Looking for the best test-taking strategies to stop anxiety in its tracks?
Let’s imagine the ideal morning of your next exam for a moment.
It’s early when your alarm goes off. You stretch as the sun peeks through your window. Usually, you’d hit the snooze button a few times, but today you don’t. You feel well-rested and ready to conquer the day.
As you climb out of bed, you realise there’s no swarm of butterflies fluttering about in your stomach.
Instead, you feel successful and resilient. You’re calm as you eat a leisurely breakfast, chat with your parents, and head out the door. Maybe you’re not excited about the big exam, but you’re not worried about it, either.
Now you’re seated at your desk with the test in front of you.
You feel prepared. You know which test-taking skills to use if you get stuck on a question. Later, when you submit your exam, you feel fantastic because you know you did your best.
Sounds like an incredible morning, right?
But if you’re a nervous test taker, this dream scenario might sound like exactly that: a dream.
After speaking to and working with more than 20,000 students, I’m here to tell you this…
With the right tips, you can perform better on exams and overcome test anxiety, too.
Ready to learn more? Let’s explore my top test-taking strategies so you can ace your next exam.
How to improve your test-taking skills
If you want to learn how to improve your test-taking skills, start by studying the different question styles.
I go in-depth on this in The Complete Guide to Taking Tests and Exams — and reveal my top clues for choosing the correct response when you don’t know the answer.
In this article, let’s look at some tips for popular types of test questions:
Reading comprehension test-taking strategies
1. Understand story structure
You don’t remember the answer to a reading comprehension question, so you re-read the story. You start at the beginning and skim until you find the answer.
Now it’s on to the next question. You can’t recall that answer either, so you head back to the start of the passage and read until you find it, too.
Third question … same process.
Here’s the problem with this approach…
You risk running out of time by continually re-reading the passage.
Save valuable test-taking energy by knowing where to look for the answers you need.
Reading sections typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The opening sets up the story. Look here for questions about ‘when’ or ‘where’. The middle is where there’s a conflict or problem. Search here for more specific descriptions and details. The end of the passage resolves the issue or summarises the story.
2. Take notes as you read
Don’t be afraid to mark up your paper. Underline or circle key information. Recap paragraphs by jotting down a few words in the margin.
It’s great to understand the general framework of a reading passage. It’s even better if you’ve already made a note that immediately directs you to the answer.
Essay test-taking strategies
3. Make an outline
I know it’s tempting to immediately put pen to paper and let your thoughts flow — especially if you’re short on time.
But before you start your essay, take a few moments to write an outline. Even a few bullet points will keep your response organised.
4. Lead with a bang!
Don’t save your best ideas for the end of your essay. Instead, grab your teacher’s attention from the get-go.
You’ll make a lasting impression with these test-taking strategies. And, if you run out of time, you’ll rest easy knowing that at least you wrote down your best ideas.
5. Be persuasive
With a true-false type of question, your answer is either right or wrong. But essay questions are less strict. Many teachers will give partial credit if you explain your thoughts clearly.
So make a statement and back it up with compelling evidence. Don’t forget to revisit your thesis in your conclusion.
Multiple choice test-taking strategies
6. Read all the options in detail
Maybe you’re 99.9% confident that A is the correct option. Still, take a moment to review all the options. You’ll avoid silly mistakes and submit your exam with confidence.
7. Double-check your bubble sheet/scantron
You’re shading in your second-to-last answer when you realise you skipped line 11 on your bubble sheet/scantron — and now all your responses are mismatched.
With only a few minutes left, you frantically start erasing everything and shading the answers again.
Avoid this stressful mistake. Always mark your chosen answer in both your test booklet and your bubble sheet/scantron. Take the extra second to ensure your answers line up after every question.
You’ve worked hard for this — don’t let an avoidable error get in the way of a good grade.
True-false test-taking strategies
8. Watch out for negatives
Cannot. Would not. Did not.
Negative words are often misleading. You might mistake the question for its opposite meaning if you answer too quickly. Read these questions extra carefully.
9. Take a guess!
Don’t leave a question blank. This goes for any test question, but especially true-false questions since your chances of guessing correctly are 50/50.
If the clock is ticking and you don’t have time to read the remaining questions, answer ‘true’. Studies show that ‘true’ is the correct answer more than half the time.
More test-taking tips
Now that we’ve reviewed some tips for tackling different types of questions, here are some of my proven test-taking tips.
Preparing for the test
I don’t believe in last-minute study hacks. That’s why many of my top test-taking strategies are about learning to become a more effective student. Let’s get started.
10. Practise confidence
Confidence is a skill — not a feeling that comes and goes.
Confident test-takers embrace the process. They don’t get fixated on good grades.
Instead, confident test takers know that mistakes are okay, so long as they learn from them. The goal is progress, not perfection.
You might be thinking: “That sounds great, but how do I become more confident?”
Try an affirmation.
An affirmation is a positive statement about yourself that you say frequently.
“I am hardworking.”
“I am capable of getting good grades.”
“I am disciplined.”
Affirmations aren’t wishful thinking. Studies show that repeating positive statements can calm nerves, increase confidence, and improve your chances of a positive outcome.
When you feel the anxiety starting to rise, repeat your affirmation. Take slow, deep breaths.
Confidence is like any other skill — it takes practice. Give yourself time to harness your test-taking confidence, and you will see the rewards.
