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Test taking strategies

Improve your performance by using strategies specific to each stage of the exam.

Before the exam

Minimize unnecessary stress

Test taking is stressful enough as is it. Last minute scrambling can add unnecessary stress and can result in starting an exam late.

Way in advance of the exam

  • Meet with your professors at the beginning of each quarter to work out the details of all testing accommodations.
  • If you are using the DRS Testing Center, make sure to review all the Testing Center deadlines so that you schedule your exams in time.

Tip: Study in the location where you will take the exam. Research suggests that this can boost your recall on the exam. It can also help reduce test anxiety. We can often accommodate study sessions at the DRS testing center so if you are taking a test with us, reach out: or 206-221-9117!

Right before the exam 

  • Gather the supplies you’ll need during your exam the night before (ie. pencil, calculator, etc.).
  • Arrive early.
  • Avoid talking to other students about their test anxiety immediately before the exam. Emotions can be contagious. Instead, take some deep breaths, go to the bathroom one last time, move your body a bit, and repeat some positive phrases to yourself.

Give your brain a boost

Sleep is essential to optimizing concentration and memory. Movement and nutrition are also fundamental to performing your best. They all take time. It’s tempting to sacrifice them in order to spend more time studying. However, doing so could negatively impact your performance. We have some information specifically on how sleep relates to performance so you can make informed decisions about how you prioritize your time.

When you receive the exam

Do a brain dump before you read anything on the exam. Limit yourself to two minutes to complete the brain dump.

  • Write down all the formulas, dates, names, key points, and/or concepts that you want to remember.
  • Write down a couple reminders on how to read questions, manage test anxiety, or move on when you get stuck.

Skim the exam and come up with a plan

  • Look at how many questions are on the test and figure out how you want to divide up your time.
  • Make sure to leave a few minutes at the end of the exam to review questions you’ve flagged.
  • Decide if you are going to start with the easy to answer questions first or tackle the ones that are worth the most points.
  • If you see problems that you don’t know how to answer, take a deep breath and reassure yourself that you’ll probably understand them once you’ve had a chance to re-read the question a few times.

When you are answering questions

Read each question carefully. Read one sentence at a time and pause to make sure you understand it before moving on.

Circle and underline key words. Key words include the central ideas or concepts being asked about (i.e. “cell division,” “freedom of speech,” etc.) as well as any important instructions (i.e. “list three concepts,” “explain,” “justify,” etc.).

Re-read confusing words. Some words make questions more confusing to understand. Circle these words and reread the sentence several times to make sure you understand what is being asked. Sometimes taking the word out of the sentence and seeing how the meaning changes can help you better understand what is being asked.

  • Qualifiers/Modifiers (i.e. most, least, always, never)

Example: You can always see a rainbow when it rains. (True/False)
Your brain may see “rainbow” and “rain” together and quickly connect them. However, the “always” in this sentence is very important. It’s true that we see a rainbow when it rains sometimes. But other times, we don’t. Therefore, we don’t always see a rainbow. The statement is false. Make sure you’re on the lookout for “always” and “never.” They show up a lot.

  • Negatives (i.e. not, none, un__, dis__, etc.)

Example: Squirrels do not eat acorns. (True/False)
You may find it easier to answer the question by removing the “not”. This allows you to read the sentence as “Squirrels do eat acorns.” This statement is true. Therefore, when “not” is inserted back into the statement, the answer becomes false.

Break down multiple-part instructions. If the question or instructions have multiple parts, write a number next to each part of the test item. Then make sure you answer each part.

Example: Explain cell division in plants and then compare this process to cell division in animals. Make sure to list both similarities and differences.
This test item has three parts: 1) explain concept, 2) similarities, and 3) differences. Breaking it down into parts allows you to focus on each part one at a time while making sure you remember to answer all parts.

When you get stuck

Consider the question from the instructor’s point of view. What knowledge do they want you to demonstrate? Are there concepts that they have stressed over and over again that could relate?

Write out all the steps and then tackle each step one by one. Under time pressure, it’s easy to skip important steps. Take a moment to slow down and write down each step you need to take. Then perform each step one at a time. Quickly double check each step before moving on.

Mark the question and move on. Have a system for indicating questions you need to revisit. It can be hard to move on when you don’t have an answer. However, spending more time on a problem often does not mean you will get the correct answer. It does mean that you will have less time to work on other problems, and this could result in a lower score. Reassure yourself that you’ll come back to marked problems with your remaining time and move on.

Manage anxiety. Getting stuck can activate test anxiety. Visit our page on test anxiety for strategies on how to cope.

Immediately after the exam

Take a break. Even if you have more work or exams that you need to complete on the same day, your brain needs to rest before tackling other cognitively demanding tasks. Move a little, eat some food, connect with a friend, or do something relaxing.

Sometimes it’s hard to shift gears when you’re worried about how you performed on a test. Keep in mind that once an exam is over, there’s not a whole lot you can do that will be productive until you have more information about how you performed. Continuing to expend energy worrying can prevent you from resting and making needed progress in other areas. For tips on managing post-exam anxiety, visit our page on test anxiety.

When you do get your exam back, we’ve also got suggestions for how to boost your performance in the future by reviewing your answers.