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Test Taking Tips

General Tips for Test Taking | Multiple Choice Tests | True/False Test |

Short Answer Tests | Essay Exams | Open Book Tests | Oral Exams


General Tips for Test Taking


Derived from the Study Guides and Strategies web site at, which is authored, developed, and maintained by Joe Landsberger.

Modified with permission by Ursula Waln, Interim Director of Student Support Services at Peru State College, November, 2005.


Study regularly throughout the term.
Regular reinforcement of the course material vastly reduces the amount of “cramming” necessary before exams and dramatically improves retention. Cramming puts information into short-term memory. Regular study puts it into long-term memory, so you actually learn something in return for all your effort.


Analyze your past test results.
Each test can further prepare you for the next test by giving you an idea of what kinds of questions to expect. Use your previous tests to review when studying for comprehensive final exams.


Get plenty of sleep the night before the exam.
If you are well rested, your mind will be alert and sharp and you will be better able to recall the information for the test. Most people do best with eight hours of sleep per night. If you try to get by with less than seven hours per night on a regular basis, over time it will affect your mental functioning.


Eat healthful foods in moderate portions during the hours prior to the test.
Avoid loading up on sugary foods and beverages, as this is likely to impair your concentration. Also, avoid having very heavy meals just before exams, as this is likely to make you drowsy.


Arrive early for tests.
Show up a few minutes early so that you can relax and focus. Bring all the materials you will need such as pencils and pens, a calculator, a dictionary, and a watch.


Be comfortable but alert.
Choose a good spot, free from distractions, and make sure you have enough room to work. Maintain comfortable posture, but don't "slouch."


Stay relaxed and confident.
Remind yourself that you are well-prepared and are going to do well. If you find yourself anxious, take several slow, deep breaths to relax. Avoid talking about the test to other students just beforehand; anxiety is contagious, and other students’ approaches to the material may only serve to disrupt your own mental organization and confuse you unnecessarily. Tell yourself that everything will be alright. Avoid letting the importance of any exam get blown out of proportion. Usually, doing poorly on an exam is only a temporary setback, not the end of your educational prospects, and it is not a reflection of your worth as a human being. It is only a test of your learning and recall at a given point in time. 


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Multiple Choice Tests


Multiple choice questions usually include a phrase or stem followed by three to five options.


Improve your odds, think critically:

  • Cover the options with your hand, read the stem, and try to anticipate the answer. Then, select the option that most closely matches your answer.

Strategies to answer difficult questions:

  • Read the stem over again as you consider each option. Treat each option as if it were a true-false question to rule out those that are false.
  • Eliminate options you know to be incorrect. If allowed, mark through them.
  • Be skeptical of options that don't fit with the stem grammatically.
  • Be skeptical of options that are totally unfamiliar to you.
  • Be skeptical of options that contain absolute terms (e.g., always, never). If you can think of any exceptions, the statement is probably false.
  • Favor options that contain qualifiers (e.g., sometimes, usually, or rarely). These are likely to be true. (See more under True/False Tests.)
  • "All of the above:" If you know two of three options are correct and you can’t rule out the other(s), "all of the above" is a strong possibility.
  • Options containing numbers: If you have to guess, toss out the high and low and consider the middle range numbers.
  • Pay close attention to "look-alike options"
    When you have two options that look almost identical, one of these is likely to be the correct response;
  • Eliminate options that mean the same thing. If you have two differently worded options that mean the same thing and only one option can be correct, then both are probably wrong.
  • Double negatives: Create the equivalent positive statement to evaluate.
  • “Echo options:” If two options are opposite each other in meaning, chances are one of them is correct.
  • If two options seem correct, compare them for differences,
    then refer to the stem to find your best answer.
  • If you have to guess (and you know there’s no penalty for guessing), choose either the longer of the middle options or C. More often than not, the correct answer is nestled between the others (usually in third place) and contains more words.

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True/False Tests


Every part of a true sentence must be true.

  • If any one part of the sentence is false, the whole sentence is false.

Pay close attention to negatives, qualifiers, absolutes, and long strings of statements:

  • Negatives can be confusing. If the question contains confusing negatives, reverse one negative and decide whether that altered sentence is true or false. If it is true, its opposite, or negative, is usually false (and vice versa).
  • Qualifiers are words that restrict or open up general statements.
    Words like sometimes, often, frequently, ordinarily, and generally open up the possibilities of making accurate statements. They make more modest claims, are more likely to reflect reality, and usually indicate "true" answers.
  • Absolute words restrict possibilities. Words like no, never, none, always, every, entirely, and only imply the statement must be true 100% of the time and usually indicate "false" answers.
  • Analyze sentences part by part. For long sentences with multiple parts (such as lists or joined clauses), pay attention to the "truth" of each phrase or clause. If one is false, the whole answer is false.


  • Most (though not all) true/false tests contain more true answers than false answers, so if you just have to guess, you’re usually better off guessing "true."

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Short Answer Tests


Short Answer tests (fill-in-the-blanks and short essays) require that you be able to recall specific information and terminology, not just recognize it when you see it. Therefore, preparation and memorization are key. Go over your notes and the assigned reading:

  • Prepare thoroughly. Study off of summary sheets that are packed with information within condensed space. Try to categorize and memorize the material.
  • Read the questions carefully and use grammatical clues. If you can think of several answers, reread the question more carefully for hints. Seek clarification if necessary.
  • If you don’t know, give it your best guess. Guessing could get you more points than leaving an answer blank. However, don't be a smart aleck, as most instructors don’t take kindly to flippant answers.
  • Write your short answers in simple, telegraphic sentences. Packing in as much information as you can is more important than literary style.