11. Study the right way
If you want to get good grades, you need to understand the material.
Those last-minute cramming sessions? Research says they don’t work.
Instead, set up a study schedule. Adequate planning will help you stay focused, manage your time wisely, and eliminate distractions.
Remember, just like when you’re learning how to get good grades, it’s about studying more effectively, not studying harder.
If you need help with your study schedule and planning, check out my Straight-A Student Weekly Checklist.
12. Get up and move
Want to improve your concentration, memory, and focus?
It’s time to get moving.
Just as I pointed out in my article on time-management tips for students, your brain loves exercise. Twenty minutes of activity is all it takes to improve brain functions like memory, attention span, and thinking.
Regular exercise also helps you manage stress and anxiety, which is an essential part of maintaining your mental health.
Researchers are still learning why, but one theory is that physical activity releases dopamine and serotonin, which improve your mood.
Make exercise a part of your pre-exam routine. Before the exam, take a short brisk walk or do some other form of light exercise.
Before the start of the test
It’s the day of your big exam. You’ve used the tips above to prepare. You’re visualising success and repeating your affirmations. That’s great!
Keep it going with these test-taking strategies:
13. Create a morning routine
We all have days when we’re a bit frazzled — just don’t let that morning be on test day.
A morning routine will help. Practise it every day, not just before exams. Your routine might include:
- Eating a healthy breakfast
- Doing light exercise
- Using the restroom before class
- Arriving at school 15 minutes early
What’s important is that your morning routine works for you.
14. Create an exam checklist
Like a morning routine, your exam checklist will ensure you arrive feeling prepared for your exam, without any last-minute stress.
Make a list of everything you need to bring with you for the test. For example, your list might look like this:
- List of equations
- Water bottle
15. Avoid excessive caffeine
Do you head straight for coffee or energy drinks the morning of your exam?
If you regularly consume caffeine, you shouldn’t change your routine at the last minute. But if you’re chugging that extra cup of coffee because you think it will help you focus, you might want to rethink that.
Excessive caffeine can cause anxiety, headaches, energy slumps, and jitters — all of which negatively affect your mental clarity.
Avoid consuming too much caffeine in the days leading up to your exam, too. It might help you get through your study sessions, but it can impact your sleep and energy levels come test day.
During the test
The moment is here. You’re seated at your desk, and you’re waiting for the teacher to distribute the exam papers.
Remember these additional test-taking strategies:
16. Listen to the instructions
It’s easy to zone out when your teacher is going over the instructions. After all, you’ve taken dozens or even hundreds of tests before. You know the drill.
Still, listen carefully to your teacher. You don’t want to lose points for not following the instructions. Plus, your teacher might reveal a clue or two that could be helpful during the test.
17. Stay focused — but take breaks when you need them
Your friend Jenny is already turning in her exam. Henry keeps fidgeting with his pen in the seat next to you. You look out the window and see students headed to soccer practice, which reminds you of everything you need to do before your weekend basketball tournament…
There are countless distractions during any exam, and just as you need to learn how to focus when studying, your job before taking a test is to build your concentration skills. Then, you’ll be able to focus on only your test.
That being said, if your mind wanders, take a quick break.
Check your posture. Get a sip of water. Stretch. Take a couple of deep breaths. It’s better to pause and actively refocus your attention than plough on ahead when you’re distracted.
If you find other thoughts or worries popping into your mind, write them down on a piece of paper. You’ll have plenty of time to come back to these recurring thoughts after the exam.
In The Complete Guide to Taking Tests and Exams, I share more tips on how to best manage your time during a test — including my number one trick to ensure you finish your exam on time.
18. Concentrate on what you know
Even if you prepare thoroughly, there will likely be a few questions for which you don’t know the answer.
There are test-taking strategies you can use to make an educated guess and improve your odds of answering correctly. (More on that below.)
Maintain your confidence. Concentrate on what you do know.
Skip the questions you’re unsure of. You can always come back to them later and make an educated guess.
19. Know that your teacher wants you to do well
Even that super strict teacher who loves assigning trick questions and long essays?
Yes, even your most challenging teacher wants you to succeed.
Knowing that, if you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask!
Your teacher can’t give you the answer, but they might be able to clarify the instructions. And if you have a question, someone else probably does, too.
20. Avoid talking about the exam after the exam
The bell rings. You turn in your exam and find your three closest friends. The polling begins.
What did you answer for Question 10?
What did you write about for that challenging essay question?
I know it’s enticing to learn if you and your classmates chose the same answers. But if your responses vary, it might make you more anxious than relieved.
And if you have other exams later that day or the following day? The unnecessary anxiety can throw off your concentration and performance.
When you prepare well, you submit your exam knowing you did your best — and that’s all that matters.
The ultimate test-taking guide
This article is just a sample of my proven test-taking strategies. They’ll help you to do better on your next exam, so give them a try!
But here’s what you need to know…
The tips I just covered? They’re only an introduction.
Over the years, I’ve discovered the ultimate blueprint for acing exams.
That’s why I put together The Complete Guide to Taking Tests and Exams.
The guide contains more than 90 proven test-taking strategies — and it’s a game-changer for any student who wants to perform better right away. I’m confident that if you apply these tips, your grades will improve by at least 20 to 30%.
Wishing you all the best for your next exam!