Smart Ways to “ACE” a Test

This article is based on experience in the classroom and with college entrance examinations. There are many strategies to improve the test-takers probability of success on an examination. Many teachers and students know some of these strategies, although few test-takers employ them consistently.


Instructors are routinely surprised when students they expected to do well on an exam perform poorly. Likewise, some students are good test-takers and frequently outperform their more knowledgeable peers. Educators know that factors other than a person’s mastery of the subject matter come into play in academic settings.


Students often forget that “it’s only a test.” Tests are not generally matters of “life or death.” Truly important matters like health, finances and family are far more important in the whole scheme of things. Test anxiety is, of course, real to the individual experiencing it. Most of this anxiety is rooted in a “fear of failure.” While none of us want to fail, for some individuals this emotion can be practically incapacitating. There are ways to deal with this problem and improve the test-takers ability to perform. And, most of us realize that some measure of anxiety may actually be productive, in that it will increase our overall motivation and alertness.


Those preparing for an examination, particularly an important one like professional certification, college entrance, course “final,” etc., would be well-served to review and use the following tips:

Before the test:

Remember, “it’s only a test” – Don’t stress yourself by giving the exam more power over you than it deserves. Placing the test in proper context and perspective is beneficial.

Get some sleep – Particularly if the test is in the morning get a good night’s sleep on the night before an important one.

Don’t ea4t too much – Too much food can cause blood to be directed to your stomach instead of your brain. Too much food can also decrease motivation, and even make a person lethargic.

Be prepared – Adequate preparation will provide you with necessary information, and a measure of confidence. Often “sample tests,” and/or practice exams are available. Use them and study.

Use “self talk” – We all sub-vocalize, in talking to ourselves every day. Most of this talk is negative, critical, fearful, judgmental, etc. Try to stand in front of a mirror and use positive affirmations to place yourself in a successful frame of mind before the test. This can either be done at home, or in the restroom, prior to taking the test. Say things either out loud, or silently, like: “I am smart, capable, prepared, and will do excellent on this test!”

Give your brain a chance to rewind – Take five or ten minutes prior to the exam and let your mind rest. Walk around and/or stretch your limbs. Insofar as possible, put the test out of your mind and relax. This will help your brain rest and re-focus.

Be neat, complete, and accurate – In completing your personal and demographic information, make sure that everything is correct. On some exams the test will be ineligible/ disqualified if there are mistakes in these areas.

Listen to all instructions carefully – Pay attention to the test administrator. Be sure you understand all rules and requirements. Ask questions if you don’t understand.

During the test:

Scan the entire test – Give a quick overall look at the test to ascertain its construct, components, type of questions, etc. Then you won’t be surprised along the way.

Manage your time. – Be aware of time limits and manage your time, effectively. Don’t get stuck on one question and use up valuable time. Move on.

Read questions carefully – Make sure you completely understand what is being asked. Don’t be superficial or careless.

Answer every question/ Guess, if you must – Surprisingly, students often fail to answer each and every question. This is frequently related to time management, but sometimes students will not answer every question EVEN WHEN THERE IS NO PENALTY FOR GUESSING. Of course if there is a penalty you will need to seriously consider this advice, and perhaps leave some blanks.6

Look for “key” words – There are often “key” words that change the entire meaning of the question, like: “not,” “always,” “never, ” etc. Few things are always true. Pay close attention to these key words in selecting the appropriate response.

Answer the easy questions first – There is no requirement to answer questions sequentially. Answer the easy ones first. This will give you a sense of confidence, and ensure that you have time to consider the more difficult questions.

Eliminate “dumb” answers – You can often improve your odds of getting an answer right by eliminating the “dumb” choices. On multiple-choice questions test writers generally write answers so that two of the choices can be considered correct for most respondents, and often one or two of the selections are “dumb,” even absurd. Eliminating the “dumb” choice(s) will improve your odds.

Your first answer is usually correct – In the majority of cases, when you are not completely sure of an answer, your first inclination is correct. When grading exams we notice that students have second-thoughts about their original answer and change their selection. However, the change is more frequently to the wrong choice, not the right one.

–If you change an answer, make it clear – It is sometimes difficult for graders to ascertain which answer the student chose. And, there are frequently rules that must be followed for answer changes on standardized tests. Like Pogo so insightfully observed: “we have met the enemy, and he is us!” Don’t be your own worst enemy. Use these tips to improve your test-taking performance. You may improve your score by just trying some of these ideas.

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