Have you ever watched Olympic divers? They walk up to the diving board like perfectly machined cyborgs, focus absolute. There’s nothing to suggest they’re freaking out even though ten years of hard work is going to come down to a two-second dive.
I mean, no pressure, right?
They spring off, do a bajillion twists and turns before they hit the water, and ... plip! Not even a tiny splash as they enter. The crowd goes wild.
And the diver climbs out, their expression still cyborg-perfect calm, ready for the next round.
Divers are the perfect example of flawless test technique. The rest of us mortals usually come nowhere close. Unfortunately, tests and exams are how performance is measured in most academic subjects so they’re unavoidable.
- If you have a feeling of impending doom when you walk into a test room;
- If you’re as jittery as a cat that’s spotted a gecko on the wall;
- If you get night-before-exam nightmares in which you turn up to the test without your pants;
- And if you usually spend the first few minutes of your test in a cold sweat, heart-pounding, and butterflies tearing up your stomach ...
... then these techniques will help.
In fact, they’ll really help.
You’re about to learn 22 test-taking strategies that will keep you cool, calm, and collected so you can perform at your peak on exam day. The strategies fall into the following categories:
- Preparing 2-3 days before your test
- Strategies for the exam room
- Test-taking strategies to master your mindset
- Essay writing strategies
- Strategies for multiple choice exams
- Finishing your test
- What to do if you're drawing a blank
- Test debriefing
Note: These are strategies you can do in the days leading up to an exam to help you ace it. But you should start studying weeks if not months before. We highly recommend you check out our huge guide on how to study effectively.
What follows is a stage-by-stage rundown, from 2-3 days out from your exam, up to when you write your final word down on that paper and walk out the room feeling 100 pounds lighter. Following these tips will ensure you live up to all the hard prep work you’ve put in, and ace it like an Olympic diver on test day.
Preparing 2-3 days before your test
The last two to three days before your test is a crucial period. There’s a lot you can do in this time to make sure you hit the test in peak condition: mentally and physically.
Strategy 1. Ramp up your studying and get efficient
Ideally, you've been studying a little bit every day for months; habits are how you maximize learning. But ... sometimes we mess that up and don't start until a few days before.
Don't mess up the 2-3 days before your exam. The 2-3 days before the test is the best time for you to really integrate your knowledge. You’re going to put all the things you’ve been learning into a form your brain can access lightning-fast during your exam. Here’s how to do this:
- Do practice exams. The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, it’ll show you where your knowledge is lacking. Secondly, it’ll familiarize you with the exam format, so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises on test day.
- Use the Feynman Technique. Basically pretend to teach your topic to someone who knows nothing about it. This gets your brain to utilize free recall, essentially putting concepts together from scratch in a way that will make sense to your listener. This is a powerful way to cement your knowledge.
- Hunt down your knowledge gaps using Brainscape flashcards. Brainscape is the perfect tool for studying during the last few days before a test. The algorithm helps you uncover areas of weakness and, using spaced repetition, helps you to work on these until you have them mastered.
In addition, the Brainscape mobile app allows you to make use of those in-between times—when you’re on a bus, or waiting for a class—to do a targeted five-minute study session.
Strategy 2. Sleep well the night before your test
Many students think they’re best served by using the day before the test as a ‘last push’ to learn everything they need to know. They stay up late cramming, fuelled by Red Bulls and anxiety.
The truth is that any knowledge you attempt to cram into your brain late at night is unlikely to stay there. What you’re essentially doing is forcing this information into your short-term memory. It tends to evaporate within a few hours.
You’re far better off making studying a regular habit so that everything you need to know will be stored safely away in your long-term memory by the time you take your test.
The bottom line: whether you’ve studied enough or not, you’re still better off having a good sleep the night before a big test. This is because sleep-deprived brains don’t work very well.
Sleep is the time when your brain clears toxins accumulated throughout the day. When you deprive your brain of sleep, you’re essentially asking it to fire on all cylinders when it’s still clogged with waste from the day before.
