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DURING: Taking the test / exam

Back to Exam Prep

Self-reflection, issues and strategiesStrategy 1: Dealing with ContentStrategy 2: Answering different question typesStrategy 3: Timing your examStrategy 4: Reducing test anxiety

Self-reflection questions

  • Do you have good test taking techniques?
  • During an exam, what are the greatest challenges for you (e.g., time, distractions, certain test types, anxiety)?
  • Which question types do you prefer or tend to perform better on (e.g., multiple choice, short/long answer, problems)?
  • Do you know how to study for the different question types?
  • Do you ever freeze or ‘blank out’ during a test?
  • Do you have effective calming techniques if and when you feel too anxious during a test?


If I know the content of my course, I should be able to do well on my test… right? Well, not exactly! If you have prepared well and understand the material, you still need to do the following in order to perform well on your test:

  • Stay calm and relaxed,
  • Budget your time wisely and keep close watch on the time,
  • Plan your approach,
  • Read the instructions and questions carefully,
  • Don’t let distractions (external and internal) disrupt you,
  • Know how to “attack” different test types, and
  • Keep a positive attitude.


This section will describe the following four strategies:

  1. Dealing with Content
  2. Answering Different Question Types
  3. Timing Your Exam
  4. Reducing Test Anxiety

Dealing with Content

Do a memory dump. Write down everything you can remember about the topic before crafting any answer. This is helpful in the event you forget later on or anxiety is a problem.

Read directions carefully. Professors say that most marks are lost at this stage, i.e. students are in such a hurry to answer the question that they misread it.

Do the easiest questions first. Some students think you should do the hard questions first but doing the easiest ones first helps you build confidence as well as guaranteeing you marks!

Budget time wisely. See Strategy 3: Timing Your Exam for more detail.

Answering different question types

The most common question types on undergraduate exams are multiple choice, short answer, essay, and problem-based. Most students have a preference for certain question types. For example, a student who excels at multiple choice might prefer:

  • seeing the answer, or
  • having a finite list of possibilities having either a right or wrong answer.

Conversely, a student who excels at an essay exam question might prefer:

  • spending time creating the answer, or
  • having freedom to choose content (e.g., what evidence to provide) thinking globally, conceptually (less interested in minute detail) grey areas and subjectivity.

Unfortunately, students cannot choose their preferred question type and in some cases an exam might contain questions of only one type. Multiple choice tests, for instance, are very common in undergraduate courses with anywhere from 50-100% of the questions written in this format. Therefore, you will need to learn how to study for different types of test questions.

In this section…

Timing Your Exam


Before you begin to write…

Scan the entire test. Note the value and style of each question and how many of each style there are (e.g., 50 multiple choice). Highlight instruction words in short and long answer questions (e.g., “discuss,” “compare”).

Budget your time!

You need adequate time for reading each question carefully. Professors say most marks are lost at this stage, i.e. students are in such a hurry to answer the question that they misread it.

Poor reading of the question or “stem” is particularly problematic with multiple choice exams. Because there are many questions, students may feel pressured to get through them. In their haste, they miss critical words in the stem such as qualifiers (e.g., “some,” “in most cases”). Therefore, you must budget exact time to reread and paraphrase each question.

A rule of thumb: Take 1 minute to read the question and an additional 30 seconds to answer it. However, if multiple choice style is difficult for you, you‘ll have to allot even more time.

Sample time budget: For a 3-hour (180 minute) exam, there are 50 multiple choice, 4 short answers, and 1 essay.


Time allotment

Read over entire exam 10 minutes
50 multiple choice @ 1.5 minutes 75 minutes
4 short answers worth 5 marks 40 minutes
1 essay worth 20 marks 40 minutes
Proofread entire exam 15 minutes
Total: 180 minutes (3-hour exam)


While you’re writing…

Stick to your planned budget as much as possible. Keep a watch on the desk. If you finish a question faster than expected, adjust the plan and spend more time on difficult ones.


After you’ve finished…

Proofreading your exam before handing it in will probably glean you more marks. You might find, upon reflection, that you‘ve missed a point, or you now remember more, or a sentence simply doesn‘t make sense. Change it! But what about the old adage that you should never change an answer because your first instincts are usually correct?

Research has shown this is NOT true. If you see your answer is clearly wrong, then change it!

Reducing test anxiety

  • Do you ever go blank or freeze up during a test?
  • Do you ever feel like the room is closing in on you?
  • Do you ever feel your heart racing or have difficulties breathing?
  • Do you ever race out of the room before you are really finished writing the test?
  • Do you ever tell yourself “I can’t do this,” “I’m gonna fail,” or “I’m stupid”?

If so, you might be experiencing test anxiety. And you are NOT alone!

Test anxiety is super common among university students. Why?

Aside from real and growing external pressures (e.g., from universities and employers) for students to get high grades, test anxiety is also rooted in internal (i.e., self-imposed) pressures.

Some of these pressures include:

  • Lack of confidence,
  • Fear of failure,
  • Feeling unworthy of doing well,
  • Past experiences with poor performance,
  • Lack of preparation,
  • Perfectionism, and
  • Unrealistic goals.

The good news is that test anxiety can be beaten! With some effective strategies that you practice regularly before and during the test, you can learn to manage your anxiety.

Additional Tools

Keep in mind that a bit of anxiety is necessary during an exam as it keeps you motivated and alert. However, once you go over your threshold for tolerance, it’s time to take control. The Tools below provided a number of strategies to help you reduce your test anxiety:

  • Overcoming Test Anxiety
  • Dealing with Physical Sensation of Anxiety and Dealing with Thoughts of Anxiety
  • Guided Imagery for Test Anxiety
  • Math and Science Anxiety: What’s behind it?
  • Overcoming Math & Science Anxiety. You can do it!