Your Guide to Test-Taking: How Psychology Can Help

There is a lot of pressure for young people to do well on tests. There are so many standardized tests and important finals that seem like defining moments for students. It’s no wonder that we can invent some strange superstitions around what is best for us to do when a big exam approaches. Some people stay up all night cramming, while others get a full night’s sleep. Some will have to wear their lucky socks, or use their lucky pencil. Many people will complain when they get their test back that they had the right answer, then changed it in a moment of self-doubt.

In my experience, the most important thing is to be really self-confident and calm when you walk into your exam or quiz. Doing whatever helps you feel confident is a good strategy for you. Before taking a test, take a moment to think about something that makes you happy and smile. Research suggests that smiling reduces levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, so taking a few moments to smile can help you feel less stressed.

Professors and T.A.s will tell you that if you’ve studied along the way, haven’t procrastinated, and have a good understanding of the material, you’ll do great. New studies even show that writing your lecture notes by hand instead of typing them can help you retain information longer, which comes in handy on test day.

Additionally, being well-rested can help you recall information much better than if you tried to stay up and cram it all in the night before. Sleep can help you solidify memory into information through the process of memory consolidation and will help you focus. One study showed that those who got a good night’s sleep after learning performed better on tests.

Knowing some good test-taking strategies can also help you stay calm as you power through an exam. For example, read the question carefully and decide exactly what it is asking you. Break down the language and go from there. This makes it easier for you to create your response with things you’ve reviewed during class or your study sessions. To build your confidence during the exam, go through and answer all of the questions you’re sure of first, and then proceed to go back and answer the ones you were not sure of.

If you are taking a multiple choice exam, use that to your advantage. The answer is in front of you! First, think of your answer without looking at the choices and see if it is an option. If that doesn’t work, eliminate the options that are absolutely NOT the answer. Don’t panic and pay attention to the clues. Sometimes, even the grammar of the sentence can give you a hint. It may be obvious! Sometimes test writers plant hints, consciously or subconsciously. The context of the question can help spark your memory as well, do don’t panic.

Calm and confident is your mantra. If others around you are finishing, don’t feel rushed. You might still have plenty of time, so use it. If an answer strikes you as correct, don’t second guess or change your answer. Move forward with confidence and don’t think about your self-doubt. Anxiety is one of the most detrimental feelings during an exam because it takes your attention to dark thoughts of not doing well and away from the actual material you have to deal with in front of you! Keep your cool.

Doing well is an accumulation of good habits. Go through your class materials every day and go to the review sessions. Review with your friends, especially the ones who are doing well on the exams. If you end up doing not as well as you would have liked, see what resources are available to you for help to do better next time. Get some feedback and adjust your study habits. It is important that you have time with absolutely no distractions to study.

As important as your exams are to you, try to keep things in perspective. You can always improve on the next one. Most of the exams that we stress about are not really as defining as we may think, in the big picture. You don’t need to get a perfect A+ on everything. There may be other places where you can improve your grade with other assignments. The bonus to that is that doing your other assignments with diligence will also help you do better on tests. When you take a little pressure off yourself, doing well on tests is less daunting and your performance actually improves.

Recommended Reading

Staying Healthy During Midterms

Survival Tips for Finals Week

Sleep, Your Body and Your Mind


Whitbourne, S.K. (2011). “10 Failsafe Test-Taking Tips.” Psychology Today. N.p., Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

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