Adapted from Walter Pauk's How to Study In College

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Essay Exams


Before writing out the exam, plan ahead:

  • Note whether you have any choice in answering questions.
  • Budget your time. If six equally weighted questions are to be answered in sixty minutes, allow yourself only seven minutes for each to leave time for review.
  • Note the points per question. If questions are weighted, prioritize that into your time allocation for each question.

Read through all of the questions:

  • Write key words for your initial thoughts in the margin as you go. Answers will come to mind immediately for some questions. Record the ideas before you forget them, but don’t start composing responses until you have read all the questions. This will reduce "clutching" or panic (anxiety, actually fear which disrupts thoughts).
  • Pay attention to how the question is phrased and to the directives: words such as compare, contrast, criticize, outline, etc. Know in advance what these directives require of you.
  • Before attempting to answer a question, put it in your own words. Now compare your version with the original. Do they mean the same thing? If they don't, you've misread the question.

Think before you write:

  • In the margin, make a brief outline for each question. Then number the items in the order in which you will discuss them. If you should run out of time before you get back to the question, you may get some credit for the outline.

Compose your answers:

  • Start with what you know. Answer the easiest questions first.
  • Get right to the point. State your main point in the first sentence. Use your first paragraph to provide an overview of your essay. Use the rest of your essay to discuss these points in more detail.
  • Develop your argument. Back up your points with specific information, examples, or quotations from your readings and notes. Most instructors are influenced by compactness, completeness and clarity of an organized answer. Writing in the hope that the right answer will somehow turn up is time-consuming and usually futile. To know a little and to present that little well is, by and large, superior to knowing much and presenting it poorly--when judged by the grade received.
  • Qualify answers when in doubt. It is better to say "toward the end of the 19th century" than to say "in 1894" when you can't remember whether it's 1884 or 1894. In many cases, the approximate time is all that is needed.
  • Summarize in your last paragraph. Restate your central idea and indicate why it is important.
  • Keep moving. When the time is up for one question, stop writing, leave space, and begin the next question. The incomplete answers can be completed during the review time. If you run out of time, it’s better to have incomplete answers than blanks. Six incomplete answers will usually receive more total credit than three complete ones.
  • Review, edit, and correct if you have time. If you’re running out of time, outline your remaining answers to maximize your chances of receiving at least partial credit.

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Open Book Tests


In an open book exam, you are evaluated on understanding rather than recall and memorization. You will probably be expected to:

  • Apply material to new situations
  • Analyze elements and relationships
  • Synthesize, creating or inferring structure
  • Evaluate, using your material as evidence

Do not underestimate the preparation needed for an open book exam: your time may be limited, so the key is proper organization in order to quickly find data, quotes, examples, and/or arguments you will use in your answers.



  • Keep current on readings and assignments in class.
  • Prepare brief, concise notes on ideas and concepts being tested.
  • Include in your notes your own commentary on the information. This will provide fuel for your arguments and help demonstrate that you have thought this through.
  • Anticipate questions. Challenge yourself regarding how you would answer questions and what options and resources you may need to consider.
  • Supplement your studies. Use chapter summaries and/or any available online materials provided by your text book publisher to guide your focus to the key points.

Organize your reference materials, your "open book":

  • Carefully select what you intend to bring with you to the exam.
  • Make your reference materials as user-friendly as possible so that you don't lose time locating what you need.
  • Familiarize yourself with the format, layout and structure of your text books and source materials.
  • Organize these with your class notes for speedy retrieval. Index ideas and concepts with pointers and/or page numbers in the source material. (Develop a system of tabs/sticky notes, color coding, concept maps, etc. to mark important summaries, headings, and sections.)
  • Write short, manageable summaries of content for each grouping.
  • List out data and formulas separately for easy access.

Test taking:

  • Read the questions carefully to understand what is expected.
  • Make good use of time. Quickly review the number of questions and note how much time each could take. First answer the questions that you are confident of and/or for which you will not need much time checking out the resources. Leave more complex and difficult questions for later.
  • Don't over-answer. Aim for concise, accurate, thoughtful answers that are based in evidence.

Derived with permission from
The Centre for the Development of Teaching and Learning,
National University of Singapore

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Oral Exams


The oral exam is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your knowledge, your presentation/speaking skills, as well as your ability to communicate. It can also be good practice for job interviews!


  • Ask your instructor what will be on the exam.
  • Study. If you do not study, you should not expect to do well.
  • Write out questions you expect to be asked. Then practice answering in front of a mirror and/or with friends, family members, or classmates.
  • If you use computing, projection, or media systems, practice with the equipment the day before the exam. Verify operation an hour or so before the test if possible.

The Exam

  • Be professional! Create a good impression. Dress well and appropriately, turn off cell phones and pagers.
  • Arrive at the location a few minutes early. This will allow you to collect yourself and check out the situation. This is a time for relaxed focus, not cramming or review.
  • The exam begins the minute you walk in. Give the instructor all of your attention. Look interested and smile! Keep good posture and eye contact
  • Stay focused through the interview. Be an intelligent listener as well as talker.
  • Do not ramble. If you do not know an answer, state directly that you do not know the answer and ask if you could outline how you would find the answer, solve the problem, or the method you would employ.
  • Maintain your self-confidence and composure. If you feel the interview is not going well, try not to let on. The interviewer may be challenging your ability to remain composed under pressure.
  • Answer questions with more than "yes" or "no." Use two or three key points or examples to demonstrate your knowledge.
  • Watch for signs that the test is over. If the interviewer looks at the clock, moves the chair back, or completes a set of questions, look alert.
  • Thank the instructor when the exam is over.

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