How I Aced First Year University Science – Part 5: The Art of Test-Taking

Some students may think that you just study and go in and do the test. I don’t think it’s that simple.

While I have said that preparation is the hard part and taking the test is the relatively easy part, I would say that is true, but only if you have already mastered what I like to call the “art of test-taking”. For that reason, many students actually find taking tests harder than studying for it, even though it shouldn’t be that way.

Test-taking is as much psychological as it is mental and physical. The habits, mindset and attitudes of a successful test-taker are significantly different than students who have trouble with tests.

In this article, I explore those differences, and will try to show you some of the subtle yet important things myself and other successful test-takers do to maximize our test performance.

NOTE: I plan on writing in the future about tackling specific types of tests, such as Multiple Choice Tests, Short-Answer Tests, Essay Tests, etc. For now, this article focuses on general test habits and attitudes.

Getting a Good Night’s Rest

This one should be pretty obvious, and admittedly because of late night cramming, I don’t follow this as much as I should. Some of you may be able to get away with not sleeping enough, but for most students, getting enough sleep so that you are wide awake during a test is crucial. Take this from someone who has personally pulled all nighters and fallen asleep during exams (luckily during high school, and not university!). If you don’t have enough sleep, you won’t be able to focus, and you won’t be able to do your best. It’s that simple.

If you’re like me, and you just can’t follow this good habit, then you’re going to have to find a way to keep yourself awake and stimulated for your tests. For me, if I’ve had a late night, my most important activity the morning of the test is to get a nice cup of coffee for the caffeine. I hate suggesting stuff like this, but do whatever works for you to make sure you’re awake.

When You’re Writing a Test, Be in the “Zone”

When I say you need to be “in the zone”, I mean that while writing a test, you need to be completely focused on the task at hand. Don’t think about how well or how badly you’re going to do, don’t panic, don’t stress out – just focus on the test. Clear your mind of anything else.

Thinking about things other than the question on the paper is a waste of mental energy. You don’t want to mentally exhaust yourself by thinking cynical, negative, or stressful thoughts – you need that mental energy to do your best on the test. Learn to just focus on the task at hand, and you won’t feel anxiety or stress anymore because your mind will be completely distracted by the test itself.

Successful test-takers do worry about tests and how they did, but they are successful because they leave those worries behind while they’re in the test. Sure those feelings can come back after the test, but that’s okay – as long as you don’t let those worries affect you during the test, it’s fine to be a little nervous or anxious when it’s over.

Always Do the Questions You Know You Can Answer First

On my very first university chemistry test, our professor decided to put arguably the most difficult problem on the first page. I decided to be stubborn, and waste the first 15 minutes just trying to figure that one problem out. Fortunately, I came to my senses and decided to give up and tackle the other problems first, but having realized this late, I still had to rush all of the other questions, increasing the chances of me making mistakes.

You have to realize that every question you do has a number of marks associated with it, and your goal is to maximize the number of marks on your test – not to answer the hardest questions just to prove you can. Imagine a multiple choice test out of 10 where 9 are really easy and 1 is super hard, and it takes the average person the same amount of time to solve the hard one as it does to solve the other nine easy ones. The fact of the matter is that you should make sure you get the 9 easy ones first, to guarantee that 90% before attempting the hard one – especially if it’s a multiple choice test and you have a ¼ or something chance to get the hard one right anyways.

If there’s a question you’re stuck on, and you know you’re likely going to be stuck on it for a while, skip it. There will probably be other questions, worth the same number of marks, that are easier to do. If you have time leftover, come back to it and try it again. But at least this way you don’t waste your entire test period trying to figure out one or two questions you may or may not even get – it’s just not worth it in terms of risk versus reward.

Have an ego? Get rid of it!

Some students can be perfectionists and have ego problems. They come from a high school where they aced or came close to acing every test. So they panic when they come across a question they just can’t figure out. They go berserk and spend all their time trying to figure it out because they know if they don’t, they can’t get that “perfect mark” on the test.

Trust me, I’ve been there – that’s what happened to me on my first chemistry test. But realize this: you can’t let your pride or ego get in the way of doing your best on the test. You have to understand the concept of maximizing your expectation – that is, obtaining the your best score possible on the test, regardless of what that actual number is. Sometimes that number is going to be 100, sometimes it’s going to be 90, sometimes it’s going to be 80, etc. Face it: university isn’t easy.

I have skipped questions I didn’t know, came back to them at the end, and just guessed or made something up if I couldn’t figure it out – and my GPA has turned out just fine. Having humility and being cognizant and realistic of your limits goes a long way to bringing you peace during school, reducing stress and anxiety, and therefore improving overall test performance.

Pace Yourself, but Work Quickly

When it comes to tests, time is a factor. It’s not like assignments or essays where you ultimately decide how much time you’re willing to spend on them. A common rule of thumb, and one that I support, is to briefly look over the test to figure out how long it is, and how much time you think you should spend on each question (or page). Doing this allows you to properly pace yourself, and recognize how quickly you need to work to complete the test on time. Some of you will want time leftover to double check your answers, which is something I definitely endorse. In addition, by figuring out this pace, you will realize during the test whether you’re spending too much time on a difficult question and just need to move on.

