If you’re looking for the best tips to help you improve your test taking skills, you’re in exactly the right place.
Because I’m a Cambridge-trained memory psychologist and experienced exam coach, and the science behind test taking is one of my all-time favourite topics. I’ve even written a best-selling book on the subject: Outsmart Your Exams.
So keep reading for 23 of my ultimate, science-backed tips and tricks to help you maximise your marks AND:
- Combat exam day nerves
- Improve your time management
- Prepare effectively
- Answer with confidence
Part 1: Tips that ensure you’re prepared
As Benjamin Franklin once said: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Make sure you’re as prepared as possible to take your tests by implementing these seven tips:
1. Immunise yourself
One of the most important tips for test taking success is to:
Take a vaccine against exam day nerves by doing regular mock tests!
Leading up to the exam itself, recreate exam day conditions (as accurately as you can: grab a timer but leave your books!) and take some mocks.
You’ll practise your exam-taking tactics, build your confidence, and work on your time management.
And mocks are superb for learning how to soothe your nerves – in fact, the more you don’t want to take a mock test, the more you need to take one!
2. Plan the big stuff…
Have a really clear plan for your exam period.
This applies even if you’ve just got one exam: think about how you’ll use the final 24-36 hours before the exam!
And it’s especially important if you have multiple exams, say over a week or more.
You’ll want to draw up a master timetable that includes all your exam timings clearly laid out but also a timetable for final preparations for each paper.
Make all those decisions in advance, so that when you’re in the midst of exam week, you know exactly what you need to do and when!
You can find much more detailed guidance on this, plus a printable or digital template for this as part of your bonus pack, if you pick up a copy of Outsmart Your Exams.
3. … and the small stuff
Don’t fly blind: it’s just as important to make a clear gameplan for how you’ll spend your time when you’re actually in the exam.
Make sure you know the time available to you and the sections of the exam paper.
Decide on the time management strategies you’re going to implement (see Part 3) and make sure you include them! And practice with some mock exams to make sure your timings work.
If you’d like some exact guidance on how to set up the best exam gameplan for you, head over to Chapter 20 in Outsmart Your Exams– it’s got exactly what you need!
4. Taper like a pro
Professional athletes taper their training in the week leading up to a big race, which means they train less and rest more, so their legs are fresh and not sore come the big day.
You should think about doing the same.
Pro tip: the week before an exam isn’t the time to start pushing yourself, so study steadily and make sure there’s juice in the tank for exam day!
5. The right tools for the job
Know the kit you need for each exam – stationary, calculator, ID cards, and so forth.
Follow these steps to make sure you’re definitely prepared:
- Write up a checklist several days in advance
- Make sure you own all the items on it
- Assemble the list the night before the exam
You’ll be feeling less stressed on the morning of your exam!
6. Stay hydrated
Bring a bottle of water into the exam.
I suggest defaulting to a 500ml bottle – that’s just under a pint.
That’s big enough to quench your thirst over a long exam, not so large that you’ll over-drink and end up running to the loo too often!
If it’s really hot, and especially if it’s a long paper, up it to a 750ml bottle!
Make sure to put it in the fridge the night before so it’s nice and cool for exam day.
7. Get your mind and body exam fit
Get yourself in top condition so you’ll perform at your best!
If energy and stamina is a problem (especially for long papers):
- make sure you are physically fit through regular exercise and having a good sleep routine.
Part 2: Tips for developing a champions mindset
Master your test taking mindset by channelling your inner champion! How? Follow these four tips:
8. Walk the walk
Even if you don’t feel like a top performer on exam day, pretend you are and act accordingly.
No-one will know the difference but you, and you might even convince your nerves!
9. Bring your A game
Be greedy for marks!
Leave no stone unturned in your quest to score every last point you can – within the time available, of course.
Make sure you know which test taking strategies and tricks you’ll be using in the exam and implement them confidently!
Why not get your A game pumped and ready with:
- episodes of the Exam Study Expert podcast on exam techniques, exam week hacks, and memory and stress
- a copy of my Exam Success Cheat Sheet: for all my top tips in an easy to understand, beautifully illustrated format!
10. Re-train your nervous brain
If you’re feeling nervous, use this tip – it’s one of my favourites for a confident test taking mindset!
Remind yourself that the physical sensations of nervousness are identical to the physical sensations of excitement.
11. Work the problem
Remember, when it comes to taking tests, it’s often the case that the problem is hard because the problem is hard.
There is a mechanical solution that doesn’t rely on your genius and creativity!
So simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other, being methodical, and working it through, one step at a time!
Part 3: Tips to help you master answering the questions
Let’s get down to the core of your test taking performance with these next seven tips. Want to know how to avoid those silly mistakes? Read on!
12. Eye skipping? No thanks!
Fun fact: when we read, our eyes don’t focus on every word. Instead, they move in jumps called saccades, focusing once every few words.
That’s dangerous in an exam, because you could skip over a key command word or key bit of data in your haste.
It happens all the time AND can cost many marks!
So force your eyes to slow down and be systematic by reading with a pen in your hand, underlining key words and commands as you go.
13. Order matters
Be strategic about the order you answer the questions in.
Because the order of the exam paper is not necessarily the best order for you to tackle it in!
There’s a whole chapter on this in Outsmart Your Exams, because this point alone can bump your grade quite dramatically if done well.
But in short, you want to think about whether you’re:
- Starting with easy stuff to ease you in
- Starting with hard stuff while you’re fresh
Or my personal favourite:
- Starting by getting all your thinking and remembering done up front, especially for planning long essay-style questions!
Make sure to include details like this in your exam paper gameplan!
14. Make an investment in planning
Talking of long essay-style questions…
… Be generous with the time you allocate to the planning phase, and watch as your mark goes up, almost by magic!
Spending at least a quarter of your time just planning your response can be a truly fantastic investment of your time during the exam.