Writing an exam involves certain techniques in the presentation of paper, which gain the attention of the evaluator of your answer sheet. Here are some important strategies that can add value to your answers. Go through the below list of general and specific strategies that work for exam aspirants.

Test taking strategies


General strategies

These strategies may be used for most types of tests in nearly every subject and should become part of every student’s test-taking plan. They are arranged in the order in which they should be used when taking a test.

Dump information

Information dumping refers to quickly writing down all information that one feels he/she may forget or confuse as the test is completed. If you fear you will forget or confuse names, dates, formulas, etc., and hence dump that information on the back of the answer sheet as soon as you receive it. Refer to the “dumped” information when answering questions.

Read the directions

Read all the directions given for all sections of the test, very carefully before attempting the exam. Pay special attention to words like “and,” “or,” “have to,” “may” and “best.” Think well and select which questions you would like to answer. Check if the answers may be used more than once, or if there is more than one answer for each question.  Break up complicated directions and run-on sentences into smaller parts. Circle or underline complex directions so you don’t forget to follow them carefully.

Scan the test paper

After reading the directions, quickly scan the entire test paper. Take note of the types of questions: essay, true-false, matching, etc. Pay particular attention to the number of questions and calculate the amount of information required to answer each. Look at the point values for each section or question. Quickly categorize sections as easy or difficult, and make a note in the margin next to each section.  Most exams encountered in school are accuracy tests, on which students are graded for content and organization.

Develop a plan

The next step involves quickly developing a plan for completing the exam. Plan your time on how much to spend on which question, and stick to your schedule. Leave the time-wasting, lower-point questions for last. Start with the easy questions, with the material you know the best, or the type of question (essay, true-false, multiple choice, etc.) on which you do the best. However, if you start with the questions you know the most about, be careful not to go overboard and spend too much time on them.

Plan to give more information in the answers to the higher-point questions than in the answers to the lower-point questions. Budget time for check your answers or fill in blanks. Check your watch after every section or each page to make sure you stay on schedule. Plan to use the entire time period allowed for the exam; there is no sense in rushing through the test.

Read the questions carefully

Don’t skip sample questions and answers, because they may give you clues as to what the teacher expects or how answers should be marked or organized. The complicated questions should be broke down into manageable parts initially and then work on each one. Number each part to make sure all of them are answered. Never over interpret the questions and search for some hidden meanings.

Make educated guesses

If you happen to face a question, which answer is not known to you, make a mark to go back to it later after you have worked through the entire test once. If you work over something you don’t know, you’re wasting precious time. However, avoid rereading questions over and over again as that wastes time too.  When you don’t get the answer, look for clues in the questions and the answer choices (for multiple choice or matching). Clues include grammar (only the correct answer is grammatically correct), verb tense (past, present or future tenses should match between question and answer), word type (noun versus verb), and singular versus plural (should match between question and answer).  Look for content clues in other test questions.

Look out for careless mistakes

Reread the directions to make sure you have completed each section of the test correctly. Then reread the questions to make sure you read them accurately and understand what they are asking.  Double-check your answers after you have completed the test and the pressure is reduced. Reread answers to make sure that you wrote what you intended to write and that you answered all parts of the question.  Be sure that all numbers and letters are clearly legible. Double check any math calculations, using a different method if possible. Make sure all answers are in the right places. Be sure all questions have an answer, even if it is just a guess (unless you are penalized for wrong answers).

Specific strategies

Here are some strategies discussed specifically relating to certain type of tests.

Essay tests

Essay tests allow teachers to test students’ abilities in remembering, organizing, and evaluating information. Let us have a look at the strategies for taking essay tests presented in the chronological order. They should be used before and during the exam.

Read the directions carefully

Students should read the directions carefully as they relate to very important points that should be kept in mind while answering essay tests.

Pay attention to the following points when reading directions:

  • Are you to answer every question or do you have choices?
  • Do you need to include certain number of ideas?
  • Are you expected to write answers with certain specific information like a few sentences or a paragraph, etc.?
  • Are you supposed to include examples?

Budget time

Decide how to divide all available time among the questions. Plan to spend more time on questions that count for more points allow time to check answers after completing all questions. Allow half of the time for writing an outline and half for writing the answer, for each question.

Read all questions before answering them

The habit of reading all the questions before answering reduces test anxiety as you come across the familiar questions. The brain starts processing information, by determining what has to be written and up to what extent of information is requested for the answer and how it should be answered etc.

While answering complex questions, try to break them down into smaller parts, numbering each to make sure all are answered. Scribble some points roughly at the end page of your answer sheet as you read each question, to hint you something.

Carefully examine instructions for directional words 

Observe the verbs that essay questions often contain, which indicate the students to do certain things. Know what is required by carefully going through them. Students must know what these words mean in order to provide the information that the teacher wants. The most commonly used directional words and their definitions are provided below. Be aware of variations on these words that are specific to certain teachers; not all teachers use the words in the same way.

Analyze: Divide the subject into its component parts and discuss each part

Compare: Show how the things referred are the same and how they differ.

Contrast: Show how they differ.

Criticize: Examine the advantages and disadvantages and give your judgment.

Defend: Give those details that prove it or show its value.

