Tools: Different Exam Formats

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Multiple choice examsEssay examsTake-home essay examsProblem-type examsShort-answer examsScience examsPreparing for essay exams: Five studying stepsEssay Exams: Plan Before You AnswerInstruction words in essay and short answer questionsMultiple choice: Revered or feared?Multiple choice exam strategies (incl. the 3-Pass Method)Multiple Choice: Ready, set, go!Math and science tests

Exam Type: Multiple choice

What to study?

For explicit comprehension questions, focus on memorizing terms, definitions, facts, and concepts that can be stated in a succinct way.

For application questions, practice applying the concepts and/or procedures to new situations. Think deeper and focus on the Big Picture (this takes longer than basic comprehension questions).

How to study?

Study in short blocks (20-30 minutes with a 5-10 minute break) over many days. Review daily. Answer the study guide.

Further Resources

Three types of multiple choice exam questions

Strategies for multiple choice exams

Writing multiple choice exams: Ready, set go!

Exam Type: Essay

What to study?

Focus on the major themes of the course to get the Big Picture: think deeply to understand how the main ideas and details are related. Elaborate, compare, evaluate the materials. Generate possible exam questions and answer them in writing (or if you don‘t have time, make a detailed outline for each).

How to study?

Use mindmaps and graphic organizers which organize around the central theme. Study in longer blocks (e.g., 2.5 hours: 50 minutes, 10 minutes break, 50 more minutes). Start far enough ahead of the exam for the information to percolate in your mind.

Further Resources

Five Study Steps for Essay Exams

Essay Exams: Plan Before You Answer

Instruction Words for Essay Exams

Take-Home Essay Exams

Exam Type: Take-Home Essay Exams

Purpose: to test understanding and expression, not retention of information.

How to prepare

  • Know the prof’s expectations.
  • Anticipate possible questions.
  • Know where you can find resources (e.g., library materials, websites). Ensure all your notes are organized.
  • Organize a work schedule. Leave yourself lots of time for finishing the take-home.
  • Write a polished paper: well organized, argued, and clearly written.

Exam Type: Problem Solving

What to study?

Focus on solving problems and identifying the underlying concepts. Try to see a pattern (e.g., look for problems that cluster around the same theme to reduce the number of problems you will need to do). Practice by answering old exams, test, labs, and homework questions.

How to study?

Allow for long study sessions and breaks (2 hours with a 30 minute break).

Exam Type: Short Answer

Beware of two potential dangers!

  1. Writing too little: too general, not enough evidence. Outcome: don‘t get full marks.
  2. Writing too much: repetition, too much evidence. Outcome: run out of time.

How to prepare

  • Review lecture notes and readings.
  • Make a list of important terms and their definitions. Cue cards are useful here.
  • Relate each term to the general ideas of the course. Mind-maps help. Add supporting evidence.

How to write

Short-answer questions are organized like a main idea paragraph in the essay exam:

  1. Identify the direction word.
  2. Main idea—translate into a strong, focused topic sentence.
  3. Evidence—check how many points are assigned to guide you. 3-4 sentences with evidence should suffice.
  4. Summary Sentence—recap the gist of the paragraph.

Exam Type: Science Exams

  • Translate the problem into your own words. This will help you understand what the question requires.
  • Perform opposite operations
  • Analyze the problem before you begin to solve it.
  • Draw a picture or diagram to help you visualize the problem.

See also: Special techniques for math and science exams

Essay Exams: Five Study Steps

  1. Generate possible essay topics
  2. Write thesis statements
  3. Write 3-4 main points
  4. Organize evidence for each main point
  5. Write a few mock essay exams

1. Generate topics

Look at topics given for the course. Look at old exam questions. Look over your lecture notes and predict possible topics. Focus on areas that were given emphasis and/or repeated themes.

2. Write thesis statements

The thesis statement is your purpose, aim or argument in the paper. Identify the instruction word first (e.g., analyze, compare, etc.). This will help focus your thesis statement. For example,

Topic: Effects of globalization on the Canadian textile industry
Instruction Word: Discuss (Argument: pros/cons)
Thesis: Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly produced in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences [Argument-Against] of globalization to our local textile industry.

3. Add main points to each thesis statement

Identify 3-4 main points which defend the thesis statement. Using the example above, three negative effects might be: 1) Canadian job losses, 2) local manufacturers must keep costs down, and 3) export market suffers.

Write these main points into topic sentences. A topic sentence has two parts: topic and purpose. Usually a topic sentence appears at the beginning of a paragraph.

Determine the order for each main point.

