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Test Taking Strategies for Short Answer and Essay Tests

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Updated on Jan 28, 2008

As a school counselor, my job is to help students succeed in school. Teaching test taking strategies is part of my job, since taking tests is a part of theirs. While I always emphasize the importance of preparing for tests by completing homework and studying, the following test taking strategies give students something to fall back on if they draw a blank on the big day.


Short Answer

  • Short answer questions usually ask students to list, name, define, or identify. Therefore, review your notes and try to anticipate what information falls under those categories. For instance, if you're studying World War II, try identifying the causes of the War, defining each country's stance, and listing the repercussions. Thinking ahead and approaching a topic from the right angles can make all the difference.
  • It may sound obvious, but using flashcards to study the material really does work. Put key terms, dates and concepts on one side and the answers on the other. The process of writing the information down on the cards, reading the cards, and being quizzed with the cards helps commit the information to memory.
  • During the test, underline key words to focus your attention on what is being asked.
  • Don't leave an answer blank. If you don't know the answer, write down what you do know about the topic because you may receive partial credit. In other words, it usually pays to try your best.
  • After completing the test, go back to questions you didn't know the answer to, and see if information provided on the test helps you make an educated guess.
  • Some short answer questions have multiple parts, so make sure to confirm you have fully answered all parts of the question.
Essay
  • Determine how much time you have to answer each question and stick to it. You don't want to spend all of your time on one essay question, if there are two or more. Remember: it's better to partially answer all of the essay questions than to have one or more left unanswered.
  • Underline key words to focus your attention on what is being asked. For example, an essay question that asks you to compare and contrast is different than one that asks you to summarize. Essay key words include: analyze, compare, contrast, define, describe, evaluate, illustrate and summarize.
  • Read through all of the essay questions and jot down key information that comes to mind before beginning to write the essay.
  • Create an outline of what you want to cover in your essay before beginning to write it. Remember that organized essays with well thought-out points receive higher grades, so be sure to write an introduction and conclusion for your essay.
  • Use qualifying statements instead of definitive ones if you are unsure. For instance, instead of writing “Amelia Earhart died while attempting to fly around the world,” try, “Amelia Earhart is thought to have died ...” This leaves room for speculation, and shows that you are aware of complexities of the topic.
  • Write the essay as if the reader doesn't know anything about the subject to make sure your answer is thorough. However, get to the point and do not pad your essay with unnecessary words.
  • Proofread your essay before handing it in so you don't lose points on misspellings and grammatical errors.

Everyone blanks while taking tests, but by preparing a plan to approach exams, students give themselves a big boost. With a sense of comfort and confidence, students are less anxious. And the more relaxed students are, the better they do on tests. Period.

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