This article was originally written for, now a part of

Part 4 of our Study Skills Series. 

Whether it’s a quiz or an end-of-semester, cumulative exam worth 90 percent of your overall grade, we all suffer from a little test anxiety now and then. And we’ve all experienced a time when we didn’t do our best on a test. Guess what! We also all survived those moments and learned something valuable from them. Taking tests in college doesn’t have to be a nail-biting experience; in fact, there are some small tips that you can practice that will make the experience enjoyable … or at least less nerve-wracking.

Practice Makes … It Easier to Remember What You Studied

Athletes do it, musicians do it, surgeons do it and anyone who has to perform does it: They all practice what they will do to prepare for when they have to do it “for real.” The same should be true for students who are taking a test, especially one that leads to an important outcome such as a grade, entrance into a program or completion of a degree requirement. Practice doesn’t mean just memorizing facts or rereading the textbook, however: recent studies on memory have reported that students who practice retrieving information by taking practice tests are more likely to remember the information they need for the actual test. If your test contains multiple-choice questions, practice taking multiple-choice tests of the material; if your test contains essay questions, practice writing out essay answers in a timed environment.

Action Step

Ask if your professor if he or she has any practice tests you can use or create your own from the material in the class. Set aside the same amount of time you will have for the real test and practice answering the same types of questions.

Come Clean

Some of your professors may be very clear about what they expect during a test, while others may assume you know all the unwritten rules of academic integrity. A general rule to follow is to completely clear your test-taking space  of anything that would even remotely look like a way to cheat. This means that phones, computers, tablets, books, notebooks, scratch paper and even water bottles should be removed unless you get explicit permission that they may stay. You will also want to put away any technological accessories such as earbuds and phone earpieces before you begin.

Action Step

Before the test, ask what materials, if any, are needed. Bring the required materials and only those. Pack up your cell phone and computer if they are not being used to take the test.

Read the Directions Carefully

We all are familiar with true/false questions, but are we prepared to answer them by rewriting all false statements as true? Don’t take for granted that you will have “been there, done that” types of question. College tests often ask you to go beyond basic comprehension of a topic, to think about it critically and respond to it. Also, be sure that how you answer a question is what the directions call for. If you see the words “in a paragraph” or “in an essay,” you will know that sentences—many of them—will be needed. If you see the words “create,” or “draw” or “illustrate,” you will know that a diagram or picture will be needed. Likewise, if the directions call for you to provide a number of responses—for example “list five ways pollination can occur”—then you should be sure that you include all of them.

Action Step

Read all the directions for each section before answering any questions. Get clarification from your professor if you are unsure of how you are supposed to answer. Review your answers to ensure that you followed the directions before you turn in your test.

Pace Yourself

Few things cause more anxiety in college students than having to rush through the last questions on a test because they were not aware of the time. Be attentive to how much time you have and how you want to spend it. If there is an essay question, and you find that type of question the easiest to answer, you may want to start with the essay. If there is a problem-solving section that will help you answer other questions later, work on that section first. Tackle questions with answers that you know for sure early on to build your confidence for tougher questions. There is no need to get stuck on a question or problem and let time tick away. Save it for later and move on to questions that you can answer with certainty.

Action Step

Divide the amount of time you have to complete the test among the sections of the test. Give yourself two to three minutes to read all the directions, skim the questions and choose what you will do first, and reserve at least five to 10 minutes at the end to review your answers. Allocate more time to sections that are more difficult or are worth more points.

Remember to Breathe

Breathing is always good. Deep breathing is even better if you need to relax a bit before diving into your test. And remember to smile—even if you feel like crying or screaming inside. Smiling tricks your body into releasing endorphins, which will help you feel calmer. While you cannot control what is going to be on the test, you can control how your body reacts to the experience of taking a test.

Action Step

Before you begin the test, take a few deep breaths and smile. Repeat throughout the test if necessary.

The bad news is that tests will be an important part of your experience in college. The good news is that you will get better at taking them! Not only will you learn how to master the material, but you will also learn how to use effective test-taking techniques to earn the highest grade possible.


What test-taking strategies have you picked up that help you earn a better grade?

Part 2 of our Study Skills Series.