The Study Dude—Taking the Exam

The Cookbook Continues!

You’re in the midst of an exam.  The studies and time leading up to this point are over.  It’s just you and the test.  What can you do to increase your chances of a top grade?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve written cookbooks for writing essays and for memorization.  Today, it’s time to focus on the exam.  After all, exam time itself is a strategic game, when you know the rules.

If you are striving for an A+, tricks and tips for taking exams matter.

The only ingredients needed for this recipe are multiple sharp pencils, a pencil sharpener, two or three high quality erasers (the white rubbery ones), a ruler, lots of scrap paper, a watch, (for science classes)  two cheap calculators, an exam, and, of course, these tips:

  • Well before the exam, sharpen at least five high quality pencils. Put them aside to be used exclusively for the exam.
  • Also bring high quality erasers, typically a white flexible one. Poor quality erasers that leave marks can impact your grade adversely, especially during multiple choice exams.  Always have at least two of these packed, and make sure they aren’t stained with pencil markings.
  • Get at least forty pages of scrap paper for working out problems, essay outlines, etcetera. If you aren’t allowed external scrap paper, ask, in advance of the exam date, for multiple scrap paper booklets.  If given these booklets, hand them in along with your exam as your scrap paper ideas may convert into a higher exam score.  That happened to me.
  • An absolute must is to bring a watch and scrutinize it often. More on this in a moment.
  • When you first receive your exam, take a look at the title and the headings for each section. Next, go into each section and read the general instructions.  After that, read the headings, instructions, and do a quick scan of the questions for each section.
  • See how many points each section is worth. The section worth the most points should be what you start with.
  • But don’t stop there. If you have 60 minutes to write the exam, and the essay component is worth 25 points, the multiple choice is worth 10 points, and the fill in the blanks is worth 15 points, then focus on the following: first, finish the essay within the first 25 minutes, then focus on the fill in the blanks for 15 minutes; follow with 10 minutes spent on multiple choice; and end with 10 minutes for edits or to go back to problem areas or missing answers.  In short, set your schedule based on how many marks each section is worth, and leave a little extra time at the end for revising or catching up on any sections that need it.
  • If you finish your first section in advance and you feel good about it, go on directly to the next section and work on it for your scheduled time or until you feel it’s up to snuff, whichever comes sooner. The more time for edits and revisions at the end, the better.
  • Often your exam won’t have easy to figure out mappings between the points each section is worth and the time you should spend on each section. Some math comes in handy where you take the total points on the exam and figure out what percentage each section is worth.  But if math isn’t your thing, no worries.  Just “eyeball” it.  Round things up.  For instance, you might see that multiple choice and fill in the blanks section combined take the same time as the essay.  Then just spend half the time on the essay section and divide the remaining half between, first, the fill in the blanks and, second, the multiple choice.  But make sure you leave at least ten minutes at the end for revisions and double-checking.
  • If you can write on your exam papers, put a question mark beside the questions you are not sure about and an “x” beside the questions that you didn’t answer or that you likely answered incorrectly. Put a checkmark besides the questions you are certain you got correct.  Don’t place any mark beside the questions you think may likely be correct but aren’t 100% sure.  This makes it easier to come back to when making last minute edits during the last ten or more minutes of editing the exam.
  • One friend of mine thought multiple choice meant multiple guess. In other words, she didn’t think about the question or carefully work out the solution on scrap paper.  No, she just randomly picked which answer looked sweeter without considering the solution.  And she bombed that first exam.  Instead, carefully work out solutions on scrap paper and briefly outline your essays on scrap paper before marking the correct answer or writing the essay.
  • When writing an essay, try to put everything you memorized related to the topic in point form on scrap paper. Then group similar items together by placing the same number in front of them.  Then subdivide each similarly numbered group into an order with small “a, b, c, d, etcetera.” You can write easily once it’s all in order.  But try to use all the material you know about the essay topic/question as it will show evidence of your competence.  For instance, you might have “1.a” in front of the entry you want to come first in your essay.  But do try to sketch an introductory statement before each section on your scrap paper before writing the essay on the exam itself.
  • For scientific essays, it’s best to do all the questions once, and then rework every question from scratch until you get the same answer three times in a row. (That way, if your first and second answer for the same question don’t agree, a third try from scratch can verify the accurate one.  Simply erase your wrong answer if need be, but only after the third verification.) But make sure you work out the solution quickly, even somewhat messily, first on scrap paper and then write the solution in super neat print onto the actual essay.  If you don’t have enough time to verify your answers three times, just make sure, at minimum, you use the full exam time.  Never leave an exam early.
  • If you are filling out bubble tests, bring a wooden ruler to cover up the rows immediately below the row you are answering. This minimizes the error of filling in the wrong row.
  • Lastly, bring two calculators into the exam, if need be and allowed. Use the cheap calculators that allow you to enter the computations in the easiest way possible, including brackets, in the exact order you see on the question.  There’s nothing worse than expensive calculators that force you to restructure the question so that the calculators’ overly complex computers can generate an answer.

Once you learn the tips for taking exams, you’ve got an edge.

But how do you take notes if you’re attending a live lecture? That, my friend, is the subject of another Cookbook.