Friday, September 22nd, 2023

Taking Exams

Exams in college are usually a very different from exams you took in high school. Your college instructors will probably not prepare you for the exam with practice exams, review sheets, homework exercises and so on. In college courses you have to take responsibility for your own learning and preparation. Secondly, exams at the college level usually test how well you understand your subject area. Instructors are often more interested in whether you can apply the knowledge you have gained rather than in how many facts you have learned or can memorize. You need to be able to think analytically rather than simply regurgitate facts. Here are some tips that will help you study better for college exams:
When to prepare

How to prepare

Before the exam

During the exam

After the exam

Multiple-choice exams

True-false exams

Take-home exams

Open-note exams

Take-home exams


When to prepare

College exams are supposed to test how well you UNDERSTAND your subject, not necessarily how much you know. That’s why cramming in the last week before the exam may help you to pass, but if you want to do well, you should be preparing for the exam from Day One of the semester. If you are reading, thinking and understanding as as you go along through the semester, your need to revise (and to rote learn) will be minimal, your stress level will be minimal, and your pleasure in studying will be maximized. So, the earlier you start the better!  

How to prepare  

From day one … Be organized right from the beginning. Get into the habit of reviewing your lecture notes, taking notes from your reading, discussing the topics with fellow-students, making a note of questions you need to ask in tutorials, reorganising your notes and so on. In short, be an active student.  

Later, find out what the exam covers. You need to know:  

  • what topics will be covered
  • what types of questions to expect
  • how many questions you have to answer
  • how the grades will be distributed
  • how long the exam will be
  • what equipment to take.

Sometimes you can predict questions from the subject guide or from the instructor’s particular emphasis. Instructors sometimes give tips on the exam in the later lectures of the course — so make sure you don’t miss any classes.  

Make a plan and schedule times for revising your various topics  

  • How many topics do you need to cover?
  • Will some of them take more time to revise?
  • How many days have you got for revision?
  • So how many topics will you need to cover each day?

Be active!   

Your learning needs to be highly interactive. Revision does not mean just reading through your notes (or worse ‘looking’ through your notes). It means using your highlighter (not in library books!), making notes of your notes, drawing diagrams, testing yourself. You can try writing summaries of the main points; covering up the diagrams and charts and trying to reproduce them; making your own visual cues and concept maps (sometimes it’s easier to remember the way something looks). In the stressful situation of the exam it will help you to have as many memory cues as possible. So reconstructing your notes into lists, charts and diagrams will really help.  

Being active also means practicing questions from former papers—not just looking at them, but actually planning your answers and even writing them out. You can make up your own questions too, and practice on those.  

Be analytical!   

College exams are usually designed to test more than how much you know. Your instructor wants to know how well you can apply your knowledge151;how well you can think. So, above all, revising means thinking analytically. That means thinking around and about your topic and asking yourself questions like:  

  • How does this topic relate to others in this subject?
  • What are the similarities and differences between this topic (or theory, or point of view, or …) and others?
  • What examples can I think of to illustrate this?
  • What if … happened, how would that affect the topic?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of … ?
  • What are the problems involved, and how could they be solved?
  • Why does … happen? (What are the causes and effects?)
  • Where can … be applied, and where not?

The more you think analytically, the more you will understand your topic and the more easily you will be able to answer the questions.  


Use questions from past exam papers, discussion questions from your textbook, or make up your own mock exam questions. Practice answering these questions in the same timeframe that you will have to stick to in the exam. Practicing getting the timing right is really important. Actually practice WRITING in the limited time. It will give you a much better idea of what you can or cannot attempt in the time allowed.  

You could show your practice answers to your tutor, or to a study skills advisor to get feedback on whether your answers are appropriate or not.  

Before the exam 

Think positive! Remind yourself of all that you have done in preparation for the exam and don’t worry about what you don’t know. Make sure you have a good night’s sleep beforehand (or as good as possible!) and that you are as ‘centered’ as possible. Avoid unnecessary last minute panics. For example, make sure you know where the exam room is and when the exam starts!  

If you have prepared well for the exam and have managed your time sensibly, you should not be excessively nervous. It’s good to be keyed up for an exam — a certain amount of anxiety helps you perform well.  

During the exam
Keep cool! If you can keep calm you will not make any silly mistakes.  

  1. First scan the entire paper. You can get into serious difficulties if you don’t realize how much (or how little) you are expected to do.
  2. Then work out how much time you have for each question or section of the exam. Keep an eye on your watch to make sure you are pacing yourself correctly.
  3. Read the question carefully and answer it relevantly. The most common reason students lose points in exams is that students don’t read questions properly and don’t focus the answers on what is required.

Questions usually include:  

  • a topic
  • limiting words that tell you what aspect of the topic to address
  • a direction (e.g. explain, discuss, give the reasons why, analyze, etc.)

Students often make the mistake of writing down everything they know about the topic, instead of thinking about the direction word and the limiting words. Detail is important for supporting ideas, but analytical thinking is more important in forming ideas.  

  • Plan your answers. Spend about five minutes thinking about your answers before you begin to write. Organize your ideas and jot down an outline. A few minutes spent in this way will help you to write a coherent essay with a good introduction and conclusion, and will save you a lot of time in the end.
  • Don’t forget a summary and general conclusion.
  • Write legibly. It’s better to write less, but legibly, than to write a lot, illegibly.
    Bad handwriting can be very annoying to teachers.
  • Get the key points down. If you run out of time, use a bulleted list to get your main points down.

After the exam

It can be helpful to look at your exam paper after it has been graded. What can you do better next time? You can also discuss this with your instructor or with a study partner.  

Multiple-choice exams

The most important advice for multiple choice exams is to read the exam carefully! Work through the questions at a fairly steady pace. Don’t hurry, but don’t get stuck. If you aren’t sure about an answer, have a reasonable guess, put a mark beside that question, and keep going. Don’t spend time agonizing over a question you may get wrong anyway! If you have time at the end of the exam, you can go back through the marked questions and double-check your answers.  Multiple-Choice Test Taking Tips and Strategies

Open-book exams

You need a very particular review strategy for open-book exams. You need to be absolutely familiar with your textbook(s). It may be a good idea to make concept maps of the relevant chapters, or at least summaries that you can use as a quick prompt. You need to be familiar with using the index and contents so that you can quickly identify the correct place in the book to help you with the exam. 

You will have to be particularly careful about plagiarism, too. Remember to use quotation marks for any sentences that you copy from the book. You will need plenty of practice in paraphrasing from the book beforehand. 

It is worthwhile to practice on previous exam papers before the exam, as timing can be difficult in open-book exams. It can be tempting to spend too much time desperately searching through the book: you need to know exactly where to find the information you need.  Preparing for Open-Book Exams

Open-note (or index card) exams

Some instructors invite you to use notes on an index card on the exam. This is a great strategy to make you review! 

Don’t try to write out full essay answers on your card — you don’t know exactly how the questions will be phrased and your model answers may not answer the question effectively. Instead, use your card to summarize main points, and perhaps include some useful quotations (especially for literature exams). Use a clear layout with visual cues such as lay-out, underlining, concept maps and so on. Exceptionally tiny writing may not be wise, because you will need to refer to your card quickly and efficiently. 5 Tips for Open-Note Tests

Take-home exams

You need to prepare for take-home exams, too. Take-home exams are often graded more strictly than other exams, taking into consideration presentation (spelling, referencing and so on) as well as content. In particular, you will have to demonstrate analytical thinking. You need to be familiar with the course content and to have done plenty of background reading so that you can answer a take-home exam adequately in the limited amount of time you will be given.
Tips for Doing Well on Take-Home Exams