Test-Taking Tip: How to Review an Exam Before You Take It

We all know the feeling; sitting there anxiously awaiting the teacher to come by your row of desks and hand that stack of tests to the person in front. You watch that stack get smaller and smaller as it gets closer to you until finally, you have it. Thoughts are racing through your mind about how well you studied that last set of notes or whether you should have looked into that math tutoring. The second you place that exam in front of you and pass the rest of the pile to the student behind you, a deep breath is taken and you are ready to dive in. Nervous or confident, you just want to get started so you can finish quickly and get the heck out of there. 

Diving right in isn’t always a good thing, however – especially in this case. Immediately scribbling away from question to question in numerical order can sometimes hurt you. Why? Because you have no idea what lies ahead on the exam. For all you know, the first ten questions could be the hardest and the remaining twenty are right up your alley. But if you waste the first half hour of the period working through those first ten, you will have missed out on a great deal of time that could have been spent excelling on the simpler ones. You may also want to check out this test-taking tip: how to clock out other test takers.

The more specific concept of time management, though, is a different discussion. Reviewing the entirety of an exam before starting in on it is important for a number of reasons.

Appropriating Your Comfort Level: Regardless of the outcome, you’re going to be content with the fact that you scanned the entire thing first. It’ll result in you a) knowing the whole thing is going to be a breeze, b) feeling the bear of a challenge coming on, or c) accepting the balanced mixture of good and bad that is most tests. Even if it ends up making you more nervous, at least you’ll know upfront rather than gradually getting more freaked out as the minutes pass. Getting continuously worked up as you go page by page will only lead to more time being spent agonizing over your next steps. By getting a solid idea of what is expected of you first-thing, you’ll have the correct attitude needed to approach and work through the test adequately. 

Knowing Where Hints/Help Can Be Found: Some teachers overlook the fact that accidental clues have been worked into their exams as they wrote them up. For instance, the factual context given for one question may be the answer you need for another question, or at least a really good tip-off. The answer to a true/false question that you’re absolutely confident about could help you determine the information needed to solve another problem. Of course, giving the test a quick initial run-through is the most efficient way to spot these unintended hints. Sure, you can always discover them little by little as you go through the test in order, but that can involve a lot of flipping back pages and erasing scantron bubbles that you just don’t have the time for. Become familiar with which questions have details in common before you begin so you know the areas to check as you go along. Avoid having to do the search later and identify these small open-book substitutes immediately.

Determining Your Method of Attack: We touched on this with the time management mention, but this is in more direct reference to the order you will follow. Why follow the questions in the order they were given just because they happened to be written out that way? All that matters is that in the end, you have completed them all to your best ability. Honestly, most people cannot ace a test by doing everything in the given order. If your strength is short answer questions, jump into those and give them all you’ve got before you do anything else. If multiple choice is your weakness, save it for last. If you’re working through a particular section – whether it’s your strong suit or your flawed area – and you get stuck on one question, move onto the next one and come back! Whenever you find yourself taking slightly more than the average amount of time on one problem, move on. Maneuver around the test as efficiently as you can – within sections, bouncing between sections, etc. Treat it like a puzzle where you look at everything you’ve got and put together the most obvious pieces first. Eventually, you will be left with only those questions, or pieces, you were stuck on (which hopefully won’t be too many) and you’ll have the remaining time to dedicate solely to them. A successful plan of action is truly the way to go if you want to draw up this kind of perfect progression. You may also want to check out these tips on how to mentally prepare for test day.

So, before you start racing your pencil down those pages, calm yourself and momentarily review what you’ve got ahead of you. Of course, remember not to spend too much time on this preparation practice. Make sure you do not get too distracted and end up throwing away more time by overly-planning your attack method. Keep this time short and useful; the beneficial aspects will roll right in.