How to Survive College Exams
So, you made it to college! Congrats, it's an amazing experience with much more freedom than previous systems. But with the added independence comes more pressure; it's up to you to attend class and stay on top of your grades.
Many students, even smart ones, buckle under pressure and make avoidable mistakes, and while a few bad grades aren't the end of the world, they could delay your degree or diminish scholarship opportunities. So, how can you keep your grades high and your stress levels low? Here are ten test-taking tips to help you ace your exams and survive college!
1. Attend the Class Prior to the Exam
It's easy for me to say you should just attend all your classes. But the reality is that we all skip from time to time, especially with easier electives.
But be smart with it. Have a friend who can update you if you miss anything important, let the professor know ahead of time that you'll be absent (and why) so they don't hold it against you, and try not to miss especially important dates. Many of my instructors issued a study guide the class right before an exam, often giving clues or hints about the actual test's questions.
Some professors also partially grade based on attendance (look at the syllabus if you're not sure), so think carefully before skipping such a class.
2. Use Ratemyprofessors.com
Ideally, you'll want to log on to Ratemyprofessors.com before you even select your courses, as you can get a good feel to what other students think of professors based on feedback. Depending on the size of your university, you might have different options for which professor to take when selecting your courses, and RMP will help you determine which one is best.
Even if you're like me and attended a smaller university where you sometimes have no choice but to take a certain professor, RMP can still help, giving various tips for what to expect from a challenging teacher.
3. Study Previous Students' Tests
If you can get your hands on a copy of a test from previous semesters, you're well ahead of the curve. Many professors reuse questions or simply change their numbers, meaning as long as you have the formula down, you can duplicate the result even with different values.
This means it's important to meet people in your major so you have connections to help you when available. While attaining prior tests isn't cheating, some professors don't care for it, so don't advertise that you have old exams.
If possible, it's best to have exams from students who got A's, as you'll have correct examples and won't have to guess at the right answers. But don't make the mistake of assuming your exam will be exactly like an older one; most teachers are aware that exams circulate and thus change at least some of their problems.
4. Use Available Resources With Online Tests
Maybe you've got an online exam, a vastly different challenge. First, determine whether your exam is proctored, meaning someone will actually watch you take it (whether in-person or via a program like ProctorU). If this is the case, you can't use the internet to help you out, you need to be absolutely prepared going in.
However, if there's no proctor... I'm not saying you should use Google, Quizlet, etc., but I'm not not saying it. That said, professors usually place strict time limits on non-proctored tests, so while you can access additional resources, you have to be quick enough to find the information you need. If you have an online textbook or PowerPoint, use control+F for the "find" function to quickly search for specific words/phrases.
If you're feeling especially sly, my cousin's friend's brother's lawyer suggests that you partner with a classmate, rotating who takes the exam first (assuming you don't have to start at the exact same time). This gives you an extra brain and manpower for searching information, and when you go second, lets you peek ahead of time at what might be your questions (sometimes they rotate, so don't assume you're set).
5. Determine Whether Your Final Is Cumulative
Some courses have their final exam structured exactly like a regular test, meaning it won't count for any extra percentage points, and sometimes it's not cumulative, so you only have to focus on the material since your last test. Other classes have finals that are worth more than regular tests and/or cumulative, meaning you shouldn't discard knowledge from previous exams.
Again, consult your syllabus or ask your professor if you don't know what your final's format is. In math or science courses, even if a final isn't cumulative, concepts often build on each other, so you likely still need to remember past material.
6. Guess if You Don't Know
Hopefully you've studied by the time your exam rolls around, but if you get stuck on a question, skip it and come back (unless you're taking one of those annoying online tests that doesn't let you revisit prior questions). Multiple choice/matching exams give you a fair shot at lucking into the right answer with a guess, but be advised that some professors counter this by using ridiculous amounts of possible answers. Most scantrons only go from A-E (5 options), but I've seen questions ranging A-L (12 options) or beyond.
Tricky essay or fill-in-the-blank problems are harder to guess, but always put something down. Depending on your professor, you might be rewarded if your answer is anywhere in the ballpark; one of my teachers valued humor and gave partial credit if you could make him laugh. Even if you're wrong, it at least shows that you tried, increasing their opinion of you.