In general though, the important idea is that you want to work as quickly as possible without compromising your accuracy on the test. Working quickly is good because often you will finish your test on time (and therefore don’t have to worry about not finishing), and thus have time to check your work over. Even if you have a ridiculous amount of time to write the test and can work pretty slow, it’s not worth the rare times you misjudge your timing and have to rush at the end (trust me, I’ve been there).

Never Leave a Question Unanswered

It blows my mind when students do this, and not in a good way. You’d be surprised how lenient some professors or teaching assistants can be with marking if you just attempt a question. On one of my first year chemistry tests, there was a question that I wrote out a whole page of solution for and got it wrong, with a 2/6 for that question. My friend, who had no idea what to do, wrote one line containing one of the formulas required to answer the question – he also got a 2/6. True story. Of course, there are a few cases where leaving a question blank is fine (e.g. some multiple choice tests where you get penalized for a wrong answer), but those situations are pretty rare.

Use Up All of the Available Time

A test isn’t a race. You don’t get extra marks for being the first one to finish. I mean if you don’t really care about getting your best mark possible, then sure, work as fast as you want and immediately hand your test in without checking it over. But it boggles my mind when I see students who write a test as if it’s a race, and then get all upset when they realize they made a bunch of silly mistakes.

There’s no shame in being the last one writing a test. I almost always use up the entire test block just because I can. Call me obsessive or paranoid if you want, but if I have time left over, I’m going to double and even triple check my work just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s great if you don’t need to do that, but just keep in mind that the entire test period is there for you to use it, and there’s no shame in doing so.

The Correct Answer is the One the Professor Thinks is Correct

I don’t care what the world’s foremost expert on a topic says, when it comes to a test, I’m writing down whatever my professor said in class.

This is a really important concept that I feel many students don’t spend enough time thinking about. Your professor is the one teaching the course and the one writing the tests. It is very important to realize that despite what you or anyone else may think, in terms of the course material, your professor is always right. Therefore, in general (and particularly whenever there is possible ambiguity on the test), you should always ask yourself: “How would my professor answer this question?”

Your Professor’s Psychological Profile: Tricky or Not Tricky?

On my first biochemistry test last year, there was a multiple choice question with a structure like this:

Question: Dogs and crocodiles are…

A: Reptiles and mammals
B: Mammals and birds
C: Mammals and fish
D: None of the above

Now, dogs are mammals and crocodiles are reptiles, but if you look carefully at Choice A, the items in the answer are not in the same order with their respective items in the question – so is it Choice A or is it Choice D (none of the above)?

For some professors it would be Choice A and for some it would be Choice D. Professors who would say Choice A is correct are professors who are pretty relaxed and wouldn’t care much for order and things like that. Professors who would say Choice D tend to be the ones who intentionally try to trick you and care very much about technicalities. You will probably come across both types of professors at some point or another.

Fortunately, my professor was willing to clear up the situation because many students kept asking him about it – but some professors won’t do this. Even if he hadn’t revealed the answer, I would have correctly picked Choice A because I felt that he wasn’t the type to be intentionally tricky.

This is one example, but just keep in mind that occasionally, it is helpful to take your professor’s psychological profile and personality into account when determining the “right” answer on your test.

Post-Test Reflection and Analysis

Okay seriously though, the first thing you should do after a test or exam is take a nice fun break. Well, I know some of you will immediately talk to your friends about what the answers were, but after that, take a break. You deserve it, and your brain needs it.

Once you take that break, feel free to reflect a bit about the test: What was easy about it? What gave you trouble or difficulty? Mentally and emotionally, were you fine?

If you felt anxious or nervous during the test, I want you to imagine exactly what those emotions felt like. By being conscious of those emotions, you will recognize them if they come up again during the next test. Then you will realize that they can’t help you, and that you need to forget about them to do better. Once you take control of your emotions, they will eventually go away.

This was the last article of the series, I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any questions or comments about doing well in your undergraduate courses, please leave a comment and I will do my best to answer!

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Read the other parts of the How I Aced First Year University Science series here:

  • Peter

    This is amazing. Thanks a lot man

    • medhopeful

      No problem, thanks for reading!

  • marina

    You just prepared me more for university than any of my teachers or guidance counselors ever did! Thanks so much for all the time and effort you have and continue to put into this site!

    • medhopeful

      No problem, thanks Marina!

    • medhopeful

      Thank you!

  • Elena

    Hey Joshua!

    Thank you so much for writing this article, I truly appreciate it and have gained tons of new information that will surely help me out on the long-run!

    I’m going to be starting my first year in Life Sciences this fall, and was hoping to be able to do a double major in Sociology and Biology, to bring more diversity to the table when applying for med school (and to entertain my interest in the concept Sociology). Do you recommend doing something like this to increase my chances of getting into med school, or should I go with specialization?

    Thank you once again!!!