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When you get your exam back

Test taking is a skill. That means you can improve with practice. Remember, studying more is not always the solution to bettering exam scores. It’s important that your solutions match the actual test taking problems.

Figure out where to improve

How do you know what you need to change? Complete a test autopsy! This will help you identify trends in errors.

Complete test autopsies even when you perform well. It’s also important to know what’s working.

Solutions to common problems

Once you know the nature of the problem(s), try these solutions:

Careless mistakes

Read the question carefully. Avoid skimming. Try reading each question one sentence at a time, making sure you understand each sentence before moving on to the next. Underlining and circling key words can help you read more carefully.

If you are taking a multiple choice exam, cover the answers as you read the question to keep yourself from jumping ahead before you’ve fully understood the item. Then try to answer the question on your own first. Next read every option before you choose an answer. Physically cross out incorrect answers to help yourself stay engaged. Circle words like “always” and “never” to ensure that you are reading answers carefully.

Plan your work and sloooooooow down. Take a couple seconds to think about how you plan to answer the problem before jumping in. For smaller/simple problems, you may be able to “talk” through your plan in your mind. For larger/complicated problems, you may want to jot down a few notes.

Take breaks during the exam. We make more mistakes when we are fatigued or hungry so make good use of your breaks to maintain your focus. Simply taking time away from your exam does not mean you’ve used a break well. Try to do something that lets your brain relax and shift gears. Color, meditate, space out, or think about something enjoyable and unrelated to the exam. Help your body re-energize by moving and eating.

Improve your sleep. Many people are not aware of how much worse they perform with less sleep.  Sleep is a VERY BIG DEAL when it comes to academic performance. Don’t underestimate its importance.  Check out our page on the importance of sleep and how to get more of it.

Not knowing the material

Did you start studying more than two days before the exam? 


Ok, what was the reason?

I did not know that more than two days was useful: Start by checking out our pages on studying smarter.

I ran out of time: Review our tips on academic planning and time management.

I could not get started on studying: Start by coming up with a plan for addressing procrastination and increasing accountability.


My notes didn’t cover the information on the test: We aren’t born knowing how to take good notes. It takes time and some practice to learn how to take notes effectively. Check out our note taking strategies.

I’m not sure what went wrong: Studying is a skill. Like all skills, it gets better with practice. We highly recommend that you read our resources on studying to get some ideas about how you can focus your efforts.

I knew a lot about one or two areas but not enough about others: Before you start studying for an exam, take a few minutes to create a list of the main topic areas that will be on the test. Then rate how much you know about each one (1=very little, 2=some, 3=most of it). Start with your 1s and 2s so you have enough time to review them. Sometimes the hardest part isn’t knowing what you need to study but rather getting yourself to move on when you get stuck on a problem or topic. In that case, we’ve got some strategies for moving forward.

Misreading the question

Many exams include questions that are tricky to understand. If you regularly misread questions, it’s important to spend some time reviewing the question before moving on. Learn strategies to identify the key components of questions and use them consistently. This is an excellent use of an extended time accommodation.

Improve your sleep. We’ve written about it elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again here. We perform much worse cognitively when we are sleep deprived and we tend not to realize how much worse we’re doing. Sleep deprivation can occur when we get very little sleep in one or two nights. It can occur also when we chronically sleep less than 6 hours a night. Sleep is a VERY BIG DEAL when it comes to academic performance. Check out our page on sleep for more information on the importance of sleep and how to get more of it.

Not finishing

When you receive your next exam, start by skimming it first 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 time at the end of the exam to review questions you’ve flagged (if you consistently run out of time, then we recommend you leave a more significant buffer).
  • Just because you’ve figured out how long you should spend on each question doesn’t mean that you will find it easy to move on when your time is up. Use the REST model to help yourself move forward during the exam.
  • If you consistently run out of time, we recommend reaching out to your coordinator to discuss adjusting your accommodations.

If you did not finish on time because you started your exam late, then you’ll need to address the reason why you were late. We’ve got some tips for getting to things on time. We also recommend that you plan to arrive 10-15 minutes early for your exams. If you have not already been to the location where your exam will take place, make sure you physically locate it 24 hours ahead of your exam start time.