Updated date:

How to Pass a College Exam Successfully Without Stress


Glenn Stok likes to explore exciting activities that have captivating value. He writes about it to share the experience with his readers.

Student taking a final exam.

Student taking a final exam.

You can find various suggestions online that explain what you need to do to pass a college exam, and many of those discussions are helpful. However, I found a lack of information that deals with showing the teacher that you actually studied throughout the semester.

That can help you even when you give the wrong answer to exam questions. Getting the correct answer to an exam question may not be as important as understanding the curriculum and following exam instructions. Teachers have varying methods of assessing student’s results with exams.

Let’s begin with these two crucial things that your teacher is looking for from you.

  1. Understanding the curriculum
  2. Skill at following instructions

Later, I’ll walk you through an actual experience I had. That example will show you how I implemented these two crucial requirements and passed with an A+ even though I got the wrong answer.

Understanding the Curriculum

Students tend to think of their mistakes as a sign of failure. They become emotional over it instead of handling it rationally.1

Emotional thinking can cause stress while taking an exam. That leads to poor judgment, especially when handling complex exam problems.

If a student grasps the subject matter well enough, they can achieve better test scores even if their problem-solving skills don’t always arrive at the correct answers.

Keep that in mind when you study for your test. Don’t worry so much about answering complex questions correctly. If you did your homework throughout the semester, it could help avoid stress during an exam since you’ll know where to focus your attention.

Of course, you should try to answer questions accurately. But making an effort to show you understood the material goes a lot further.

Teachers are usually pleased to see that students understand the subject matter even if they don’t get the correct answer to a quiz problem. I learned that when I was in college, as with the example that I’ll share with you later.

Follow Exam Instructions Carefully

It’s crucial to know what the teacher wants from you. In some cases, your teacher might be asking to describe how you arrived at the answer. As I discussed above, correctly solving the problem might not be required as long as you can show you understand the problem. That understanding comes from studying well throughout the semester.

To be aware of your options, read the exam question carefully. Make sure you know what the teacher requires by paying close attention to the exam instructions. It's crucial to understand how to answer exam questions to show the teacher you are aware of the test requirements. Your teacher might be more interested in seeing that you follow instructions.2

If you find yourself running into trouble, reread the exam question to determine if you overlooked something. That is especially helpful if you are running out of time. It can save you wasted minutes working on a solution you don’t need to do.

My Final Exam Example

The final exam was for a physics class. The quiz had only one problem that needed to be solved. The instructions said to solve the problem and explain the results by describing how I arrived at my conclusion.

That was stressful because I thought with only one problem to solve, I’d either get it right or fail the entire exam.

The teacher gave us an exam workbook with several pages in which to solve the problem and show how we arrived at the answer. We had one hour to work on it.

After solving that single problem, I reviewed my answer to evaluate its accuracy and realized I had the wrong results!

When I discovered that I had the wrong answer, I looked at the clock on the wall and realized that I still had a little time left to try again.

Using the next couple of pages in the workbook, I redid the entire problem. This time I came up with a different answer. And again, I worked it backward to check if it was correct. Once again, I got it wrong. Now I was really feeling the pressure!

I didn’t have enough time to work through the entire problem again. Besides that, there weren’t enough pages remaining in the exam workbook to fill out another lengthy solution to the physics problem.

I gave some more thought to my predicament. Considering my options, the next best thing to salvage anything from this fiasco was to use the little time remaining to write an explanation to the teacher.

To address the issue correctly, I reread the exam instructions. I suddenly realized that there were actually two things the teacher wanted me to complete. I almost overlooked the importance of it.

  1. Work on solving the problem.
  2. Describe how we arrived at the conclusion.

I finally knew what was required to pass that test. Taking up that last available page of the workbook, I wrote a note to the teacher to justify my conclusion. I described in detail the process I used to check my answer and how I came to the conclusion that I got it wrong.

I showed my knowledge of the problem-solving methods we learned in class, and I showed the instructor that I understood how to do it even though I kept getting the wrong results.

I wrote a full description of what I had done in the first couple of attempts to show that I understood the assignment.

I thought for sure that I would fail the exam. To my surprise, when the test scores came in, I got an A+!

My teacher was testing our ability to follow instructions, and getting the right answer was not necessary in that case. It may have been a trick question with no correct answer, or maybe I fouled up terribly.

Either way, I did the right thing by reviewing the instructions. That helped me realize I needed to respond to the second part of the instructions with a review of the outcome.

I had the opportunity to chat with my teacher after the semester. He explained that by showing I was mindful of the instructions and that I cared enough to check my work, he saw I would be able to handle similar problematic situations in the future.

What I Learned From This

Keep in mind that your teacher might merely want to see if you follow directions and know the importance of checking your results.

As it turned out, my teacher was satisfied to see that I was aware of my mistake. It benefited me to make an effort to check my work and struggle with it in the time I had remaining.

You can do well by displaying enough knowledge of the subject to show that you know what you're doing, even though you might have gotten the wrong answer.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a problem with a physics exam or any other type of subject. The crucial thing is to know how to manage your limitations and analyze the options you have available. And most of all, pay attention to instructions.

What’s the Purpose of a Final Exam?

Every teacher has a different plan. They might be using a final exam to discover how well students worked through the semester’s curriculum. They usually want to see how you apply what you’ve learned. I found that to be the case with most college courses, and it applies to the example I showed you above.

Kevin Gannon, a professor at the Grand View University in Iowa, explained that there is no one-size-fits-all for final exams.3

Mr. Gannon went on to say that some teachers merely give final exams because that’s what they do. Others might be more interested in discovering how well they taught the class.

Due to that discrepancy among instructors, it’s helpful to know what your teacher hopes to achieve. You can do that effectively by noticing how your teacher grades other tests throughout the semester.

Are they testing your skill at following instructions? Do they require a complete understanding of the course material? Or are they merely satisfied with your ability to catch your own errors and show that you know how to work your way through difficult problems?

It never hurts to discuss these things with your teacher. An open dialog can bring better knowledge of what your teacher wants from their students.

Once you have a clear vision of your teacher’s attitude toward exams, you’ll have a rational way of passing even the toughest of final exams without stressing over it.


  1. Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien. (March 20, 2014). “Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes” - edutopia.org
  2. Oxford Royale Academy. (Jun 12, 2020). “10 Exam Mistakes That Lose Easy Marks and How to Avoid Them” - Oxford Royale Academy
  3. Kevin Gannon. (November 26, 2018). “What Is the Purpose of Final Exams, Anyway?” - The Chronicle of Higher Education

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Glenn Stok


Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 28, 2020:

Thanks Pamela, Happy New Year to you too. Glenn

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 28, 2020:

Isn't amazing how an experience in life can change you forever? I think mindful attention does apply to multiple things in life, and your college example is excellent. This is a very good article, Glen.

Happy New Year!

Related Articles