post the formulas and definitions in prominent areas in your living space (e.g., on the bathroom wall, around your computer work area, or on the door of the microwave). Seeing this information frequently will help embed it in your mind.