One study showed that sleep-deprived people performed about as well people who were high on marijuana, which is far from ideal when you’re trying to operate at your mental peak.
So, late-night cramming is useless in two ways: (1) you won’t remember what you cram, and (2) you deprive your brain of valuable recharging time.
The right strategy for the night before a big test is to go to bed at a reasonable time. If getting to sleep is a problem for you, there’s some great calming sleep apps to help with this. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is another good sleep aid.
Remember, there are different types of rest. Even if you’re having difficulty getting your brain to sleep, your body will be resting. Keep going with a calming breathing exercise and your brain will eventually switch off and get some sleep as well.
Strategy 3. Eat well the day of your test
If you follow our advice up until this point, you’ll likely wake up feeling well-rested on the morning of the test. The next step is to have a good breakfast. This means slow release carbohydrates and proteins, and steer clear of anything packed with sugar.
Sure, sugar gives you a great burst of energy. However, quite soon after the rush, your body produces insulin to get your blood sugar under control and reduces orexin, which keeps us up. High insulin and low orexin has the effect of making you feel sleepy. So you get a peak of sugar-high energy, and a corresponding trough where all you want to do is curl up in a corner and sleep. Not great for a 1-3 hour exam.
A breakfast of slow-release carbohydrates and protein will supply your body and brain with a steady feed of energy throughout the day. If you have a morning exam, breakfast is all you need to worry about.
[See our complete guide to optimizing your brain health for peak performance.]
The same rules apply for an afternoon exam—make sure your lunch consists of slow-release carbohydrate foods (if many carbs at all). If possible, have lunch at least 1-2 hours before your test. Most people have an energy dip right after lunch, where resources are being diverted towards digestion so timing your lunch properly will help avoid this.
And, finally, if you have an hour or two free before the test, this is a great time to run through some last-minute flashcards in Brainscape. This will strengthen your existing memory pathways, and get your brain ticking over the body of knowledge you’ve covered to ace this test.
Strategy 4. Show up ready and on time
Plan to arrive at least half an hour before your test. You don’t need the stress of missed buses, traffic jams, or St Patrick’s Day carnivals to throw you off your game. Use these tips:
- Make sure you’ve allowed plenty of time to find your exam room, and know beforehand exactly what you’re allowed to take into the test with you.
- Avoid others. When you get to your test room, treat any stressed-out fellow students like they have the ebola virus. Stress is contagious, and no matter your state of preparation, you’re better off staying in your own headspace.
- Ten minutes before the test, go to the bathroom, just in case. (There’s usually a rush to the bathroom five minutes before, so you can miss that.)
And then, relax.
Take a Stoic viewpoint. You’ve arrived at the test; the die is cast. No matter what you could have or should have done, you’re here now, and you can’t change the past. Maybe you studied every day, maybe you didn’t. Now is the time to do your best, regardless. Your best is all you can ever do. Stress is only going to compromise your ability to think clearly so accept reality and do the best you can with the knowledge you have.
In the last few minutes, when you’re sitting at your desk waiting for the time to begin, try a relaxing breathing technique.
Now, visualize. Visualize yourself calmly completing each question of the exam, feeling confident and creative.
The big secret to visualization is this: our brains are designed to focus on things. Whatever you’re thinking about, that’s where your focus will be. Seems obvious, right? What this means in practical terms is that if you’re trying to suppress panic and NOT think of drawing a complete blank when you see your test paper ... that won’t work.
Your brain won’t NOT think of things. It takes whatever you’ve imagined and runs with it. (Quick test—don’t think of a green elephant. You just did, right?)
Knowing this, focus on what you want. Think of yourself being calm, able to easily concentrate and remember what you need to know. Visualize yourself completing the test, neither hurrying nor lagging. Smooth and continuous.
Strategies for the exam room
Now you're sitting and actually writing the test. Here's how to maximize your score.
Strategy 5. Listen
Remember the last time you listened to safety instructions before you flew somewhere? No?