  1. Random order: any order will do.
  2. Chronological order: there is a time line. Used for describing a process, history, etc.
  3. Logical order: one idea needs to be explained before the next can be understood.
  4. Concession order: argument or strongest points go at the end where the reader is more likely to remember them.

An example of a topic sentence on Canadian job losses: “Our textile industries’ closure led to massive job loss [TOPIC], with workers now facing poor employment prospects [PURPOSE].”

4. Organize evidence for each main point

After stating your topic sentence, add evidence/facts to your main idea. Go over your lecture notes, readings, research on the topic as if you were doing research for a term paper.

Under each topic sentence list your evidence. Listing allows you to memorize your evidence in chunks. Use memory devices to assist in retaining this information.

Types of evidence include statistics, examples, case studies, anecdotal information (use sparingly), observational notes, expert quotes, illustrations, graphs.

Here‘s some evidence for our example on job loss:

  • In Ontario 82% factories closed since 1980s
  • 50,000+ jobs lost
  • only half have full-time jobs
  • Bob Owens, CTWA representative—many long-term unemployed, not retrained

5. Write a mock essay exam

See how long it takes you to put it all together. Time yourself.

Spend most of your time on the BODY. That‘s where the majority of the marks lie. Therefore, do NOT write the conclusion first (as some would argue). Leave 5-10 minutes to proofread your writing for careless mistakes.

When finished the mock exam, self-assess the essay. Do you think it would pass?

Example: Job Losses

Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly manufactured in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences of globalization to our local textile industry. Globalization has produced three significant negative effects on our Canadian economy: massive job losses; struggling local manufacturers with poor bottom lines; and poor export sales due to high costs of Canadian made goods.

Firstly, the closing of our textile industries has created massive job loss with many workers now facing poor employment prospects: unemployment, casual, or part time work. In Ontario since the early 1980s, 72% of textile factories have closed representing over 50,000 job losses. Moreover, of these 50,000 workers, only half have found full-time, permanent jobs. Bob Owens, CTWA representative, reported that many of these workers face long-term unemployment with little hope of retraining due to age, language, and education issues. Without jobs, a cheap sweater from China is meaningless.

Secondly, in order to compete globally our remaining Canadian textile business…

Essay Exams: Plan Before You Answer

1.   Read the exam directions carefully.

Do you need to answer all the questions? Can you choose between questions?
Are there any time limits?

2.   Make summary notes on the back of the exam sheet.

Before reading any exam questions, unburden your mind by quickly jotting down on the back of your exam booklet ideas, details, formulae, sequences, etc. that you have memorized but think you might forget. This is almost like making a summary of your summary sheets! Aside from getting down your ideas, this is a positive action that gets you involved in the exam and, thereby, builds self-confidence.

3.   Plan your time.

How much time should you allot to each question?
Plan the number of minutes per question and stick to it.

4.   Read all the questions.

Before you start writing anything, read ALL the questions. If you can choose between questions, select those for which you are best prepared. As you read the instructions to the question, underline or circle key words or instruction words. For a list of instruction words, go to Instruction Words for Essays & Examination Questions.

5.   Jot cues alongside each question.

While reading each question, quickly note a few words or phrases that immediately come to your mind. Later, when you begin writing, use these jottings and those on the back of the exam sheet to organize your answer.

6.   Start with the easiest questions.

Starting with something you know at the beginning will inspire self-confidence, help you relax, and think clearly. Success begets success!

7.   Leave time at end.

Leave about 10-20 minutes at the end to read over your exam. Correct any glaring errors and misplaced ideas or words which would hamper comprehension of your answer and potentially lose you marks.

Adapted from: Wauk, P. (1989). How to Study in College. 4th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 293.

Essay and Short Answer Questions: Instruction Words

Analyze: Examine the statement or subject in a critical manner. This involves breaking the subject into separate parts and discussing and interpreting each part (e.g., cases, key factors, results, and then demonstrating how each part fits together to form the whole).

Assess: Briefly describe the subject, analyze the positive and negative characteristics, state results or consequences. Using these points to support your answer, offer an opinion or judgment on the value or the character of the subject.

Cite: Make mention of, bring forward as proof (e.g., Cite the reasons the philosopher Hobbes gives for saying that humans are inherently selfish and competitive).

Compare: Present similarities or resemblances between two things. Emphasize these similarities but also present differences (e.g., compare the British and Canadian parliamentary systems).

Contrast: State the ways in which the subjects are not similar (e.g., Contrast the Canadian parliamentary system with the American system of government).

Criticize: Make your own judgment about a subject, defining its merits and shortcomings. Give evidence for what you say (e.g., Criticize the conservative argument that NATO countries must maintain troops in Afghanistan for global security). Say what you think, why, and support your judgment with evidence.

