From pop quizzes to standardized tests, exams are an important part of the life of every high school student.

The best way to ensure that you’ll get the grade you want is to understand the material thoroughly. Good test taking skills, however, can help make the difference between a top grade and an average one. Mastering these skills can also help reduce stress and relieve test-taking anxiety. 

In this blog, we’ve divided our tips for test taking into two categories: seven things you can do to prepare for your next exam and seven things you should do once the test begins. We’ve also included four strategies that can help with test taking anxiety.

We hope these test taking tips will help you succeed the next time you are facing an exam, big or small!

Seven Best Strategies for Test Prep

You’ve probably heard the quote (originally credited to Alexander Graham Bell): “Preparation is the key to success.”

When it comes to test taking, these are words to live by. 

Here are the seven best things you can do to make sure you are prepared for your next test.

1. Cultivate Good Study Habits

Understanding and remembering information for a test takes time, so developing good study habits long before test day is really important. 

Do your homework assignments carefully, and turn them in on time. Review your notes daily. Write out your own study guides. Take advantage of any practice tests your teacher gives you, or even create your own. 

These simple steps, when done habitually, will help ensure that you really know your stuff come test day. 

2. Don’t “Cram”

It might seem like a good idea to spend hours memorizing the material you need the night before the test.

In fact, cramming for a test is highly counterproductive. Not only are you less likely to retain the information you need, cramming also increases stress, negatively impacts sleep, and decreases your overall preparedness.

So avoid the temptation to stay up late reviewing your notes. Last minute cramming is far less likely to improve your grade than developing good study habits and getting a good night’s sleep.

3. Gather Materials the Night Before

Before going to bed (early, so you get a good night’s sleep), gather everything you need for the test and have it ready to go. 

Having everything ready the night before will help you feel more confident and will minimize stress on the morning of the test. And it will give you a few extra minutes to sleep and eat a healthy breakfast.

4. Get a Good Night’s Sleep

And speaking of sleep…showing up to your test well-rested is one of the best things you can do to succeed on test day.

Why should you make sleep a priority? A good night’s sleep will help you think more clearly during the test. It will also make it easier to cope with test-taking stress and anxiety. Moreover, excellent sleep habits have been shown to consolidate memory and improve academic performance, as well as reduce the risk of depression and other mental health disorders. 

5. Eat a Healthy Breakfast

Like sleeping, eating is an important part of self-care and test taking preparation. After all, it’s hard to think clearly if your stomach is grumbling.

As tough as it can be to eat when you’re nervous or rushing out the door, plan time in your morning on test day to eat a healthy breakfast. 

A mix of complex carbohydrates and healthy protein will keep you feeling full without making you feel sluggish. Whole wheat cereal, eggs, oatmeal, berries, and nuts may be great choices (depending on your personal dietary needs and preferences). It’s best to avoid foods that are high in sugar, as they can give you a rush of energy that will wear off quickly, leaving you feeling tired.

And don’t forget to drink plenty of water. If possible, bring a bottle of water with you on test day.

6. Arrive Early

Arriving early at a test location can help decrease stress. And it allows you to get into a positive state of mind before the test starts. 

Choose your seat as soon as possible. Organize your materials so they are readily available when you need them. Make sure you are physically comfortable (as much as possible). 

By settling in early, you are giving yourself time to get organized, relaxed, and mentally ready for the test to begin. Even in a high school setting, maximizing the time you have in the test classroom—even if it’s just a couple of minutes—can help you feel more comfortable, settled, and focused before the test begins. 

7. Develop Positive Rituals

Don’t underestimate the importance of confidence and a positive mindset in test preparation. 

Positive rituals can help combat negative thinking, test anxiety, and lack of focus that can easily undermine your success on test day. Plan some extra time to go for a short walk or listen to your favorite music. Engage in simple breathing exercises. Visualize yourself succeeding on the test. 

Your rituals can be totally unique to you. The important thing is developing a calming habit that will boost your confidence, attitude, and concentration when the test begins.

Seven Best Test-Taking Tips for Success

You have gotten a good night’s sleep, eaten a healthy breakfast, arrived early, and done your positive test-day ritual. You are ready to start the test! 

Different types of tests require different test taking strategies. You may not want to approach a math test the same way you would an essay test, for example. And some computerized tests such as SATs require you to work through the test in a specific way.

However, there are some general test taking strategies that will improve your chances of getting the grade you want on most, if not all, tests. 

1. Listen to the Instructions

Once the test is front of you, it’s tempting to block everything out so you can get started right away. 

Doing so, however, could cause you to miss out on critical information about the test itself.