We all do it: completely ignore safety instructions on an airplane in favor of checking out what movies we can see or what’s for dinner.
Don’t do this for your test. When you enter the room, listen to the instructions of the examiner. Most of the time they're routine, but sometimes there will be a change. You should know this from the outset and not in the last five minutes of the exam.
Or even worse: during a test post-mortem with your fellow students.
Strategy 6. Brain dump
If there are any facts or formulae you’ve been struggling to remember, (E=MC^2!) do a quick brain-dump on some scrap paper when you’re first allowed to write. This takes the information out of working memory and ensures your brain is freed up to do its best work.
Strategy 7. Make your time plan
Do a quick tote-up of the sections of the exam, how much it’s worth, and how long approximately you can spend on each section.
For example, say the test has three sections. Section A is twenty points, Section B is twenty points and Section C is sixty points. This means for a two-hour exam, you’d allocate roughly 20 minutes for sections A & B, and 65 minutes for Section C. This leaves you 15 minutes at the end to go over your work, look for errors, and find opportunities to improve.
You need to keep track of this running total as you go along to make sure you’re not running out of time.
It’s a good idea to start with the easy topics you know well. This builds confidence and gets you into your flow state, leaving you more time to tackle the harder sections.
Test-taking strategies to master your mindset
The key to getting an A is having the right mindset and staying focused. Here are some test-taking strategies to optimize concentration and thinking.
Strategy 8. Silence the inner critic
Especially at the start of your test, be on the alert for the voice of “the inner critic”. You know the one: that annoying negative voice in your head that says things like “I don’t have nearly enough time to answer all these questions!” “That last essay I wrote was rubbish!” “I’ll never pass this!” etc.
This voice can become very loud if you’re feeling anxious while taking a test. The first step to blocking it out is to recognize and name it. Say: “Hi inner critic, I see you, welcome to the exam. Please take a seat and hold your comments for the end, thank you!” Once you’ve addressed it, you can redirect your attention to the task in hand.
Remember, you don’t have to believe everything you think.
Just because the inner critic is wailing about how little you know on a subject, doesn’t mean it’s true. Think back to a time you took a test and you were sure you’d done terribly. But actually, your scores were fine. Most people don’t self assess well when they’re under pressure.
Your best move is to recognize and then ignore this voice, and get on with your exam.
Strategy 9. Breathe properly
Stress breathing is when you breathe quickly and shallowly, primarily using your upper chest. It’s an inefficient way to breathe, and is used typically when you need to escape from a physical danger.
The problem with stress breathing during a test is that it sends a signal to your lizard brain—your primitive brain, which is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and (ahem) fornication—that you’re in danger. Your lizard brain did not evolve to help you ace tests. It evolved to help you stay alive in a world full of things that wanted to eat you. So when you start to stress breathe, it does the only thing it knows how to do: it turns on your fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response is great if you’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger or a crocodile. It’s not great when you’re trying to remember in what year the French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille.
Fight and flight mode shuts down your higher thinking functions, floods your system with adrenaline, and primes your body to do things like run fifty yards really fast to get away from danger. Not really useful attributes for writing an exam.
And you’ll know you’re stress breathing if your heart is racing and you feel light-headed, dizzy, or like you can’t get enough air.
If this happens, slow down your breathing. Put one hand on your tummy, breathe all the way out until you can’t anymore and then breathe in slowly through your nose. This makes you switch to diaphragm breathing, which calms your body down, alleviating the body’s stress responses.
How do you know when you’re doing diaphragm breathing correctly? When you breathe in, the hand on your tummy will move outwards. When you breathe out, this hand will move inwards. Count slowly to ten while you do a few calm diaphragmatic breaths, then continue your test.
Diaphragm breathing will make you feel calmer and more clear-headed. And your calmed brain will probably go ahead and retrieve for you that historical moment when fiery revolutionaries stormed the Bastille and started chopping off heads.
Essay writing strategies
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln
Abe’s advice may be a little over-the-top for writing an essay. That said, even a few minutes to prepare before starting to write can be the most valuable time you’ll spend.