Define: Tell the meaning or significance of the term (e.g., Define and state the significance of ‘gerrymandering’ as it applies to the Canadian electorate system).

Describe: Mention the chief characteristics of a situation or retell the central features of a story (e.g., Describe Dante‘s The Inferno).

Discuss: Give a complete and detailed presentation of the topic. Describe the subject, provide reasons on both sides of the argument or for various views held about the subject (e.g., Discuss the implications of a separate Palestinian state).

Distinguish between: Define each term to show the main differences between them (e.g., Distinguish between the following film genres: mystery and horror).

Elaborate on: Provide more specific details regarding the subject. Note the connection with or the impact of this subject on other related areas of thought.

Evaluate: Appraise the issue giving both advantages and disadvantages. Quote other sources if possible and include your opinion. Always support your opinions with evidence.

Explain: Give an interpretation of the subject which clarifies it. This may mean analyzing the causes or reasons for an event or situation (e.g., Explain the Communist Chinese government’s shift from a closed economy to a market economy).

Illustrate: Give specific examples of something which demonstrates the meaning or situation (e.g., Illustrate what is meant by ―the middle way in Buddhism).

Interpret: State the meaning in simpler terms, using your own judgement (e.g., Interpret George Bernard Shaw‘s ideas of heaven and hell in Man and Superman).

Outline: Organize your answer into main points and subordinate points. Make a short summary using headings and subheadings (e.g., Outline the wave particle duality of light).

Relate: Show the connection between the ideas mentioned in the question; how one influences the other. This does not mean compare and contrast (e.g., Relate the American and the French Revolutions).

State: Explain precisely (e.g., State the three dimensions involved in Weber‘s model of power).

Trace: Show the main points from the beginning to the end of an event (e.g., Trace the rise of Islamic fundamentalism at the end of the 20th century).

Multiple choice: Revered or feared?

Do you like multiple choice tests or fear them?

Although some students like having the possible answer given to them, many students find multiple choice questions very difficult. Why?

Interestingly, it‘s not the content that is difficult but the structure.

Why is the structure so difficult?

  1. There are many questions to answer and the topics are often scrambled and shuffled.
  2. Ideas from lectures and/or readings may be reworded in different/unfamiliar ways.
  3. Very often the question is not asking for simple recognition of ideas but asking you to go beyond straight memorization and apply knowledge from the course, make an analogy, solve a novel problem. Professors assume you are capable of memorizing details.

What are the different question types?

Type 1: Explicit knowledge question

Tests knowledge taught in lectures and texts (about 1/3 of the questions!)

Study Strategy: can simply memorize

Level of Difficulty: easiest

Type 2: Finer detail question

Asks you go to beyond straight memorization of concepts and see how the details relate to the concept. For example,

Which of the following is not related to the process of elaborative rehearsal?

  1. adding details to ideas and concepts
  2. analyzing component parts of an idea
  3. restating knowledge in your own words
  4. practicing remembering the information
  5. none of the above

Study Strategies: elaborate and draw connections between the concept and its evidence.

Level of Difficulty: Medium (i.e., more difficult than Type 1).

Type 3: “Thinker” question

Tests your ability to understand the relationship between a theory and its evidence and then apply this understanding to ―cope with a hypothetical relationship. For example,

In the study by Bahrick and Hall (1991), we find that graduates of college mathematics courses recall high school math knowledge for many years after. According to Bahrick and Hall, which of the following would you expect to be true of a group of university graduates who did not take math courses at university:

  1. they would recall their math from high school to essentially the same extent as those who took math courses in university
  2. most would recall little or none of their high school math 50 years after
  3. they would recall best those things which they learned more about in their university course
  4. both b) and c)
  5. all of the above

Study Strategies: practice recalling the theory, elaborative review, and some creative thinking (i.e., what might change in a variety of slightly different circumstances from those presented in the theory)

In-test Strategy: read the question twice to ensure you understand it correctly. The question stem is made up of two parts: 1) the context reference for the question (tells you to think back to something you’ve studied) and 2) the question part. Pause after the first part and recall the theory or research study. Next, because the alternatives in this question are usually quite long, try reading the question part of the stem followed by each alternative, to keep clear on what you are being asked.

Level of Difficulty: Hardest. These questions are appearing more and more on multiple choice tests, so don’t avoid preparing for them!

(Answers: 2. e; 3. d)


Multiple choice tests are NOT simple. They require a rigorous study approach.

