Examinations are a fundamental (and often stressful) component of the contemporary college experience. Prospective undergrads can expect to take dozens of tests and quizzes between now and graduation day. The format and style of these exams vary by subject, level, and instructor. The most successful college students learn to adapt their test-taking and studying strategies accordingly.
We’ve broken down the different types of exams found on college-level examinations and assembled a few of our favorite tips for approaching different testing material and improving studying comprehension. The bottom line is simple: there is no substitute for thorough, thoughtful studying.
Types of Exams and Questions
First, we’ll discuss different exam formats you are likely to encounter as a college student. Let’s begin by listing some effective strategies and tactics that will help you excel during any exam, regardless of structure.
1. Manage your time: Since the majority of your college exams must be completed within a certain time frame (typically the length of one course day), you need to ensure every minute is effectively used. According to an article by U.S. News & World Report contributors Jeremy S. Hyman and Lynn F. Jacobs, you should make a “tentative plan” as soon as your professor hands out the exam forms. Note the number of questions, point values, and any optional sections. Then you can determine how much time to devote to each question. “Don’t waste too much time outlining your answers, writing down formulas you’ve memorized, or (when given a choice) starting a question and then stopping and starting another question,” the article notes. “You’re being graded on the quality of your answer, not on notes to yourself or false starts.”
By the same token, it’s important to pace yourself, especially if you are given two or three hours to complete the exam. Hyman and Jacobs suggest taking a brief break between completed sections if time allows. Also, try not to feel overly panicked if you encounter a problematic section or set of questions. “Ignore such instantaneous feedback,” they write.
Finally, avoid leaving class once the exam is over, even though your professor might allow it; if you finish before time expires, take some extra time to proofread your essays and double-check your answers to multiple-choice and fill-in-the blank questions.
2. Carefully follow all of the directions: Many students are tempted to breeze through their exam instructions in order to capitalize on the time they’ve been allotted, but an exam tutorial from St. Edward’s University urges test-takers to meticulously review all of the directions. Some exams only require students to complete a certain number of the questions or essays (as opposed to all of them), so a quick read-through could potentially save you a lot of time.
Additionally, it’s important to note the terminology of the instructions. If you are required to write an essay that “summarizes” or “outlines” a certain concept, for instance, then do not go into a substantial amount of detail; on the other hand, you should avoid over-generalized language in essays that call for you to “analyze” or “illustrate.”
3. Don’t second-guess yourself…too much: “Trust your instinct” is, according to many academic experts, a tried-and-true exam-taking aphorism. However, there are pros and cons to second-guessing yourself on the day of the big exam. You should only regard your instincts as trustworthy if you have taken the time to thoroughly study the material that appears on your exam.
Now that we’ve discussed some effective strategies for all college exams, let’s explore the three most common testing formats.
Since multiple-choice questions are found on many high school exams (as well as the SAT, PSAT, and standardized tests in all 50 states), most college students are familiar with this format before enrolling in their first batch of undergraduate courses. These questions are typically accompanied by three to six possible answers; in some cases, more than one answer may be correct. The following example illustrates a standard multiple-choice question.
Which of the following individuals DID NOT sign the Declaration of Independence?
- Thomas Jefferson
- Benjamin Franklin
- John Adams
- John Hancock
- George Washington
The definitive answer is E. George Washington. Some multiple-choice questions will be a bit more complicated, however. For instance:
Group 12 of the standard periodic table of elements contains elements that are:
- Primordial, or naturally occurring
- Trace radioisotopes that only occur naturally in small amounts
- Synthetic, or manmade, elements
- A, B, and C
- A and B
- None of the above
If the student is instructed to circle only one answer choice, then D would be considered the most correct. However, A, B, C, D, and E are all technically correct, as Group 12 is comprised of elements with each of the three occurrence properties.
Tips for multiple-choice questions: According to a study guide from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC), multiple-choice questions require students “to be familiar with a much broader range of material than essay exams do” because there are so many different answer possibilities. These questions force students to memorize key dates, formulas, vocabulary terms, and other assorted materials. You might score a few extra points from sheer guesswork, but, by and large, students should not expect to score a high exam grade by “bluffing” their way through multiple-choice questions.
The content of multiple-choice questions generally follow course reading assignments. Students are encouraged to make vocabulary flashcards, bulleted lists, and data tables that organize different terms into easy-to-understand groupings. An effective strategy when taking a multiple choice test is to:
- First,try to answer the questions before looking at your options. If you are comfortable with the material, you should be able to provide your own answer.