Strategy 10. Read the question carefully
The first step before you start the essay is to read the question carefully.
This sounds obvious, but actually many students skim the question and immediately plunge into answering it. This can be a mistake, as there may be important nuances in how the question is phrased that you’ll need to address in your essay.
Imagine the question, "Compare and contrast Churchill’s strategy with Chamberlain’s leading into WWII."
If you dive headlong into answering the question without looking for both similarities and differences—and not just differences as you might think if you skim the question—you’ll lose precious marks.
The best exam essay answers the question. To answer the question, you have to read it carefully.
Strategy 11. Plan your essay
It may feel like wasted time, but it's NOT.
A minute or two spent planning how best to answer a question (and how you intend to structure your response) will make your job much easier. It'll ensure that your essay has a logical structure and it'll be quicker to write. Always plan first.
Strategies for multiple choice exams
Strategy 12. Know the rules about guessing
Always check the rules before you start a multiple-choice test.
They’re usually set up in one of two ways: you either get penalized for wrong answers or you don't.
- If you’re penalized for wrong answers, don’t guess. Just leave questions you’re not sure of.
- If there's no penalty for wrong marks, guess. Leave some time to come back to questions you weren’t sure of and give them your best guess. At worst, you won’t get the mark, at best, you’ll get lucky and score.
If there is no penalty, never leave blank answers. As Michael Jordan said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Strategy 13. Don’t second-guess yourself
In multiple-choice, the first answer that comes to mind (as long as you have done some study) is probably right.
And more often than not, if there's a random question that includes "All of the above" as an answer choice, that's likely to be the correct answer. (But not if that option exists on all the questions.)
Strategies for finishing your test
Strategy 14. Make the best use of your time as you finish
There’s three positions you’ll be in at the end of the test. You’ll either be:
- Finishing with 5 to 15 minutes left for a quick revision of your work.
- Finishing with a LOT of time to spare.
- Running out of time, and not sure whether you’ll finish before the clock.
Each of these positions requires a different strategy.
1. Finishing with 5 to 15 minutes to spare
If you’re writing essay questions, check your introductions and conclusions. These are where you can make the most impact. Put yourself in the shoes of a tired examiner who’s had to mark thirty similar essays that day.
Look for ways to make yours stand out. A strong conclusion is particularly impactful due to the recency effect, meaning humans recall the most recently presented information best. So even if you lost your way a bit during the middle, a strong, clear conclusion will help carry you through.
For multiple choice tests, check for any questions you missed. Avoid the temptation to redo questions you’ve already done, unless you’re 100% certain.
2. Finishing with a LOT of time to spare
As much as you may want to rush out of the exam room and erase the test from all memory, don’t. Having a lot of time at the end of a test usually comes down to one of these three reasons:
- You’re a total ace, and know the answers like your ABC’s.
- You’ve totally flunked, and have no idea what subject you were meant to be studying. Are you even in the right exam room?
- You’re pretty well prepared, but you’ve missed some vital information, and need to play catchup.
If you’re in category one or two, there’s not much to be done. Sorry, you’re on your own :)
Category three though, can be a heartbreaker. So let’s make sure you’re not about to throw your exam because you’ve misread the instructions or skipped a section.
Firstly, check your exam paper for any pages that may have become stuck together, hiding questions you’ve missed.
Secondly, if you’re writing essays, check the required length of the answers to make sure you haven’t shortchanged yourself there.
Thirdly, check if all the page numbers are sequential in the exam, and you haven’t been accidentally given a test paper with missing pages. Look for any inserts or added sections that may have fallen off your desk or become mixed up in your own writing paper.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll either be writing frantically to finish an essay in time, or you can smile, sit back and put yourself in the first category.
3. Running out of time
If you’re running out of time for essay questions, it’s okay to jot down your thoughts in point form. You’ll likely still get credit for them. After all, the aim is to demonstrate your knowledge, and most examiners will give you marks, even if your sentences aren’t complete.
