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Top Test-Taking Tips

There's more to succeeding on tests than attending class, reading your textbooks and showing up on the day of the exam. With the right approach, you can improve your results while reducing your stress.

We've asked some test-writing experts for their best test-taking tips. Some of them might seem obvious, but year after year, many students make the same test-taking mistakes. There isn't one perfect approach to test taking, but these tips will point you in the right direction.

Preparing for the Exam

Get off to a good start: "Be organized from day one, so at the end you'll have not as much stress," says George Lerakis. He's a math and science tutor.

"I always say that you have to start preparing early -- the earlier the better. Because if you wait and you leave it, then the problems accumulate and then you don't have to tackle only the material -- there's also the psychological factor, you get stressed, and then you get disappointed."

If you realize early on that you're having trouble with the material, or that the teacher is not teaching in a way that works for you, consider getting a tutor.

Be consistent with your studying: "From day one, make sure that you study properly," says Lerakis. "By studying properly, what I mean in general is that you devote a [specific] number of hours to productive study each day, so at the end, when it's the time to have your test, you will be prepared. Because one of the main issues that most of the students have, it's that besides the material, there's also the stress factor."

Pay attention to what the teacher emphasizes: "I always advise students to... make sure that they understand the points that the teacher [emphasizes], because each teacher pays attention to particular concepts," says Lerakis.

"So make sure that you understand what your teacher wants you to know -- those things will probably be on the tests or on the exams."

"Your instructor has presented the course in a certain way," says academic coach Kate Lloyd. "And they have certain themes, certain topics, certain subtopics. And frankly there are certain answers that they want from you. So to be able to read your instructor and know what type of answer he or she wants from you is key. That can come also just from hints in class. A lot of teachers and professors will drop hints, like, 'This is really important for the exam,' or 'Know this, this is going to be on the test.' So they need to listen for those types of cues that the teachers are giving them."

Carefully review the course outline: "Make sure that you understand what's the purpose of the course," says Lerakis.

This might seem obvious, but course outlines are a great way to see what your teacher and your school think are the most important concepts. It's also a great way to make sure you haven't overlooked any key points. Contrary to popular belief, no one's trying to trick students into not knowing what a course is all about.

"The reasonable teacher, the reasonable school, will make sure that the test or the evaluation process insists on the points that they ask the students to concentrate on," says Lerakis.

Practice retrieving the material from memory: "I find a lot of my students will study by just rereading or just rewriting their notes, copying elements from the textbook to create their notes, and just recopying, recopying, rereading, rereading," says Lloyd. "Ultimately, it may be sufficient to pass, but it's not going to be sufficient to really excel on the test. So I really try to get my students to start to put in some quizzing, some mock tests.

"What should be happening is, when they're creating their study notes, they've identified themes and topics and now they're moving to creating their study notes from memory," Lloyd adds.

"They paraphrase their lecture notes, their textbook information, so that they're actually putting the study notes in their own words, in their own voice, they're pulling from memory. They're then using the materials to study from -- not just reading them but quizzing themselves. Flash cards [are an] awesome way to engage with the materials."

Lloyd says there are cool websites that let you quiz yourself and create your own flash cards. "The whole point [of this approach is] that we're engaging with the materials in a different way, we're forcing ourselves to pull the answers from memory, so that ideally ... by the time we get to the test, our brains are used to pulling the materials out," says Lloyd.

Consider practice tests: This is especially important for standardized exams such as the ACT and SAT. They have a particular format that it's helpful to become familiar with.

"Take practice tests in advance," suggests Sue Mortenson. She's the owner and lead instructor of a tutoring company in Naperville, Illinois. "Know what that particular test is going to be like and what format the questions are in."

The Day Before the Exam

Treat your body well and be consistent: "I think it's very important to sleep well before the test," says Lerakis. "You have students that try to learn things the last day, so they don't sleep well or they sleep very little. I think that's a mistake.'

"If you have no options, if you haven't studied, you can do it, but... eat healthy, exercise," Lerakis adds.

"The day before the exam, try to have a little bit of exercise. It helps to relieve stress. And, in general, don't do any unusual activities the day before the exam. Let's say you never eat a specific food -- don't do it the day before the exam because you might be allergic. Try to do things that you do on a regular basis. Don't try new things the day before your test."

Don't leave anything until the last minute: "Have everything set out the night before," says Mortenson. "Your two No. 2 pencils, your calculator, or whatever you're allowed and want to bring with you, especially if it's the type of test like the ACT or SAT [where] you have to actually show your registration data. Have whatever ID such as driver's license or your student ID. Some of them require a picture. Know in advance what you have to have with you, and set it out before the morning of the test."

Day of the Exam

Fuel up: "Don't go in with an empty stomach," says Mortenson. "Have a good meal beforehand. It should include protein and some amount of carbs, but not a lot. If you know you'll have a break during the test, bring a bottle of water and bring some high-energy snacks.'

Don't cram at the last minute: "At least an hour before your exam, never study... because the risk of finding something that you don't understand is much higher, so this will produce stress," says Lerakis. "That risk is much higher than the benefit of getting something... that will be helpful during the exam." Instead, do your best to just relax in the hour before the exam. Get some fresh air and maybe listen to some music to get you in a positive frame of mind.

Read the instructions, and each question, carefully: "First, make sure that you understand the questions," says Lerakis. "If you have any doubts, ask the person in charge."

Try not to second-guess yourself: "One common mistake is to go back and change answers simply because you have extra time at the end of the test," says Mortenson. "You have to be able to explain to yourself why you are changing that answer, and if it's replacing a first hunch with a second hunch, do not do it."

Don't be afraid of a "penalty" for guessing: Mortenson says many students are overly fearful of tests that take away points for wrong answers. This makes them too reluctant to make guesses.

"Too many students have fear instilled in them when they hear, 'penalty for guessing,'" says Mortenson. "And I hear of too many test-prep providers who are telling students that you have to eliminate at least two answers on a penalized test before guessing, and that is wrong. That is too conservative. Do not be afraid to guess. In the long run, it's not going to hurt you. Question by question it may hurt you, but in the long run it's not going to hurt you."

Manage your time: "Let's say it's an hour test -- don't spend more than five minutes on a problem that you can't do," says Lerakis. "Just go to the next one. In the beginning, do the problems that you feel comfortable (about), and leave the ones that you have problems with [for] the end. Because... let's say you start concentrating on problems that you don't know how to do -- you waste your time and this will increase your stress during the test, which is even worse. And always leave some time at the end... to review everything, to make sure that you don't have any mistakes."

"Some students don't keep track of time, and then when the proctor says stop, that comes out of the blue," says Mortenson. "I have students wear watches... They reset it to the top of the hour at the beginning of every test, and that way they'll always know how much time has elapsed, and it will not come as a surprise to them when the proctor says stop."

Lloyd suggests making sure you're moving at a consistent pace during the exam. "They might want to put the time at the top of the page each time they turn the page over, just to ensure that they're not taking too long and that they're mindful of the time.

Pay attention to how much each question is worth: "People don't approach the tests with... time management in mind," says Lloyd. "[They] plunge right in and they attack each question and they're so sincere in their approach that they want to give each question their best without actually stopping to consider how much the question is worth. So they'll spend too much time on a question that's worth, say, five points, and then they run out of time for the question that's worth 25 points."

Don't give up: "Never give up," says Mortenson. "Especially students who are doing a penalized test [sometimes] think, 'I've blown that. I can't continue.' Never give up. A good portion of the answers that you guess and a good portion of the answers that you have hunches about, or are not sure about, do turn out to be correct."

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