- Then,if your answer isn’t one of the choices, look for the answer that most closely matches your original guess.
- Finally, if your answer does not resemble any of the given choices, use the process of elimination to cut one or two options, and, from there, try to make an educated guess based on the remaining answers.
The UWEC study guide also notes that ‘All of the above’ is often the correct answer, while ‘None of the above’ is not usually the right choice. The order of the choices is also significant. “If all else fails, choose response (b) or (c),” the study guide says. “Many instructors subconsciously feel that the correct answer is ‘hidden’ better if it is surrounded by distractors. Response (a) is usually least likely to be the correct one.”
Finally, it’s important that you not waste too much time on particularly tough questions. Give yourself some time for guesswork/elimination, but if you haven’t derived an answer after a minute or so, then your best course of action is to move on. If time allows, return to the problematic question(s) once you’ve completed the rest of the exam.
At first glance, an exam question with only two possible outcomes might seem like the easiest one to answer, and students who aren’t sure how to answer a true-or-false question are much more likely to guess the correct answer. However, these questions might be more difficult to solve than they first appear. Consider this example:
True or false: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner were all part of the ‘Lost Generation’ literary movement.
The answer is false. While Fitzgerald and Stein were members of The Lost Generation movement, most literary scholars do not include Faulkner in that grouping. Here’s another example of a relatively tricky true/false question.
True or false: According to relativistic mechanical theory, kinetic energy is always calculated with the formula 1/2mv2
The answer to this question is also false. This formula is part of classical mechanical theory, whereas relativistic mechanical theorists believe this formula is only practical for relatively slow speeds.
Tips for true/false questions: Students should carefully analyze the way true/false questions are phrased. Rather than skimming over them, look for clues hidden in the question that ultimately affect the answer. These include:
- Prefixes (such as un- or non-) that might negate the statement
- Double negatives that reverse the question
- Qualifying modifiers (such as “usually” or “sometimes”) that generalize the statement
- Extreme modifiers (such as “absolutely” and “never”) that “may make a statement false that seems at first glance to be true.”
The Office of Academic Services at Providence College suggests the following approach to true/false questions: assume all of the statements are true, and then analyze each sentence for any word or phrase that makes the statement false. Remember, the entire statement is false if one part of it is false, regardless of whether the rest of the statement is true.
Multiple-choice and true/false questions are graded on an absolute point scale, meaning professors award either all or none of the points possible, depending on whether the answer is correct or not. Essay questions, on the other hand, are usually graded on a subjective point scale. This means the essay offers a maximum possible point value, and the test-taker will receive a certain number of points based on the quality of his or her writing and course knowledge demonstrated in the essay. Here is an example:
Compare and contrast the lives and careers of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. How did the backgrounds of both men influence their individual literary styles?
Tips for essay questions: The first step toward crafting a polished exam essay is to create a general outline to follow. As with other essays, exam essays should follow the “five-paragraph” format. According to an online tutorial from Capital Community College, the standard template for an exam essay is as follows:
- Introduction: A short paragraph that discusses the material in abstract terms and ends with a thesis statement that you, over the course of the essay that follows, will attempt to corroborate. This final statement is also known as the “transitional hook.”
- Supporting paragraph #1: The first supporting paragraph should include the strongest arguments, and begin with a “reverse hook” that coincides with the transitional hook at the end of the introduction. Outline the main crux of the paragraph in the first two sentences, and then proceed to back up your claim with evidence of the argument, ending with a transitional hook that leads into the next paragraph.
- Supporting paragraph #2: Fittingly, the second supporting paragraph should contain the second strongest argument. As with the first supporting paragraph, begin the second with a reverse hook that responds to the previous transitional hook, but also make sure the paragraph ties in with the introductory thesis statement.
- Supporting paragraph #3: This final supporting paragraph can contain a third argument (the weakest of the three) or a slight rebuttal that you will address before the paragraph is finished. In either case, end the third supporting paragraph with a statement that suggests this is the final main point of the essay.
- Conclusion: The final paragraph of your essay should echo the thesis statement without repeating it verbatim, and include a brief summary of the three main points without introducing any new information.
Using the essay question above, we can now take you through the thought process needed to come up with a sentence-for-sentence flow to each of the major sections of the essay.
