How to do Well on a Test: Preparation Tips & Resources

Posted on December 30 2019

A variety of middle-school age students take a test in a classroom.

Ask students about their favorite school activity and you’ll get a range of answers. Ask them what their least favorite school activity is and they’ll almost all have the same answer: taking tests.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s true/false, multiple-choice, short answer, essay, or some other type, tests naturally make students feel stressed. While eliminating all the anxiety that’s evoked by preparing for and taking a test may be impossible, students wondering how to do well on a test can boost their confidence by being prepared and practiced. 

Effective test-taking strategies depend on the type of test and the subject being tested. Regardless of the format of the test questions and answers, or the material to be tested on, most test-preparation techniques require having a plan and sticking to it. Here’s a look at the best approaches to test preparation long before the test date, immediately before the test, and during the test.


Weeks, Days, and Hours Before the Test

Doing well on a test requires understanding the goals of the course and how it fits into a scholastic plan before classes even begin. Students perform better on tests by adopting a time-management plan that reserves sufficient study time for each subject, so they avoid cramming just before the test. 

Long-term test preparation includes getting regular sleep, staying current with all class assignments, and joining a study group to review the test material. The best resource for pretest information is the teacher. Asking what material will be covered on the test, what types of questions will be used (multiple-choice, essay, etc.), and if there are practice questions or practice exams available will help in test preparation. 

An important skill for all students is note taking. Most information on tests is covered during class or in homework assignments. Teachers frequently repeat the most important topics to be tested on. Reviewing class notes to identify the subjects that have received the most attention in class and homework assignments will be beneficial. Sharing notes with classmates or others in a study group to find the most pertinent material is also helpful. 

The night before the test, students may be tempted to cram, but doing so is counterproductive for several reasons. First, cramming causes anxiety because students focus too much on what they don’t know rather than reviewing the material they’re already familiar with. Second, cramming usually means studying rather than sleeping. Being well rested and alert is more useful than being tired and distracted after a cram session. And third, studying the material over time results in better retention of more information than cramming in one short session.  


On Test Day and Immediately Before Beginning the Test

Test day is when the pretest routine kicks in: Students should wake up from a restful eight hours of sleep and enjoy a nutritious breakfast that goes light on the coffee and heavy on water. Practicing deep, slow breathing and other relaxation exercises can help calm nerves. Reviewing notes can be helpful, but avoid over-studying before the test to keep the mind fresh and alert.

A test-preparation routine can also include a checklist of materials needed for the test, including scratch paper, extra pencils, and a calculator, among other items. Before taking an online exam, it’s important to ensure access to the test site and have all required test materials.

Arriving early to the test site, or for online tests signing in to the test page at least several minutes before the test is scheduled to begin, can also calm frayed nerves. Students need to listen carefully to the test instructions to understand how the test will be scored. They can remind themselves how well prepared they are; take a few deep, slow breaths; and visualize themselves facing the material. Then they’ll be ready to start.


Strategies to Apply During the Test

Once the test starts, it may be best to read through the entire exam before starting to answer. This can depend on the subject being tested and the form of the test. For example, true/false and multiple-choice tests may not require reading through all the test questions before answering. However, for short answer and essay questions, students may benefit from answering the questions they feel most confident about first and then returning to the trickier questions later. 

Read each question carefully before answering. Some questions may need to be read twice to be completely understood. Identify keywords in essay questions, such as “define,” “compare,” or “discuss.” Encountering difficult questions will hopefully recall those key topics identified while studying. This can provide clues as to the best approach to use for the answer.

A key to doing well on a test is time management. After reviewing all the questions at the start of the test, calculate how much time is needed on each question or section of the test. If one question or section is taking too much time, it’s better to move on and return to troublesome questions after taking the entire test.  

Budget test time to allow a few minutes at the end to double-check all answers. This is key to discovering easily corrected mistakes. And if an answer doesn’t seem right, don’t hesitate to change it.


Being Prepared Builds Student’s Test-Taking Confidence

Much of the concern students feel about how to do well on a test can be eliminated by mastering the material they’re being tested on. Mastering the subject matter isn’t something that can be done the night before the exam: It requires a well-thought-out test-taking plan and the time necessary to put that plan in place. Students who feel they have a good grasp of the subject will approach the test with confidence rather than with sweaty palms.

Solid planning and preparation help students relax before and during a test. Devising a winning test-preparation strategy is at the heart of The American Academy’s online College Readiness course, which puts students on track to thrive in academic settings by teaching time-management, study scheduling, and other test-preparation skills. Learn more about how The American Academy’s College Readiness course lays the foundation for success in college.


Recommended Readings

Managing High School Stress: 5 Key Tips

5 Study Tips for Visual Learners

7 Tips for Establishing a Successful Homeschool Schedule


American Nurse Today, “Test-Taking Tips”

GreatSchools, “Test-Taking Tips”

Intelligent, “Use Test-Taking Strategies on Exam Day”

KidsHealth, “Test-Taking Tips”

Social Psychology Network, “Tips on Taking Multiple-Choice Tests”

TeacherVision, “Top 10 Test-Taking Tips for Students”

ThoughtCo., “How to Take a Test”