I finished two exams today, 15% and 25% in final grade weightage respectively, scoring 100% in one using only 1/3rd of time allotted and expecting a similar grade for the other with close to 1/3rd of my time to spare.
What did I do and what else could I have done to excel in those tests? I compiled these test-taking strategies and a preparation checklist to help you drive through your school/college year with incremental results.
This is not a compilation of every cliche in the test-preparation handbook. Sure, I’ve mentioned a couple basic strategies too but I’ve also gone in depth with some things you might have never heard and attempted to provide you with some secret state-of-the-art strategies to get those A’s and Z’s (sleep.. not a Z grade.. if that’s a thing)!
Table of Contents
- (1) Long Before The Test
- (2) A Day Before The Test
- (3) During The Test/Exam
- (a) Manage Your Time Well – No Test Is Designed To Be Incompletable
- (b) Should You Stick To The First Answer That Came To Your Mind?
- (c) Adopt an Answering Priority During The Test/Exam
- (i) Common Priority Strategies
- (ii) Special: Hard-Start Jump To Easy Strategy
- (iii) Answer All The Questions
- (4) Test-Format Specific Strategies
- (5) The Right Way To Reflect On Your Test/Exam Score Once You Receive It
- (6) Test Preparation Checklist
Long Before The Test
- Know your course/subject schedule.
- Prepare for the coming tests accordingly – don’t leave stuff for the last moment.
Check out my comprehensive guide on how you can maximize your learning efficiency over here: Beating the Illusions of Competence in Learning and Learning Efficiently
- Know what chapters are going to be covered in the coming tests.
- Be aware of important parts and those that you can give relatively minimal attention to. Also stay informed regarding omitted sections.
A Day Before The Test
Hopefully this isn’t the time where you’re starting to study or visiting the relevant material for the first time. But if it is, worry not cause I still have you covered. In case you’re not the type who’s preparing just the night before, click here to skip the last-minute emergency guidelines and hop back to your track.
Preparing For A Test The Night Before
- Assess what you already know and create a priority list of what you should focus on now if the content is too much and cannot all be covered in one night.
- Develop your priority list of topics on the basis of:
- What is easy to cover in the limited time you have; and
- The segments that you can score the most with. Ideally, you’d want to prioritize the content that you can cover to maximize your scores and learn in the least amount of time.
- Understand the testing pattern and think accordingly.
Is your test an MCQ? a fill in the blanks? essay-based? or is it calculation-based? or is it a mix? Identifying this will help you develop not just the priority list but how you study as well.
For example, if it is an MCQ test, you would not want to spend much time thinking of how to explain certain concepts, which keywords to write, or how to derive certain equations as those would be features important for an essay or calculation based test rather than an MCQ.
The Day Before The Test if You’ve Been Preparing In Advance
- In the process of studying, you might come across certain segments that are too easy and obvious as well as the contrary. Keep preparing a list of difficult concepts as “to revisit.” On the day before your test, prioritize familiarizing yourself with this list and then use the remaining time to brush up on easier content, or practice questions.
- Make sure you have the necessary materials for the test:
- If you’ve made any chits or cheating strategies, make sure you hide them well so you don’t get caught. I’d recommend the bottom of your dustbin shredded to pieces, so well hidden that you wouldn’t find it either.
- For online exams that use dedicated softwares, make sure your software is up to date so you don’t get surprised 5 minutes before the exam.
The Importance Of Sleep Before an Exam
Studies show that getting enough sleep has benefitted students with higher scores in contrast to sacrificing hours of sleep to go over material their sleeplessness makes them forget the next day. GET. ENOUGH. SLEEP.
Just because you’ve heard an advice 500 times does not mean it is cliche and ineffective. There’s a reason it is repeated!
(Unless you’re told to rote learn or other learning stigmas)
The coin stack shows how much you already know and the coins unstacked is the material you haven’t covered the night before the exam. If you tried to hurriedly place those coins in your knowledge stack by sacrificing on sleep, you’d collapse the entire stack and forget even what you already knew.
During The Test/Exam
Manage Your Time Well – No Test is Designed To Be Incompletable
- If you can see all the questions at the ease of a scroll – go through them first. Allot some reading time to get a sense of the content you expect.
- You’ll see the number and types of questions, create an average time plan accordingly. If you take extra time on one question, finish another one(s) quicker to cover up.
- If back-tracking is not allowed – Keep looking ahead and don’t let your thoughts wander back to questions you can’t revisit.
Should You Stick To The First Answer That Came To Your Mind?
You must’ve heard: “always go after your instincts”, “don’t overthink too much and stick with your answer”, yada yada yada. But, the first flaw is the generalization of this recommendation. A study has shown that whether or not you should stick your first thought depends on your confidence. I’ve developed a tiny framework to help you assess this.
Should I rely on my first thought when answering this question?
My first instinct says the answer is: ______.
Do you feel confident with this answer?
- If mostly yes and assuming that you have read the question correctly, you should stick to this answer.
- If mostly no under the same assumption, you can consider switching to a different answer with reason.
