How to Take an Exam

by John Bandler

This short article offers guidance for those preparing for an exam, including those studying for certification exams. It is based upon my personal experience and contains some helpful concepts. Of course, everyone approaches testing from a different perspective, so adapt as needed to suit yourself.

I have taken a lot of tests over the years and have developed some decent skills. Challenging tests have included college exams, Army and State Police tests, law school admissions test and exams and the bar exams, and many certification tests, including some highly technical materials that were very challenging. So here are a few tips.

The tips

1. Prepare and study and learn. The most important part about taking an exam is to properly prepare and study. Learn the material, have confidence in yourself and your ability to learn it and pass it. Don’t try to take shortcuts or learn magic tricks to pass the test. See my article, How to Learn and Study.

2. Research the test taking location, format, and rules. Including:

  • Where you need to be and when, and how you will get there (early)
  • The rules of the test
  • What you must bring, what you may bring, what you cannot bring
  • Test format, how it is scored, how you will record your answers
  • Time limits
  • Test taking acknowledgements you will need to agree to.

3. As you approach the exam day and time, try to taper off studying, and relax and rest. The night before the exam you want to get a good night’s sleep. In the minutes and hours before the exam you want to relax, not stress. Try to avoid panic and last-minute cramming. If you must study hard shortly before the test, try do so in a calm and steady manner.

4. Show up early at the test location with everything you need. Taking the test remotely in your own home or office? Get in the room and at the desk early. Relax before the test.

5. Sometimes things go wrong for whatever reason. If it does, keep calm and do the best you can.

6. During the test:

  • Some stress is good, keeps you alert, and focuses your mind.
  • Don’t panic.
  • If you feel like you don’t know anything, or think you are bombing the test, relax and continue to do your best on every question.
  • Deep breaths can help. You could take a break, close your eyes, and count ten deep breaths.
  • Watch your time. If certain questions stump you, return to them later. Make sure you have time to read every question, as some may be easy.
  • Scrupulously follow exam rules and guidance. Be respectful of the proctor and their responsibilities to monitor for unethical behavior and cheating.

7. Multiple choice exams.

  • If you know the answer, complete it and move on.
  • Know your time budget for each question. Don’t labor too long over a single question to the point you might not be able to read all the test questions.
  • If you are unsure which answer is correct, try to rule out wrong answers.
  • Know if the exam penalizes for wrong answers. Most do not.
  • If the exam does not penalize for wrong answers, never leave any questions blank! See the math below.
  • Consider a multiple-choice exam with four possible answers and no penalty for wrong answers.
    • A monkey can get 25% right just by guessing!
    • If you can rule out one wrong answer (leaving 3 choices), your odds of guessing right improve to 33%
    • Rule out two, your odds are 50-50
    • If you are weighing two possibilities, some researchers indicate your first instinct may be more likely to be correct
  • Forget about research about whether answer a, b, c, or d is a more probable correct answer. That always sounded like hogwash to me especially since each test is proprietary. Focus on the text of the questions and answers.

My toughest tests

One of my most difficult tests was the bar exam to become an attorney -- three consecutive days of testing for which I studied practically full time for months.

Day one was in a ridiculously large convention hall in the Jacob Javits Center, with many hundreds of other test takers. Imagine a football field sized hall, with rows of desks as far as the eye can see.

Then I drove to another state for the following days of fun, but I made some mistakes enroute. I stopped at a friend’s house, was convinced to stay for dinner, then drank strong coffee for the drive. Traffic was horrible and delayed me but I finally made it to the hotel. After I got into bed the coffee had finally kicked as well as the stress of knowing I really needed a good night’s sleep. So I could not fall asleep for hours and relaxation techniques failed me. I finally got out of bed and did several sets of sit-ups and pushups to tire myself out, returned to bed and I finally fell asleep. I did not get the sleep I wanted but I woke up on time and it all worked out in the end.

I have taken tests where my confidence was shaken and I thought I was going to fail. There were questions that seemed irrelevant or pointless, answers that didn’t seem right, and material I just couldn’t remember. And I remember being on Army land navigation courses feeling hopelessly lost, worried that I would fail and have to repeat the entire training.

When challenges arise, just do your best

Despite your best efforts, things will not go perfectly, and no test is perfect either. Some questions are bad, some questions might be experimental and not be scored.

Once you are there taking the test, all that matters is for you to relax, focus, and do your best!

Adapt for you

Of course everyone learns differently and takes exams differently, so adapt for your use.

References and Additional Reading

This page is hosted at Copyright John Bandler, all rights reserved.

A copy of this article is also available on Medium at (though perhaps not kept as current).

Page posted 7/30/2021. Last Updated 03/29/2024.