How To Improve Test-Taking Skills

Person using blue pen to write equations to prepare for a test
May 18, 2022
How To Improve General Test Taking Skills How To Improve SAT Test Taking Skills How To Improve ACT Test Taking Skills FAQs: How to Improve Test-Taking Skills Improve Test-Taking Skills, Secure Your College Future


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/14/22

Taking tests is a significant part of the high school experience, and many students may struggle with poor test-taking skills. If you want to know how to improve your test-taking skills and get into your dream college, read on to learn more! 

Tests are a common type of assessment in the American education system. You’ve probably been taking tests since shortly after entering the school system, but they get more challenging year after year. 

If you feel you’ve fallen into a pattern with poor test-taking skills, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many high school students need help sharpening up their skills. There are many ways to improve test-taking skills and get you ready to tackle any exam that comes your way! 

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How To Improve General Test Taking Skills 

If you’re wondering how to improve your test-taking skills and study habits, you can quickly improve them with enough consistency and care. These are some of the best ways to improve your general test-taking skills

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 that 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 as you learn means you’re taking steps to ensure your new knowledge is committed to your long-term memory. You can save yourself a lot of time and headache later trying to “relearn” a concept! 

Leave Cramming In the Dust 

Cramming is one of the most stressful study strategies and isn’t the best way to improve test-taking skills. Cramming commits a lot of information to your short-term memory. While cramming may help you sail through test day, it’s not doing you any long-term favors. 

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.” 

In short, cramming is doing a disservice to yourself later. If you want to ensure you retain the foundational knowledge you learn in high school and beyond, you should strive for a spaced out and more relaxed paced study schedule.

Set Up a Study Schedule that Won’t Overwhelm You

Setting up a study schedule is an excellent way to improve your test-taking skills. Getting better at taking tests starts with how you prepare for them. A schedule can help you avoid dreaded cram sessions and keep you from getting overwhelmed by the content. 

When making a study schedule, remember to consider all of 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. 

As a high school student, you’re probably busy. You might have clubs and activities to participate in, home responsibilities, projects, and homework to do. You might also have a part-time job. Take time to rest; downtime is essential to help you recharge and have the energy to tackle your daily to-do lists. 

Think realistically about how many times per week and how long you have to sit down and study. Whatever you decide, ensure it’s consistent: you need to stick to your study habits to make them habits and elevate your testing skills. 

Determine Your Best Study Strategies

Everyone has preferred learning methods, and some study strategies may work better for you than others. Maybe you like creating flashcards with answers on the back, creating your own “test questions” to answer, reading and reflecting, highlighting, or teaching the content to someone else. 

If you’re unsure what works for you yet, 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 for you yet. 

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

Knowing how to improve test-taking skills starts with 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. If you’re taking a multiple-choice exam, you’ll need to do the following: 

Remember, these exams can test you more on your memorization than the actual application of the knowledge. 

Keep your eyes on the clock as you work through your multiple-choice test. Spending too much time on just one question may leave you feeling pushed for time near the end. If you feel stuck, move on to the next question and return to the challenging question later. Implement this habit in your studying too. 

If you’re studying for an exam with essays or long answer questions, you’ll need to approach your studying differently. Outline your answers and pick out key information and evidence. 

Your answers will need to follow a logical flow, topic sentences, and transitions. Use your key points as a guide for your writing, and try your best to avoid spelling and grammar mistakes.

Overall, not every style of test can be approached the same way. 

Decrease Anxiety and Increase Confidence

Easier said than done, right? However, this is a crucial part of improving your testing skills. When you sit down to take the test, your anxiety could intensify. Test anxiety is a real thing that happens to many students. 

Brown University recommends that students let go of perfectionism because it can work against them on tests and in college. The school states, 

“It can be emotionally difficult to let go of perfectionism, but you must try. In college, it is virtually impossible to learn every detail, so you need to focus on the most important concepts and learn those well enough to teach them.” 