Define: Just give the meaning.

Describe: Give the complete structural and behavioural details of it and examples that show what it is and how it works.

Discuss and review: Examine from all angles. Teacher might mean trace, outline, describe, compare, list, explain, evaluate, defend, criticize, enumerate, summarize, or tell all you know about it.

Distinguish: Tell how this is different from the other ones similar to it.

Evaluate: Give your opinion as to the advantages and disadvantages.

Explain and show: Explain about what it is and Show, in logical sequence, means explaining the reasons on how or why something happened (or both).

Illustrate: Give some examples on how it works.

Justify: Give the facts relating to the topic, supporting it and then prove how it is actually true.

Name, list, tell, and enumerate: Give just the information that is specifically asked for.  List out the things related.

Prove: Show that it is true and that its opposite is false.

Summarize and outline: Give the main points relating to the topic. Produce the gist of it.

Trace: Show how something developed in a step by step sequence (usually chronologically).

Essay organization

Good essay writers spend half of their time formulating an outline before answering a question. This may seem like a large investment of time, but outlining ensures that each response is organized properly and answers the question asked. If one has prepared for the exam by reorganizing information and answering practice essay questions, the organizing process is completed ahead of time and precious testing time is saved.

The outline should be initially divided into general points and specific details. The general points usually are taken from the information in the question. Otherwise, try to restate different parts of the question. If the essay questions had been anticipated, try to remember the outline you prepared before the exam. Such outlines have to be organized in a manner depending on the question and the discipline.

Five common methods of organization

Chronological order

Organizing answers in chronological order refers to explaining them in the order of historical events, cause to affect, step-by-step sequence etc.

From general to specific

These include the general topic to subtopics, the theoretical ones to practical ones, generalizations to specific examples etc.

From least to most

Such answers include presenting the easiest ones to the most difficult ones, least important to the most important ones, least effective to the most effective, least controversial to most controversial, least complicated to most complicated, from the smallest to largest, weakest to strongest, from worst to best, From most to least, from most known to least known, from most factual to least factual (fact to opinion) etc.

Giving both sides

Giving both sides include mentioning of pros and cons, assets and liabilities, similarities and differences, hard and easy, bad and good, effective and ineffective, weak and strong, complicated and uncomplicated, controversial and uncontroversial. Remember that outlining is not the only way to organize information. One may choose to organize the main ideas and specific details for the essay in an alternate format, such as a herringbone map, a table, a hierarchy or grouping, a flow chart, or a spider map.

Get active

Active involvement and enthusiasm in answering the essay helps a lot to make you express better. Recall personal experiences related to the topic or exciting lectures, books and movies that interested you in the subject. While these won’t be part of your answer, they help to get you in the right state of mind.

Write methodically

Writing your answer as if you were writing a mini term paper helps you give a nice structure to it making it look appealing. Your answer should have a title, an introduction or topic statement, a body and an ending or conclusion. The topic statement you selected can be a reworking of the title.

Each general point of your outline should turn out into one paragraph that begins with a general summary sentence, usually a complete sentence containing the information in the outline. Skip a line between the paragraphs.

The ending lines of your essay can be a summary of the answer or may be a restatement of the topic sentence. It could be your interpretations or opinions. Never try to introduce new information in the ending, because it confuses the reader leaving the topic incomplete. Use ample details and examples in the answer.

Usage of clear labeling words, such as examples, comparisons, similarities, contrasts, differences, supports, arguments, reasons, most, probably, main point, exceptions, etc. will be added advantage. Underline key words. Think in three’s: three paragraphs, three sentences per paragraph, three examples per main point, etc. Avoid one sentence paragraphs. Be direct and to the point.

Don’t waste space

Although it’s a good idea to skip lines between paragraphs, don’t skip lines between sentences. Avoid decorative or illegible handwriting that takes up a lot of room on the paper. Also, it is not a good idea to fill up extra test booklets by wasting space. Some teachers understand wasted space as a cover up for not knowing the material.

Check your work

You should have some allotted time for checking your answers.

  • For content, did you answer the question, and stick to your point of view?
  • For organization, did you answer all parts of the question, and are paragraphs and sentences logically ordered?
  • For writing, is your answer clear, is your writing legible, is your grammar correct, and is your punctuation correct?

If you prepared for the different questions

Sometimes students anticipate that certain questions will be asked, but the test questions turn out to be different. When this happens, make sure you have completely answered the questions you do know. Then look for ambiguity in the questions you don’t know, since lack of clarity may allow some scope in your answer. Stretch what you do know about the topic by giving many examples and comparisons. Add less relevant information by linking it with general statements.

If you run out of time

If you are running out of time and haven’t yet answered all questions, write down the outlines and indicate that you ran out of time for that/those question(s). Some teachers will give partial credit for outlines.


With all the above mentioned strategies, one can easily get the best results. Are you still struggling with issues like test anxiety or stress and depression? Do you need help in choosing a nice career? Is your child having issues with parents or family, making him an underachiever? Book an appointment for getting solutions to any of your psychological issues, either online or offline with our psychological experts.

Prof. Madhu Kosuri

I have completed 30 years of teaching and research in psychology at the Department of Psychology and Parapsychology, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, India.

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