Leveraging this framework to your advantage
If possible, note your confidence next to the questions on a 1-5 scale so when you revisit this during revision before submission or post-result revision, you can analyze and find patterns between your correctness and confidence levels. You will be able to answer the following questions:
- Are my first instinct correct answers a result of my study and confidence?
- Are my first instinct wrong answers a result of lack of confidence?
- Did I get most first instinct answers wrong despite being confident about them? Does it hint towards an illusion of confidence and misjudgment?
- Based on the previous (#3), does it show that I misunderstood certain concept(s) and need to restudy them?
- For the questions I was did not change to my second thought about and got wrong, is this because of an endowment bias (hesitation to let go of the first thought because you develop an attachment to it because it is your first thought) that prevented me from switching the answer?
Understanding yourself is key to performing better on your tests.
Adopt an Answering Priority During The Test/Exam
Common Priority Strategies
- Easy first.
- Difficult first.
- More scoring first.
- In-order because you’re too prepared and cool for strategizing.
Hard-start jump to easy Strategy
You know how the moment you exit the exam hall you suddenly remember the answer to a question you spent a lot of time thinking about or realized that you wrongly interpreted a question? Psychology can explain why that happens and you can take advantage of this phenomenon to ensure you get all your answers while attempting the test!
Start working out a solution for a difficult question. After making progress, switch to another question and finish that. Then return to this and make more progress, and switch to another again. Repeat this process till you eventually finish.
“But why Amaan? Why should we go on this wild goose chase?“
I’m glad you asked. This process alternates between your focused and diffused states of mind. When you are stuck on a question, you tend to think harder for a solution. But that won’t work because what you actually need is a shift of your mind to its diffused mode which you can trigger when you jump to an easy question after making some progress.
While you solve easy question(s), your subconscious mind also works out a solution for the difficult one. That is why the moment you exit an exam hall, you remember the answer to a question you couldn’t remember during the exam – the exiting of the hall triggers a shift of your mind to its diffused mode, something you did not leverage during the exam.
I’d recommend practicing this a bit on your own if you’re scared about leaving adequate space and encountering confusions during the paper.
Answer all the questions.
Even if filling in answer spaces just for the sake of answering feels like the picture above (assuming you don’t get negatively marked for wrong answers), make sure you answer it because the worst that can happen is nothing!
Test-Format Specific Strategies
How to ace the multiple choice questions
- Pay careful attention to the wording of the question – don’t let your instructor trick you with the power of words!
- Look for extreme words (always, never, etc.). Out of 100000 examples, if even one counterexample exists for an option, it becomes incorrect so watch out for those terms.
- After reading the question, try to answer or devise a method to find the answer before reading the options.
- Follow elimination. Focus on what options can NOT be the answer as well as trying to find the right one (if it’s an economics question asking about price or production, and one of the options is in negative, you know that option is off the table).
How to ace the true or false questions
- Looking for counterexamples, as stated in tip #2 of MCQ strategies is a key for true or false questions as well. Studies show that questions which use extreme words are usually false as it is easy for counterexamples to exist.
Test Result Reflection
Revisit your correct answers too, not just the wrong ones.
We already know what we do – either plan how we’re going to relocate ourselves with a new identity to a foreign nation or go over our mistakes, clarify doubts, and fill in those gaps for future tests.
But sometimes we write answers we are not sure of, but we won’t leave those blanks empty either. When answering MCQs and T/Fs, we sometimes find the answer by eliminating other options or guessing. These strategies don’t show that we know, but are educated guesses and test-strategies. If a question popped up in a different format, you are likely to be unable to answer it.
For that reason, when going over your result, also go over your correct answers and not just the wrong ones. That way, you reinforce existing knowledge and learn new things by revisiting your guesses and confusions.
Test Preparation Checklist
- Did you make serious efforts to understand the content? Just finding relevant worked-out examples or speed reading solutions doesn’t count.
- Did you work with your peers on homework problems or check your solutions with others?
- Did you attempt to solve questions before working with peers or looking at the answers or reaching out to your instructor?
- Did you participate actively in homework group discussions, contributing ideas and asking questions?
- Did you consult with the instructor or teaching assistants when you were having trouble with something?
- Did you understand all your homework problem solutions when they were handed in?
- Did you ask for doubt clarifications for the concepts and questions that were not clear to you?
- If you had a study guide, presentation(s) or anything similar, did you carefully go through it before the test and reasonably convince yourself you could do everything on it?
- Did you attempt practice question papers or questions?
- Did you create a mock test for yourself to test your time management?
- If there was a review session before the test, did you attend and ask questions?
- Lastly, did you get a reasonable night’s sleep before the test, ate and drank well?
So that’s part of my studying strategy journey and I hope this helps all of you. Remember one thing, you can be given ample amount of resources and read even the best strategies out there, but you won’t see results till you devise your own plan, deliberately act on it, and modify it to tailor your specific needs. All the best!
If you have any strategies that yield good results, feel free to mention it in the comments below, I’d love to hear it from you! If it’s something AWESOME, reach out to me personally and I’ll edit it into this post with due credits.
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This was really the most comprehensive guide on exams, wish I saw it before.
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I’m so glad it helps! Yup, the earlier the better. But now is better than later too. I wish you all the best for your future exams and tests!
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