Intro: “Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky are arguably the two most notable Russian authors of the late 19th century, and their books are still enjoyed by millions of readers worldwide on an annual basis. However, literary scholars have noted significant differences in the writers’ thematic content, prose, and literary style. These differences are likely due to the contrasting circumstances of the two men ― although the lives of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did, notably, also share some similarities.”
Supporting paragraph #1: You might begin this paragraph by noting the two authors came from relatively wealthy families. Their affluent upbringings allowed both men to study literature during their formative years, and this exposure inspired both of them to write fiction at a young age. However, only one ― Tolstoy ― had a family that supported his desire to write professionally; Dostoevsky’s parents sent him to an engineering academy, a decision he strongly protested. Notably, both men served in the Russian military, and later used their experiences as fodder for their stories.
Supporting paragraph #2: In this paragraph, you could discuss the different post-military careers of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The former went on to become a successful author not long after his stint in the Russian army, while the latter was exiled in Siberia for eight years. Perhaps as a result, Tolstoy’s novels gravitated toward Russian nobility, while Dostoevsky’s novels were more focused on criminal activities and the Russian legal system.
Supporting paragraph #3: This final paragraph might be a good place to mention the differing critical responses both authors received, both during their lifetimes and among contemporary scholars. While Tolstoy was immediately revered as a brilliant writer and is, today, widely considered one of the world’s greatest authors of all-time, Dostoevsky received negative reviews throughout his career, and his reputation among today’s literary theorists is decidedly more mixed.
Conclusion: The conclusion should reiterate that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were very different writers, despite some lingering similarities, but that both men managed to become iconic figures of late 19th-century Russian literature.
Please note that exams may call for short and/or long essays. Although there are obvious length differences between these two types, you can use the same five-paragraph template for both.
Overcoming Test Anxiety
Test anxiety is common, especially at the college level. While many educational experts argue that a little bit of pre-exam stress is fine, even a little healthy, full-blown test anxiety is a serious condition. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), symptoms of text anxiety include:
- Physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and light-headedness/faintness
- Emotional symptoms like feelings of anger, helplessness, disappointment
- Mental/cognitive symptoms like difficulty focusing, negative thoughts, and unrealistic or unfounded comparisons to other students
The most effective way to combat test anxiety is academic preparedness. By thoroughly studying all course materials, rewriting notes, creating study guides, and meeting with other students to go over test content, you will be much more confident before and after the exam. Additionally, the ADAA recommends the following strategies for staving off test anxiety.
- Hone your exam-taking skills: As mentioned above, you’re much more likely to earn a good test grade by carefully reading the instructions, budgeting your time wisely, and using different approaches to multiple-choice, true/false, and essay questions.
- Stay positive: Before taking the exam, make the active decision to be satisfied with any possible outcome. If you receive a high grade, reward yourself with a fancy dinner or recreational pursuit; if your grades are low, resolve to study harder for the next exam and adopt more effective habits without sacrificing your positive attitude. “Remember that your self-worth should not be dependent on or defined by a test grade,” notes the ADAA.
- Concentrate on the exam: Don’t let your attention drift to other students, your professor, your plans that evening, or anything else except the exam itself.
- Remember to relax: Meditation, yoga, and other activities have been shown to relax the individuals that practice them, and there are ways to calm yourself during the exam, as well. “If you feel stressed during the exam, take deep, slow breaths and consciously relax your muscles, one at a time,” says the ADAA. “This can invigorate your body and will allow you to better focus on the exam.”
- Maintain healthy habits: Many factors will influence how you perform on an exam, including those completely unrelated to your studies. These include diet, exercise, unhealthy habits (like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption), and the amount of sleep you receive each night. You can prepare in advance for major exams by eating healthy meals, getting at least seven and a half hours of sleep per night, and getting plenty of exercise in the days leading up to the test date.
- Meet with your school counselor: If your test anxiety is becoming too much to handle on your own, then a visit to your school’s counseling office might be in order. College-level counselors are trained to address common student problems like test anxiety, and these individuals might be able to provide the additional support you need to succeed.
Online Study Resources
Today’s students have a wealth of study resources at their fingertips. The following sites are designed to help students improve their study habits, reduce test anxiety, and earn high grades on exams in all subjects.