Multiple choice: Exam strategies

Key Concepts

Memorization/recall and recognition of details are not enough. Focus on complex levels of thinking: understanding, connecting, applying, analysis. Practice: Use old exams, study guides.

Strategic Approaches

Breathe, focus and perhaps, dump information you are worried about forgetting. Check timing: how many questions? Average time per question?

1. How to approach the exam overall: The 3 Pass Method

Pass #1: Begin by answering the questions you know, in the exam booklet, then transfer the answers on to the Scantron sheet, in groups of 10 questions.

Code the answers you don’t know (e.g., use a “?” for the ones you have some idea about but need more time to think about, and an “X” for the ones that you have no idea about at all. Move on to questions you feel more confident about. Feel good! You’ve just earned marks!).

Pass #2: Next, return to the questions marked with the “?” and answer these directly on the Scantron, so you don’t misrecord any questions.

Pass #3: Checking the time left, begin guessing the ones marked “X” on the Scantron.

2. How to approach individual questions

  1. Read the stem SLOWLY
  2. Process it by underlining key words
  3. Cover the answers
  4. Predict answer. Not there? Then process the options (e.g., Is this the most correct?)
  5. Eliminate wrong answers, and select the best option

3. Strategies for guessing (a LAST resort)

  • Avoid answers with extreme values – either numbers or statements
  • Choose inclusive answers (e.g., all or none of the above)
  • Choose the longest answer
  • Choose b or c

If there is no penalty for incorrect responses, and no time left, when all else fails, randomly fill in the Scantron.

Adapted from: Learning Skills Programme. (1997). Preparing for Tests and Exams. Counselling and Development Centre, York University, Toronto. pp.10-15.

Multiple choice exams: Ready, set, go!


  1. Breathe and calm yourself
  2. Survey the exam
    • give yourself a bit of time to go back to hard ones
    • mark where you should be done halfway
  1. Determine the ground rules
    • read the directions
    • is there a penalty for guessing? If not, GUESS!


  1. Read questions carefully, slowly, start from the beginning
  2. Cover up the options. Do you already know the answer?
  3. Underline key words to focus your attention


  1. Read all the options. Choose the BEST answer – there may be multiple correct ones!
  2. Eliminate options if you know it’s definitely wrong
  3. Watch for qualifiers (e.g., all, usually, almost, good, best, normally, etc.)
    • think about how they define or limit the stem or options. Be alert to unstated qualifiers which define an option (e.g., “Birds fly south in winter” means ALL birds).
  1. Watch for negatives
    • two negatives make a positive (e.g., “It is atypical for children NOT to go through the following stages” = “it IS is typical for children to go through…”)

If after all that, you still don’t know …

  • Use Educated Guessing
    • for compound options (e.g., “all of the above”), select the compound including simple options about which you are certain
    • avoid extreme values, either numbers or statements
    • change answers only if you have a good reason to do so
    • check for lookalike options. One of them is usually OK.
    • “all of the above” can be a good guess
    • options looking foolish, incongruous or unfamiliar or usually incorrect

What to do if you hit a WALL?

  1. Mark difficult questions and come back to them – don’t let yourself get stuck
  2. Keep your process active (re-read question, make marks, write notes…you can do this!

Math and science tests: Special techniques

1. Translate problems into English.

Putting problems into words aids your understanding. When you study equations and formulas, put those into words, too. The words help you see a variety of applications for each formula. For example, c2 = a2 + b2 can be translated as “the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.”

2. Perform opposite operations.

If the problem involves multiplication, check your work by dividing; add, then subtract; factor, multiply; square root, square; differentiate, integrate.

3. Use time drills.

Practice working problems quickly. Time yourself. Exchange problems with a friend and time each other. You can also do this in a study group.

4. Analyze before you compute.

Set up the problem before you begin to solve it. When a problem is worth a lot of points, read it twice, slowly. When you take time to analyze a problem, you may see computational shortcuts.

5. Make a picture.

Colour an elaborate picture or diagram if you are stuck. Sometimes a visual will clear the mind.

6. Estimate first.

Estimation is a good way to double-check your work. Doing this first can help you notice if your computations go awry, and then you can correct the error quickly.

7. Check your work systematically.

When you check your work, ask yourself: Did I read the problem correctly? Did I use the correct formula or equation? Is my arithmetic correct? Is my answer in the proper form?

Avoid the temptation to change an answer in the last few minutes–unless you’re sure the answer is wrong. In a last-minute rush to finish, it’s easier to choose the wrong answer. If you redo a solution, do not erase the original answer—just draw a line through it.

8. Review formulas.

Right before the test, review any formulas you’ll need to use. Then write them on the margin of the tests or on the back of the test paper.

Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 183.