Exam Study Tips

Below are some helpful hints for succeeding on exams, starting with the five day test preparation plan.

Count down to the test:

  • Day Five: Organize
    Organize and review your class notes and text notes carefully. Prepare a list of all topics that will be on the exam. List them in order of importance so you can focus your attention accordingly.
  • Day Four: Review and Recall
    Review your notes thoroughly. That is, until you can recall all of the important information. Concentrate on the topics that are more difficult for you to remember. Use mnemonic devices or visualization to help you recall more effectively.
  • Day Three: Rewrite
    Briefly rewrite all important information. Review these notes repeatedly. Trying to recall your own explanations will be more effective than trying to recall what the text and your professors have said.
  • Day Two: Question
    Make a list of questions that might be on the exam and answer them in as much detail as possible.
  • Day One: Prepare
    Review your notes and rewritten notes a few hours before the exam. Take time to relax before the exam. If you are afraid you will forget information or "blank out" when you receive the exam, write reminders on the back that you can come back to during the exam.

Essay exam hints

1. Think differently about the material. Students are conditioned from an early age to think in terms of discrete facts and 'correct' answers rather than looking for the relationships which are characteristic of essay answers. One of the first steps toward improved essay answers is to adopt a different perspective on the nature of what is to be learned from the material presented and read.

  • Integrate material from class to class and unit to unit. Each time you begin a new topic, ask yourself questions like:
    • How does this topic compare with/relate to what has gone before?
    • How is it different? How is it similar?
    • Why is it included in the course? Why at this point?
    • What are its main points, its strengths, its weaknesses?
    • How does it apply to the overall goal of the course?
  • Write your own sample essay questions for each lecture or reading assignment.
  • Rather than focusing on the conclusions alone, focus on the process so that you begin to understand how conclusions are reached.

2. Study the material differently. Studying for essay exams is much different from studying for objectively scorable exams.

  • Create outlines of readings and lecture notes which emphasize the relationships among the ideas.
  • Draw concept maps - visual diargams of how terms, principles, and ideas interconnect.
  • Paraphrase or create an executive summary for each reading or lecture.

3. Write structurally sound answers.

  • Preview a list of key words used in essay questions and what they imply in terms of answer content and structure.
  • Give yourself opportunities to practice writing essay answers. Examine the structure of the answers.
  • Learn how to use algorithms for answering typical question types. For example, a prototype answer for a "compare and contrast" item might always include two points of similarity between the two concepts and two points of difference. Develop generic outlines or concept maps for common types of questions into which you can plug the specifics of the topic.
  • Learn time-management techniques for essay writing, for example, scanning all the items and parceling out an appropriate amount of time to spend on each according to weight or importance; spending a few minutes outlining an answer before writing, or having a checklist for quickly evaluating answers before completing the exam (such as "did you answer the question?" "are the transitions clear?" "is evidence provided for each assertion?" and so on).

Objective exam hints

  1. Avoid Exam Panic! If you are well-prepared, you are not likely to block or panic on exams. Plan ahead so you're truly prepared.
  2. To be well-prepared:
    1. attend class consistently
    2. read all assigned material, preferably using the SQ3R method(pre-read)
    3. take good class notes, preferably using the Cornell Method
  3. You should start preparing for exams on the very first day of classes!
  4. What To Study ...........
    1. Focus on key terms, definitions of these terms and examples that clarify meaning--(boldface, italics, charts, diagrams, etc.)
    2. Be aware of enumerations (lists of items) found in your notes or text. These lists can be the basis for an essay question.
    3. Points emphasized in the text and lecture/class.
    4. Questions on past quizzes and tests or questions at the end of textbook chapters.
  5. Getting ready..........
    1. Be prepared to memorize a certain amount of material.
    2. Ask your instructor what kind of items will be on the test.
    3. Be sure to review carefully all the main points presented in the class.
    4. Make up practice test items. (This way you will be getting into the rhythm of taking the test and you may even be able to predict some of the questions the instructor will ask)

Taking the exam

  1. Answer all easier questions first. (Put a check mark beside more difficult ones and continue working through the test.)
  2. Go back and spend remaining time with more difficult questions you have marked.
  3. Answer ALL questions! Guess if you must; by doing so, you are bound to pick up at least a few points.
  4. Ask the instructor to explain any item that isn't clear.
  5. Circle or underline the key words in a difficult question. This strategy can help you untangle a complicated question.
  6. Take advantage of the full time given and go over the exam carefully for possible mistakes.

Multiple choice hints

  1. You may not always be given a perfect answer. You must choose the best answer possible.
  2. If you can write on the test, cross out answers that you know are incorrect.
  3. Read all possible answers, especially when the first answer seems correct.
  4. With difficult items, do the following:
    1. Read the question and then the first possible answer. Next, read the question again and the second possible answer and so on until you have read the question with each separate answer. Breaking the items down this way will often help you identify the option that most logically answers the question.
    2. Try not to look at the answers when you return to difficult questions. Instead, supply your own answer and then look for the option which is closest to your response.
  5. If and when you must guess (which should NOT be often):
    1. The longest (most complete and inclusive) answer is often correct.
    2. If two answers are similar, except for one or two words, choose one of these answers.
    3. If two answers have similar sounding words (intermediate-intermittent), choose one of these answers.
    4. If the answer calls for a sentence completion, eliminate the answers that would not form grammatically correct sentences.
    5. An answer in the middle, especially the one with the most words, is often correct.
    6. If two answers have opposite meaning, one of them is probably correct.
    7. Answers with qualifiers, such as generally, probably, most, often, some, sometimes, and usually, are frequently correct and true.
    8. Answers with absolute words, such as all, always, everyone, everybody, never, no one, nobody, none and only, are usually incorrect or false.
  6. Make up practice test items. (This way you will be getting into the rhythm of taking the test and you may even be able to predict some of the questions the instructor will ask)


The following words are commonly found on test questions. Understanding them is essential to success on these kinds of questions. Study these key words thoroughly. Know them backwards and forwards.

  • ANALYZE - Break into separate parts and examine, discuss or interpret each part.
  • COMPARE - Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences. (See CONTRAST).
  • CONTRAST - Show differences. Set in opposition.
  • CRITICIZE - Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism often involves analysis.
  • DEFINE - Give the meaning, usually a meaning specific to the course or subject. Determine the precise limits of the term to be defined. Explain the exact meaning. Definitions are usually short.
  • DESCRIBE - Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities, and parts.
  • DISCUSS - Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and Contrast.
  • ENUMERATE - List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.
  • EVALUATE - Give your opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
  • ILLUSTRATE - Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
  • INTERPRET - Comment upon, give examples, describe relationships. Explain the meaning. Describe, then evaluate.
  • OUTLINE - Describe the main ideas, characteristics, or events. (Does not mean "write a Roman numeral/letter outline.")
  • PROVE - Support with facts (especially facts presented in class or in the text).
  • STATE - Explain precisely.
  • SUMMARIZE - Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.
  • TRACE - Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.