At some point college exams will be a memory, something to reflect on, and even, in some cases, chuckle about. The anxiety will be just part of the past, as will the stacks of 3 X 5 flash cards, the long study sessions, and the smell of freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils.

While some people might consider exams a nightmare designed to weed out the faint of heart, it’s important to remember that they exist for good reason. Namely, to consolidate learning. Exams provide an incentive to learn. They also give you a purpose for synthesizing the information and ideas you’ve encountered in a unit or semester—if you didn’t go through the steps of reviewing, studying, and testing you wouldn’t know the course content as deeply. Exams also serve as important indicators of gaps in your knowledge; in this way, both you and your instructor learn from your performance on an exam.

Of course, exams are an imperfect measure of what a person truly knows—a well-prepared student can have a bad day and a well-intentioned professor can write a bad test. Knowing that exams are imperfect should help ease any anxiety; if you have a bad day and do poorly on one, it’s just that—a bad day and one test—not a marker of your ultimate success or failure.

Test Anxiety

Almost everybody gets the pre-test jitters. In fact, some of that nervousness may help bolster performance. Some students, however, experience intense anxiety. According to Greenberger and Padesky, clinical psychologists and authors of Mind Over Mood, “Anxiety can be reduced either by decreasing your perception of danger or increasing your confidence in the ability to cope with threat.” When we apply that statement to test taking, we need to ask, “What is the perception of danger?” and “How does one increase confidence in one’s ability to cope?”

We’ll let you answer the first question for yourself. Here are some tips for increasing confidence in your abilities:

  • Give yourself sufficient time to prepare for the exam.
  • Imagine the test as one step in a process (after all, it is!). Notice how successfully you complete each step (the steps might include attending class, taking notes, creating a study guide, completing practice quizzes, and taking the test).
  • Schedule an appointment with your instructor at least one week prior to the exam if you have questions about any material that confuses you.
  • Participate in a study group or prepare with another student.
  • Visualize yourself succeeding on the exam.
  • Avoid studying with other students who seem intensely anxious.

You can’t avoid exams in college, so you’ll have many opportunities to face your fears and build up your confidence. If you have such bad test anxiety that you do avoid exams you should make an appointment with your academic advisor and/ or a counselor to discuss how your fear is impacting your studies.

Preparing for an Exam

The biggest mistake students tend to make before an exam is to disrupt their normal schedules. Preparing for an exam in such a way interferes with familiar sleeping, eating, and other habits and makes it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. Here are some ways to make the most of the night before and the day of an exam:

  • Maintain a regular diet and sleep schedule. Staying up late and snacking on unhealthy foods can not only diminish your performance on the exam, but also add unneeded stress.
  • Give yourself sufficient time to gather necessary materials. Doing so will ensure that you have everything you need when you get to the exam and you won’t be madly scrambling to get out of your apartment.
  • Do what you need to do to be alert, whether that’s taking a shower, having a real breakfast, or going out for a run.
  • If allowed, bring a small snack and/or drink into the exam room so that you can maintain energy throughout the test.
  • Glance through your study materials on the morning of the exam to refresh your memory


No one will recommend cramming for an exam, but if you do find yourself in such a situation, here’s the “right” way to cram:

  • Maintain a positive attitude. If you attended the class and completed your assignments, you should do fine on the exam. Sure, you could do better with more time to study, but you’ll do the best you can do with the limited time you have left.
  • Make efficient use of the time you do have. Focus on the concepts and ideas with which you are unfamiliar, rather than reviewing materials you already know well.
  • Take frequent, short breaks about once an hour to stretch and walk around a little. This will keep you active, alert, and awake.
  • Study in a location that encourages concentration, such as a desk or table. Avoid studying on your bed, sofa, or anywhere that will be too comfortable and distracting.
  • Avoid stimulants like coffee, soda, or others that might keep you alert for a time, but leave you in an extremely drowsy or agitated state.
  • Eat healthy foods while you are studying and immediately prior to the exam.
  • Try to get sufficient rest so that you can think clearly during the exam.