7. Give Yourself a Realistic Workload Each Semester
I currently work at my old college, and I commonly see students sign up for too many courses. Sure, 18 credit hours a semester theoretically helps you graduate sooner, but even the best students would struggle with that workload. This is especially true if, like me, you worked multiple jobs throughout your undergrad.
By the same token, make sure you're enrolled in enough courses to maintain any scholarships you have, which often require you to be a full-time student. It varies based on the student, their major, and whether they work, but I often recommend 9-15 credit hours. Spread out difficult classes where possible; if you're taking a tough subject or challenging professor, balance it with some easier courses.
Dropping is an option, but it's a last resort, as it means any time and money (past the refund date) you've devoted are essentially wasted, and if you didn't drop early enough, you're stuck with a "W" on your transcript. To avoid this, don't overtax yourself in the first place; if 12, 9, or even 6 hours is all you can manage, do that.
8. Utilize Your Professor's Office Hours
You can ask questions in class, but long problems (common in courses like chemistry and calculus) can require lengthy answers, which your professor might not be willing to take out of their instruction time. But you'll have plenty of opportunities for questions during their office hours.
I find students are often intimidated visiting professors one-on-one, but most teachers are happy to see you—it relieves their boredom and demonstrates your interest in their knowledge. I know social contact can be difficult for introverts, but there are numerous advantages to your professor liking you, from homework help to letters of recommendation and study tips.
Where possible, try to visit them a few class periods before your test, and maybe multiple times—some professors view students showing up for the first time right before an exam as looking for an easy way out. Have specific questions in mind, as generic queries like "what should I study?" could make you seem inattentive or lazy.
I've had more than one class where I suspect a B was rounded into an A because the professor saw my effort. I'm not saying to suck-up, but if you show that you're trying, the grading fairy may reward you.
9. Write Down Formulas When the Test Begins
Unless your professor allows a "cheat sheet", you can't take any study guide into the exam. But once the test begins, there's nothing stopping you from writing down any formulas or crucial information you've memorized. Once it's on paper, you don't have to worry about forgetting it later.
I earned a chemistry minor with my degree, and chemistry involves lots of nomenclature (correctly naming substances). For instance, compounds with two molecules have the prefix "di", three is "tri", four is "tetra", and so on. But by making a simple chart with each prefix from 1-9 at the start of the exam, I could relax and focus on solving problems without fear of forgetting what's already written.
10. Double-Check Your Work During the Test
I understand the temptation to bolt as soon as you finish your exam, escaping the stress and letting you continue with your day. But I can't tell you how many times I've caught my errors by double-checking answers with leftover time. Maybe that multiple choice question actually said "which isn't an example of...", maybe you made an arithmetic mistake, or maybe you completely overlooked a question. It's also important to read all answers; even if "B" is true, it might not be the right answer if "D" is "all of the above".
I've seen students rush so much that they accidentally missed an entire back page of questions, decimating their grade. Do yourself a favor and review your work to avoid missing answers to questions you knew. That said, don't talk yourself out of a correct answer; if you have a gut instinct, it's usually best to follow it.
Other College Tips
College is both liberating and overwhelming, a far cry from high school, but if you put in the effort, you can succeed. I know it's tricky juggling classes with sleep, work, and a social life, but do your best to balance your schedule. Try getting a group text going in tricky classes, keeping everyone in the loop and giving access to each other, and set reminders for online classes (which students tend to forget about and miss assignments from).
I don't want to scare you, but many students find sophomore year and beyond harder than freshman since they take a larger amount of upper-level classes with more complex material. That said, you'll also be more accustomed to college by then, and if you put in your all, you'll go far.
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 Jeremy Gill
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on April 30, 2020:
Thanks, and you're right, it's important to grow a rapport with teachers. I had an English professor who would proofread my papers for her own class, and several chemistry teachers who were kind enough to provide letters of recommendation for a lab position.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on April 29, 2020:
Excellent, Jeremy. My professors usually told me their office hours for students were some of the most under utilized time. I always visited my professors during those times; sometimes, we ate lunch together. Those were the days, indeed. Superb. Skillfully written. Dead-on with your tips and advice. Stay safe.
Liz Westwood from UK on April 26, 2020:
This is a great source of advice and checklist for students.