How To Improve Test-Taking Skills

Person using blue pen to write equations to prepare for a test
April 29, 2024
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

If you want to learn excellent test-taking strategies for high schoolers, read on to learn more! 

Wondering how to improve your test-taking skills? If you feel you’ve fallen into a pattern of poor habits, don’t worry! Many students need help sharpening their skills. There are many ways to feel more confident and ready to tackle any exam! 

How To Improve General Test-Taking Skills 

These are some of the best ways to improve your general skills. 

1. Test Prep Before You Even Know They’re Coming 

You might be saying, “How do I prepare for a test before I know when it is and it’s content?” The answer is you can do test prep every week in a more relaxed way. Take time each week to reflect on and absorb the main ideas of what you've learned. 

While new topics and ideas may be fresh in your mind right after class, time takes a toll on anyone’s memory. Reviewing information regularly helps commit your new knowledge to long-term memory. You can save time later trying to “relearn” a concept! 

2. Leave Cramming In the Dust 

Cramming is one of the most stressful study strategies. It’s also a surefire way to drain your happiness. Cramming commits a lot of information to your short-term memory in a relatively short time frame. While cramming may help you sail through test day, it’s not doing you any long-term favors, especially if the information comes up on another test later. 

Studies have found that in the weeks and months following an exam or test, “the relative advantages of a spaced-out study strategy assert themselves. Much of what crammers forget, as they dive into the next semester, spacers tend to retain.” 

3. Set Up a Study Schedule that Won’t Overwhelm You

Setting up a study schedule is an excellent strategy. A schedule can help you avoid cram sessions and keep you from getting overwhelmed. Remember to consider all your other responsibilities and commitments. For example, saying you’ll study every free moment you have on the weekend isn’t realistic and can lead to burnout. 

Think realistically about how many times per week and how long you have to sit down and study. Ensure it’s consistent: you need to stick to your study habits to make them habits. 

4. Determine Your Best Study Strategies

Everyone has preferred learning methods; some study strategies may work better for you than others. Some strategies include: 

  • Making flashcards 
  • Creating “test” questions
  • Reading and reflecting 
  • Highlighting 
  • Teaching content to someone else

If you’re unsure what works for you, don’t be afraid to play around with different methods. If you don’t feel confident in your test-taking skills, you simply may not be using the best method yet. 

5. Tailor Your Studying to the Type of Test You’re Taking

You’ll need to use different tools to perform better on a multiple-choice test than on long-form responses. 

Multiple-Choice Test-Taking Tips

If you’re taking a multiple-choice exam, you’ll need to read each question carefully, cross out answers you know are incorrect, and learn to watch out for similar words and phrases. 

Spending too much time on one question may leave you feeling crunched for time as you near the end. If you’re stuck, move on and come back later. 

Long Answer Test-Taking Tips

If you’re studying for an exam that requires long answers, you must approach your studying differently. Outline your answers and select key evidence. Your answers must be easy to follow and include the elements of an academic paper, such as having a thesis statement and using evidence to back up your claims. 

6. Decrease Anxiety and Increase Confidence

Easier said than done, right? However, this is a crucial part of improving your test-taking abilities. Test anxiety is a real thing that happens to many students. 

You don’t have to be the perfect student and perfect test taker. You need to have a good grasp of the information you need to know. Harvard University’s Academic Resource Center understands that test anxiety is something many students feel. 

Harvard offers these tips to help you through anxiety in the middle of a test: 

  • Visualize an ideal outcome
  • View the test as a game
  • Practice mindful breathing
  • Recite a positive affirmation in your head

These tips can help minimize your nervousness!

7. Listen to Instructions and Read Questions Carefully

It can be tempting to immediately jump into questions right away. Try to stay present. You could miss vital information without actively listening at the beginning. Remember to slow down! 

8. Budget Your Time 

Time management is one of the primary skills students struggle with when taking tests. It can be easy to get hung up on one question you don’t know the answer to, spend much more time than you usually would, and rush through the rest of your test. 

To effectively budget your time, analyze the exam’s format, and think about how much time you have. For example, if you have one hour to complete 15 multiple-choice questions and five short answer questions, you’ll probably spend more time on the short answers. If you can, leave yourself more time so you can check your work! 

9. Arrive Early to Your Test Location

Arriving early at the test venue helps reduce stress and helps with eliminating last minute scrambling. Choose your seat promptly, organize your materials, and ensure physical comfort. Settling in early allows time to prepare mentally and feel more focused before the test begins.

How to Improve Your Test-Taking Skills

Effective Testing Strategies for Success

So, what strategies can improve testing success? We’ll discuss what those effective tips are down below. 

1. Look Over the Entire Test Before Taking It

By taking a few moments to glance over the entire test, you gain insights into the structure, content, and scope of the examination. Taking a look at the test allows you to gauge the difficulty level of different sections, identify any particularly challenging questions, and allocate your time accordingly. 

Also, scanning the entire test provides an opportunity to plan your approach, strategize which questions to tackle first, and develop a time management plan to ensure you complete the test within the allotted time frame. 

2. Start With the Easy Questions First

Begin with the easy questions first as an effective testing strategy for success. This builds confidence, establishes momentum, and provides a solid foundation. By addressing simpler tasks initially, stress is reduced, allowing for better focus on more challenging questions later. 

3. Answer All the Questions

Answering all the questions is a fundamental strategy for achieving success in testing. Even if you encounter challenging or unfamiliar questions, it's essential to provide some response rather than leaving them unanswered. This approach ensures that you have the opportunity to earn partial marks for any correct answers and avoids the risk of losing points for unanswered questions. 

4. Read Questions a Few Times Before Answering Them

Reading questions multiple times enhances understanding, reduces misinterpretation, and helps in formulating precise responses. It clarifies ambiguities, promotes confidence, and aids in time management, ultimately contributing to improved performance and successful outcomes in testing.