The teacher or proctor may offer details about the structure of the test, time limitations, grading techniques, or other items that could impact your approach. They may also point out steps that you are likely to miss or other tips to help improve your chances of success. 

So be sure to pay close attention to their instructions before you get started.

2. Read the Entire Test

If possible, look over the entire test quickly before you get started. Doing so will help you understand the structure of the test and identify areas that may need more or less time. 

Once you read over the test, you can plan out how you want to approach each section of the test to ensure that you can complete the entire test within the allotted time.

3. Do a “Brain Dump”

For certain types of tests, remembering facts, data, or formulas is key. For these tests, it can be helpful to take a few minutes to write down all the information you need on a scrap paper before you get started. 

Putting that important information on paper can relieve stress and help you focus on the test questions without worrying about your ability to recall the facts. And now you have a kind of “cheat sheet” to refer to throughout the test!

4. Answer the Questions You Know First

When possible, do a first pass through the test to answer the “easy” questions or the ones you know right away. When you come to a question that you can’t answer (relatively) quickly, skip it on this first pass. 

Don’t rush through this first pass, but do be mindful of time—you’ll want to leave yourself enough time to go back and answer the questions you skipped. 

*It’s important to remember that this technique is not possible on some tests. Standardized computer-based tests often do not allow you to skip questions and return to them later. On these types of tests, you will need to work through each problem in order instead of skipping around. 

5. Answer the Questions You Skipped

Once you’ve done a first pass, you now have to go back and answer the questions you skipped.

In the best case scenario, you might find some of these questions aren’t as challenging as you thought at first. Your mind is warmed up and you are fully engaged and focused at this point in the test. And answering the questions you know easily may have reminded you of the details you need for these questions.

Of course you may still struggle with some of the questions, and that’s okay. Hopefully doing a first pass somewhat quickly allows you to take your time with the more challenging questions.

6. Be Sure the Test is Complete

Once you think you’ve answered all the questions, double check to make sure you didn’t miss any. Check for additional questions on the back of the paper, for instance, or other places that you might have missed or not noticed during your initial read-through.

A common question is whether you should skip questions that you can’t answer. It’s not possible to answer that question in a general sense: it depends on the specific test and the teacher’s rules. It may also depend on the value of each individual question, and whether your teacher gives partial credit.

But, if you’re not penalized for a wrong answer or you are penalized for leaving an answer blank, it is probably better to put something down than nothing.

7. Check Your Work

Finally, if you have time left, go back through the test and check your answers. 

Read over short answer and essay questions to check for typos, points you may have missed, or better ways to phrase your answers. If there were multiple components to the question, make sure you answered all of them. Double check your answers on math questions in case you made a small error that impacts the final answer. You don’t want to overthink answers, but a doublecheck can help you find—and correct—obvious mistakes.

Four Ways to Cope with Test-Taking Anxiety

Nearly every student gets nervous before a test at some point, especially if the exam is an important one. If you are lucky, your pre-test nervousness is mild and can be mitigated by these test taking tips. 

A mild case of nerves can even be somewhat beneficial (if uncomfortable); the surge of adrenaline at the root of a nervous feeling can keep you focused and energized.

For some students, however, test taking anxiety—a form of performance anxiety—can be debilitating and overwhelming. This level of anxiety can be extremely difficult to cope with. 

However, there are a few things you can do before and during a test to help cope with more severe stress and anxiety:

1. Take a Meditation or Sitting Stretch Break

Take a minute or two before or even during a test to focus on your breathing, relax tense muscles, do a quick positive visualization, or stretch your limbs. The calming effect can be beneficial and worth a few minutes of test time. 

2. Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones

Learn to recognize when your brain is caught in a cycle of negative thinking and practice turning negative thoughts into positive ones. For example, when you catch yourself saying “I’m going to fail”, force yourself to say “I’m going to succeed” instead. With practice, this can be a powerful technique to break the cycle of negative thinking undermining your confidence.

3. Mistakes are Learning Opportunities

It’s easy to get caught up in worrying about a bad grade. Instead, remind yourself that it’s ok to make mistakes. A wrong answer on a test is an opportunity to understand where you need to fill in a gap in your knowledge or spend some extra time studying. 

4. Seek Professional Help

Test taking anxiety is very real and should be taken seriously. If you find that your anxiety does not respond to these calming tips, it’s time to seek professional help. Your guidance counselor or a therapist may be able to offer long-term strategies for coping with test taking anxiety. Talk with your parents or guardians about finding someone to help you cope.

Following these test taking tips can’t guarantee that you will get an A on your next big test. Only hard work and lots of study time can do that. 

However, these test taking strategies can help you feel more confident and perform better on test day. Tests may be an inevitable part of student life, but with preparation and confidence, you can succeed on them all!