College Success Series Part 4: How to Take Exams

By Ezra Ekman

Exams are something that all students dread. But there are ways to manage the stress.

Before exams, take advantage of on-campus programs. The Academic Success Center offers free, individual tutoring and tutor-led study sessions with no sign-up requirements. Subjects include math, biology, humanities, and English, but they encourage students of other subjects to apply. The Math Lab and Writing Center each offer free, walk-in assistance. There are also first-come, first serve study rooms on B level under Student Life, in the library, and in the Student Organization Center (SOC).

On exam days, arrive early, and don’t try to memorize details at the last minute. Spend 30 to 60 minutes before to “relax.” Eat a light snack to keep yourself alert but not a heavy meal to avoid drowsiness. Student Life often offers free snacks and a place in the SOC during finals for a quiet place to relax and collect your thoughts.

It sounds hokey, but it can be very helpful to create the right mindset for an exam. Ten minutes before the exam, take a moment to remind yourself of the following:


    • You’ve prepared well for this test
    • You know the material.
    • You can and will do well.
    • You refuse to get nervous over just one exam.
    • You are relaxed and ready.


The Academic Success Center has some additional insight to help students succeed in preparation for exams:

  1. Start with a brain dump: write down any formulas at the beginning, so you can recall them during more stressful parts of the test.
  2. Remember to breathe! Studies show that people hold their breath when stressed. Breathing normally can help you remain calm.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask instructors for clarification; they can’t answer the question but can clarify what it means.
  4. Read each question before looking at the answers, then read each answer thoroughly before answering. If you don’t see the right answer, pause and remember what you do know about it. Recall any notes, sketches, or mind maps you’ve made.
  5. Answer easier questions first; they give clues to more difficult questions. Spend more time on higher-point-value questions than on lower ones. They may appear later in the test; consider this when budgeting time for each answer.
  6. Use the process of elimination to narrow your choices. Look for key words like always, sometimes, never, most, some, all, none, is, and is not. If answers don’t match key words, you can safely eliminate it. Don’t guess unless there’s nothing left to eliminate.
  7. Only change answers you absolutely know are incorrect. Once you answer, verify it was what you intended, then leave it alone unless you find a later question giving clues to earlier ones.
  8. For essay questions, imagine describing concepts to a 6 year old. “Explaining” a concept can jog your memory. For definitions, give a book explanation of the topic and include descriptions of why something is an example. If questions have multiple pieces, ensure that you answer each one, especially with essay answers. You can lose points if you miss any question parts!
  9. Don’t make assumptions about answer structure. Just because answers are a specific option (A, B, C, D, true, false, etc.) multiple times doesn’t mean that’s wrong. Sometimes you’ll answer “A” three times in a row. It looks strange, but it happens.
  10. Check the backs of pages to ensure you don’t miss any answers. I almost handed in an exam with half the answers missing!

You’ve prepared well. You know the material. You are ready and relaxed. You can and WILL do well!


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