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How to Pass a College Final Exam Successfully Without Stress

I learned a technique in college to improve your test score by revealing your understanding of the material, even with the wrong answers.

Student taking a final exam.

Student taking a final exam.

Just Show You Understood the Material

You can avoid stress with a final exam by knowing you can get the wrong answers and still grade well if you show the teacher you studied throughout the semester. You do that by revealing your understanding of the material.

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 students’ results with exams. Let’s begin with these two crucial things 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 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. As a result, they stress over it instead of handling it rationally.1

If you grasp the subject matter well enough, you can achieve better test scores even if you don’t always get 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, you’d 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 students understand the subject matter even if they don’t get the correct answer to a quiz problem. I learned that in college, and I’ll share an example later.

Follow Exam Instructions Carefully

It’s crucial to know what the teacher wants from you. Sometimes, your teacher might ask you to describe how you arrived at the answer. As long as you can show you understand the problem, correctly solving it might not be so important.

Make sure you know what the teacher requires by paying close attention to the exam instructions. Understanding how to answer exam questions is crucial to showing 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 time working on a solution you don’t need to do.

It’s Helpful to Know Your Teacher’s Purpose for a Final Exam

You need to understand your teacher's purpose for the final exam. You can do that effectively by noticing how they grade other tests throughout the semester. Then you'll know what's required.

  • Are they testing your skill at following instructions?
  • Do they require a complete understanding of the course material?
  • Do they want to see how you apply what you’ve learned?
  • Are they merely satisfied with your ability to catch your errors and show that you know how to work through difficult problems?

Every teacher has a different plan. 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.

Once you have a clear idea 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.

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

I redid the entire problem using the next couple of pages in the workbook. 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 realized that I got it wrong.

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

I wrote a complete 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. But 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 correct answer was not necessary in that case. It may have been a trick question with no right 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

Remember 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 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 your available options. And most of all, pay attention to instructions.


  1. Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien. (March 20, 2014). “Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes” -
  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!