For a multiple-choice test, first check you won’t be penalized for wrong answers. Then, do a lightning round of filling out the first answer that springs to mind. Give yourself a reasonably short time for each question, and GO!
Remember to check your breathing. Being in a tearing hurry is more likely than anything else to set off stress breathing, which then shuts down your brain’s frontal cortex. In this instance, you need to go slow in order to go fast. (Weird, right?)
A few seconds spent taking slow, relaxed breaths will set you up to do a sprint at full brain power, without the surge of adrenaline which leaves you thinking hard, but coming up with nothing.
What to do if you're drawing a blank
If you sit down to start your test and discover your mind has gone as blank as a Zen monk after a year-long silent retreat, here’s are a few tips on getting the engine started.
Strategy 15. Label what you’re feeling
Emotions can be overwhelming in times like these. When you label them, you put them outside yourself and make them more manageable. i.e. “I’m feeling anxious because I can’t remember anything about quadratic equations.” This can have the effect of diffusing the emotion.
Strategy 16. Do the easy questions first
Scan the questions until you find one you definitely know the answer to. Sometimes you just need a few easy questions under your belt before your brain kicks into gear and you go into flow.
Strategy 17. Breathe and stretch
Our body and mind are connected. If you're blanking, try using your body to get those mental juices flowing. Take 30 seconds to focus on your breathing and gently stretch your body. Relaxing can help you re-concentrate on the exam with better focus.
Strategy 18. Write something down
Anything. Just get the pen on paper. Often this can serve as a cue to get your neurons firing.
Strategy 19. Take a bathroom break
A change of scenery and moving around can help to take your brain out of whatever panic loop it’s gotten caught up in.
Strategy 20. Take some perspective
Remember that however dire the consequences of failing a written test are, they are never fatal. You’ll be okay in the end, and if you’re not okay right now, it’s not yet the end. Sometimes a quick change in perspective can give you the shift you need to relax and get your brain into gear.
One of the best ways to prepare yourself for future tests is to reflect on the one you just wrote. Do that now: take the time to do a good post-mortem and set yourself up for future success.
Strategy 21. Avoid the people who'll make you feel bad
Once you’ve uncramped your fingers and stretched your neck out, it’s fine to catch up with fellow students.
If you can, though, avoid a detailed post-mortem with friends who took the same exam. They’ll either be freaking out about question 6.2A, or smugly superior. Either way, it’s generally not that helpful. There’s nothing you can do now about your test. It’s done, and nothing (short of a midnight break-in to the examiner’s office) can change that.
Strategy 22. Do a self-assessment
That said, it’s a really good idea to take thirty minutes that evening or the next day to sit somewhere quiet and do a self-assessment of your test. This is about you improving on your overall performance, and it’s the kind of analysis that will help you do well on future tests.
Think about what you did well and what you could have done better, not only in how you answered questions but also in your exam mindset, study habits, and overall enjoyment of the subject.
The test you’ve just completed may be one in a series on a topic, in which case Brainscape flashcards are a great tool going forwards. Using the platform, you can build your knowledge in an easy-to-edit, transportable format. The Brainscape spaced repetition algorithm will mix new knowledge in with subjects you’ve already mastered so your learning progresses at an optimal rate.
Taking a step back in your assessment, are there any learnings you could apply to other exams going forward? To how you study? To how you choose your subjects?
This kind of reflection is valuable, both for future performance and as a life skill. From Socrates to Ben Franklin, this kind of self-study puts you in good stead for lifelong learning and will improve your test-taking strategies.
Make these test-taking strategies a habit
Now you know the test-taking strategies of top students. While building strong study habits is essential to a high test score, good exam technique is also key.
Training these techniques until they become habitual will put you in good stead for all future tests. Like an Olympic diver, good technique becomes habit and habit becomes nature.
Practice these test-taking strategies often enough, and you too will become a test machine, acing each exam with cyborg-like precision. Almost scary, really ...
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