Strategies for Taking an Exam

Having a game plan to follow on exam day will make the experience less stressful. The following are strategies that should be help you through the examination process.

  • Arrive early. Have your materials ready and find a comfortable seat. In fact, sitting in your regular sit can help you recall information.
  • Relax and think positively: I can do this. I know this stuff.
  • Dress appropriately. This seems silly, but being too hot or too cold can easily distract you.
  • Preview the exam. When you receive your exam, take a few minutes to look it over. Make sure you check each page, front and back, so you don’t miss a section. This will allow you to determine the amount of time you should spend on each part.
  • Read the instructions carefully. It takes time to do, but it’s critical. There have been countless points lost by not following directions, points lost because students only wrote one essay when two were required, or wrote “T” instead of “True” and got marked down, or failed to write their answers in the required format.
  • Start with what you know. Some exams questions must be approached in sequence. However, some exams you can skip around and answer the questions you know first. There are advantages to doing this: it builds confidence, maximizes the number of points you’ll earn, and allows you more time later in the test to tackle the really tough questions. Also, answering questions you know immediately might help jog your memory for those that are more difficult.
  • Write legibly. Instructors can’t grade what they can’t read. If your instructor has to squint and puzzle through big chunks of your writing, she or he will give up and only give you points for those parts he or she can read. Take the time to write clearly.
  • Show your work. Leave a record of your thought process so your instructor can see how you arrived at your answer. Sometimes you’ll get partial credit for taking the correct steps even if you ended with a wrong answer.
  • Concentrate. Easier said than done, but try to zero in on your exam not on the sniffles and coughing coming from your classmates.
  • Don’t panic if you don’t know the answer to a question. Skip that question and come back to it after you’ve answered the ones you know. It’s usually best to attempt an answer even if you’re pretty sure it will be wrong. You might get partial credit if you can demonstrate some knowledge related to the question.
  • Learn from the exam as you take it. On many exams, questions build on one another or provide clues for other questions’ answers. Chapter 10 Exams 83
  • Take time at the end of the exam. If possible, give yourself a chance to review your test after you complete it.
  • Hand in your test on time. Students have received a score of zero for not turning in a test on time. Don’t take a risk.

Check it Twice!

Before you turn in your exam, double check it to make sure you’ve taken care of the details. Some common mistakes are easily avoidable. Follow these steps every time:

  • Make sure your name, student identification number, and other required information are included on your exam.
  • Double check the Scantron/bubble form (if applicable) to verify you’ve filled in the correct bubble for each question.
  • Review the exam and instructions a final time to ensure that you have fulfilled all the requirements.

Review Your Graded Exam

You probably won’t post your graded exam on the refrigerator, but you definitely should review it. Why? One reason is to check for any mistakes in calculations your instructor or TA might have made. The other, more powerful, reason is to learn from the mistakes you made and the test itself.

The following tips will help you effectively review your exam:

  • Calculate your score to verify that the grader computed it correctly.
  • Review the exam for answers that were marked wrong but you still think are correct. Rework the answers, this time with all the resources available to you. If you cannot arrive at the correct answer on your own, ask for assistance from the tutoring center or your instructor.
  • Analyze the test itself: Where do the questions originate? Lectures? Textbook? Assignments? This will make it easier for you to focus your studying for the next exam for that instructor.
  • Correct each of the incorrect and partially correct answers to better understand why they were wrong or what they were missing. Sometimes instructors provide model answers to assist students with this process.
  • Schedule an appointment with your instructor to discuss any questions you may have and to ask for his or her advice on studying for future exams.

Exams are a necessary if not entirely pleasant part of the learning process. Stay focused on your ultimate goal—learning—and you’ll be able to diffuse some of the stress exams cause. Approach each class hour and study session with a desire to learn, and tests will become just another step in the process.


4-ldcsContent provided from the Life During College Series – Exams chapter. Arndt, Terry & Coleman, KirrinCollege Transition Publishing. Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. To learn more, about these and other valuable resources, visit College Transition Publishing. Want to purchase your own copy? Visit our product catalog.

error: Content is protected !!