- A Guide to Testing Smart on Multiple-Choice Exams: This eight-page tutorial from Michigan State University professor Gillian Bice, Ph.D., discusses several different approaches to multiple-choice exams ― both advantageous and problematic. Dr. Bice also explores ways for students to mitigate the physical, emotional, and mental effects of test anxiety.
- True/False Exam Questions: This brief tutorial (appropriated from The Leader’s Guide for Supplemental Instruction, University of Missouri-Kansas City) consists of seven strategies for approaching true/false exam questions. These include “look for qualifiers,” “answer the questions you know first,” and “when guessing, do not change answers.”
- Writing Essays for Exams: This comprehensive tutorial from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) explores proper essay-writing techniques for different exam formats. Six different “organizational patterns” for exam essays ― definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support ― are covered in the tutorial.
- How to Study: Studying Tips for College Students: This infographic from Rasmussen College discusses some of the most effective and ineffective methods of studying for a university-level exam. Points of discussion include the optimal amount of time you should devote to studying, the pros and cons of cramming vs. long-term studying, and the disadvantages of listening to music while reviewing course materials.
- Reducing Test Anxiety: This 13-page guide from the Praxis Series is divided into three segments: ‘Recognizing Test Anxiety,’ ‘How to Cope,’ and ‘What You Need to Succeed.’
|Name of Exam||Field of Study||Exam Format||Duration||Cost||Fee Waivers?||When It’s Offered||Average Scores|
|GRE||General||Three sections: Analytical Writing (2 questions); Verbal Reasoning (50 questions); and Quantitative Reasoning (50 questions) (Source)||3 hours and 30 minutes (Source)||$195 |
|Fee reduction certificate may be available (Source)||Throughout the year (Source)||149-151 out of 170 points (Source)|
|GMAT||Business and Management||Four sections: Analytical Writing Assessment (1 question); Integrated Reasoning (12 questions); Quantitative (37 questions); and Verbal (41 questions) (Source)||3 hours and 30 minutes (Source)||$250 (Source)||No fee waivers are available through the GMAC (which administers the exam) but some scholarships award GMAT exam vouchers (Source)||Throughout the year (Source)||545. 6 out of 800 points (Source)|
|LSAT||Law||Four sections in three categories (Reading Comprehension, Analytical Reasoning, and Logical Reasoning) that count toward the final score, as well as a “variable,” or unscored, section (Source)||2 hours and 55 minutes (for all five sections) (Source)||$170 (Source)||Waivers and discounts are available (Source)||Varies by year and geographic location; 2014 LSAT exams are offered in June, October, and December (Source)||150 out of a possible 180 points; a minimum of 160 is required for admission into any of the top 25 law schools (Source)|
|MCAT||Medicine||Four sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems (59 questions); Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems (59 questions); Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior (59 questions); and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (53 questions) (Source)||7 hours and 25 minutes (Source)||$305 (Source)||The AAMC offers a fee assistance program for exam-takers with demonstrated financial need (Source)||The MCAT is offered multiple times between January and September of each calendar year (Source)||The total score ranges from 472 to 528; the midpoint is 500 (Source )|
Finally, here are a few study guides, practice tests, and other online resources to help you study for each of these four graduate-level entrance exams:
- Educational Testing Service (the organization that offers GRE exams) provides sample test questions for all three sections of the GRE, as well as detailed guides specific to both the computer- and paper-based formats.
- In addition to study guides for both English and math, The Princeton Review offers services for students who wish to obtain private tutors for the GRE, enter small study groups, enroll in a classroom tutorial course, and/or undergo a self-paced study course.
- Kaplan Test Prep provides links for both classroom- and video-based GRE tutorials, as well as sample test questions for first time exam-takers.
- Platinum GMAT offers detailed guides to all of the math and writing components of the GMAT, as well as a few sets of practice questions.
- The Princeton Review allows web users to take an online practice GMAT exam; links for brick-and-mortar practice tests are also provided.
- The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) offers several comprehensive study guides for sale on its official site; most books are relatively inexpensive, priced between $30 and $40 apiece.
- The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) offers “The Official LSAT Preptest,” which is roughly 30 pages in length.
- In addition to an online practice version of the LSAT, The Princeton Review offers links for those who wish to take a classroom-based practice exam.
- The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers detailed guides to all sections of the MCAT, including the optional trial section.
- The Princeton Review offers three options for prospective MCAT-takers: links for classroom-based tutorials and practice exams, an online version of the test, and “free access” to online diagnostic exams.