5. Don’t Be Frustrated When You Get Stuck

In effective testing strategies for success, it's important to remain composed and resilient when facing challenging questions. Instead of becoming frustrated, take a deep breath, approach the problem with focus, and utilize available strategies like skipping questions temporarily. By staying positive and persevering through obstacles, you can effectively navigate the test and enhance your chances of success.

How To Improve SAT Test-Taking Skills 

While general test-taking tips are helpful, these SAT test-taking strategies are targeted to help you ace the test. 

1. Set an Achievable Target Score

Identifying a target score is essential. Typically students do this by taking a practice test to check their baseline, then deciding how much they can boost their score.

A target score gives you a concrete goal, and measurable goals are generally more achievable. For example, boosting your SAT by 300 points in a week is probably not doable, but raising your score by 100 points in a month could be. 

2. Focus on Your Improvement Areas 

While you should undoubtedly study for all of the SAT’s sections, spending more time on the section you’re most confident in won’t translate to a better score. 

Improving your skills means improving your overall understanding, not just focusing on the good feeling you get when you answer a question correctly. Reframe your thinking and spend time studying your weakest areas. 

3. EBR: Develop Your Reading Strategy 

The evidence-based reading section involves reading passages which take time to read. Develop your strategy before the test. You can: 

  • Read the passage first
  • Look at the questions first before reading
  • A mix of both strategies depending on the passage 

You can also mark up your passages by underlining, circling, or making notes. Doing so can help you answer more quicker! 

4. EBW: Memorize Grammar Rules 

There’s no way around this: you must know your grammar rules. Review proper constructions, when to use specific punctuation marks, and other mechanics. Always look for the most concise answer: it’s often the correct one. While exceptions to the rule may exist, this strategy can help you weed out unhelpful answers. 

5. Math: Mark Up Problems or Plug-In 

Don’t be afraid to mark up your test: it can help you find correct answers. If you have the time, plugging in answers can help you check your work. This method wastes a lot of time, so you’ll want to use it as a last effort if you’re still unsure. 

6. Complete Practice Questions and Tests

Answering practice SAT questions and taking practice tests are both amazing ways to prepare yourself for the exam. Try our free SAT practice question simulator below!

How To Improve ACT Test-Taking Skills 

Some test-taking skills you’ve learned so far also apply to the ACT

1. Develop a Realistic Target Score 

Like the SAT, identifying your target score gives you a measurable goal to work toward. It’s one thing to say you want to “do well” on a test: it’s another to say, “I want to raise my ACT score by five points, and this is the plan I made to do it.” 

2. Practice Tests At Home, Simulating Test Day 

Practice tests are essential. They help you: 

  • Simulate test day conditions 
  • Gain familiarity with the content 
  • Check your progress 
  • Elevate your knowledge

Treating your practice test like the real thing helps you get used to what you’ll experience on test day and set you up for success. 

3. Memorize Formulas

This tip for taking the ACT is crucial; you won’t be provided with a list of formulas for the test! To memorize formulas, you can write them down repeatedly, work with them in your problems, or even come up with a song or anything else that helps you remember them. That last one may sound silly, but it can work. 

4. Brush Up on Your Multiple Choice Skills

Besides an optional writing section, the ACT is entirely multiple-choice. Some useful tips for taking multiple-choice exams include understanding the answers

  • Answers that use words like “never,” “always,” and “all” are usually incorrect 
  • Answers that use words like “seldom,” “generally,” “tend to,” “probably,” and “usually” are more likely to be correct 
  • If there are two opposite answers in your multiple-choice bank, one is probably correct 
  • Look for grammatical cues and word choices
  • Eliminate all answers you know are wrong
  • It’s okay to guess (as a last resort)

Remember that these multiple-choice test-taking tips above don’t mean all answers using never or always will be incorrect. These are just clues and tips: always consider the question and your best judgment!

5. Don’t Get Stuck On Hard Questions

This is an excellent tip for all tests, but it’s especially true for the SAT and ACT: move on if you’re agonizing over an answer. Remember, missing one question won’t do a lot for your score, but spending a half-hour on one question can lead to a much lower grade. 

FAQs: How to Improve Test-Taking Skills 

If you still have questions about improving your skills, check out these FAQs!

1. How Do I Make a Good Study Plan? 

Some people might be tempted to focus their studies on different areas in a session, but it might be easier for you to stick to math one day and reading on another. Also, be honest about how much time you can spend studying each week. 

2. How Do I Deal With Test Anxiety? 

To minimize anxiety, you can prepare for the day the night before: choose your clothes wisely (layers), set up your bag, and set a few alarms if you’re nervous about sleeping in. Eating a healthy breakfast helps!

3. How Do I Get Better at Time Management? 

After you’ve listened to the instructions, scan the entire test. You can plan how you want to use your time. This strategy can help ensure you don’t run out of time. 

4. What Is a Good Test-Taking Strategy? 

The best test-taking strategy is to spend enough time reviewing key concepts. However, many students will use different strategies when they take tests; the best strategy is the one that works for you!

5. How to Be Mentally Prepared Before the Test?

To help you get mentally prepared before a test, you should get sufficient sleep, stay hydrated, maintain a balanced diet, exercise, and practice relaxation techniques. All of this can enhance your mental preparedness, overall wellness, and cognitive abilities during exams. 

Improve Test-Taking Skills, Secure Your College Future

Using these test-taking tips, you’re sure to have more confidence and better strategies for any test you take. Remember to minimize test anxiety as best you can, create a consistent study schedule, and modify your strategies depending on the test you’re taking. With the right tools, time, and dedication, you can ace any test. 

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