Although you’re not in college yet, this statement has good advice. You don’t have to be the perfect student and perfect test taker. You just need to have a good grasp of the information you need to know. 

Building confidence is easier said than done, but it comes with practice, faith in yourself, and ensuring you’re adequately prepared for tests. Harvard University’s Academic Resource Center understands that test anxiety is something many students feel before, during, and after an exam. 

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

Throughout your test-taking skill improvement journey, you’ll naturally build your confidence.

Listen to Instructions and Read Questions Carefully

When you first sit down to take a test, it can be tempting to immediately jump into questions right away or get stuck in your own world when listening to instructions. 

Try to stay as present as you can. You could miss out on vital information if you’re not actively listening at the beginning or if you zoom right through questions without carefully reading them first. Remember to slow down! 

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, spending much more time than you usually would and rushing through the rest of your test. This point comes back to Princeton’s take on perfectionism: it’s okay to skip a question and move on for the moment. 

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, try to leave yourself a bit of time so you can check your work! 

How To Improve SAT Test Taking Skills 

So, how do you improve your test-taking skill level for the SAT? While general test-taking tips are helpful, some specific tips can help you ace the SAT

Set an Achievable Target Score

Identifying a target score is essential. Typically students do this by taking an initial practice test to check their baseline, then deciding how much they can bring up their score in a specific timeframe. 

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

Focus on Your Improvement Areas 

Sometimes it can be challenging to study the areas you know you need to work on. While you should undoubtedly study for all of the SAT’s test sections, spending more time on the section you’re most confident in won’t translate to a better score. 

Improving your SAT test-taking skills means improving your understanding all around, not just focusing on the good feeling you get when you answer a question correctly. Reframe your thinking and spend a lot of time studying your weakest areas

EBR: Develop Your Reading Strategy 

The evidence-based reading section involves reading passages, which can take up quite some time. Develop your strategy before the test. You can: 

You may also want to mark up your passages by underlining, circling, or making notes of any information you think is essential to the questions. Doing so can save you time and effort and help you answer quicker! 

EBW: Memorize Grammar Rules 

There’s really no way around this one: you need to know your grammar rules. Take the time to review proper constructions, when to use specific punctuation marks, and other mechanics. Not only will this help your SAT test-taking skills, but it can also help you become a better writer. 

You should also always look for the most concise answer: it’s often the correct one. While there may be some exceptions to the rule, this strategy can help you weed out lengthy and unhelpful answers. 

Math: Mark Up Problems or Plug-In 

Don’t be afraid to mark up your test: it can help you come to the correct answers every time. This is an essential math test-taking skill. Mark up math questions and pull out important information. 

If you have the time to do so, plugging in answers can help you check your work or make sure you have the right answer. This method eats up a lot of time, so you’ll want to use it as a last-ditch effort if you’re still unsure. 

These SAT test-taking skills and strategies can help you ace the test like a pro. 

How To Improve ACT Test Taking Skills 

Some of the skills you’ve learned so far are also applicable to improving your ACT test-taking skills. 

Develop a Realistic Target Score 

Like the SAT, identifying your target score gives you a measurable and attainable 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.” Keeping your goals specific helps keep you on track. 

Practice Tests At Home, Simulating Test Day 

If you’re wondering how to improve your ACT test-taking skills, practice tests are essential. They help you become more comfortable with the content, check your study progress, and can help you get a firmer grasp of the material. 

Simulating test days can be challenging, especially if you live in a full or louder house. Inform your family ahead of time you’re practicing taking the ACT, and maybe you’ll avoid your siblings coming into your room (at least for a little while). 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. 

Memorize Formulas

You need to memorize formulas to perform well in the ACT’s math section. Some degree of memorization is a key math test-taking skill. Unlike the SAT, the ACT won’t provide you with a list of formulas for the test: you’ll need to know the common ones by heart. 

You can do many things to memorize formulas, including writing them down repeatedly, working with them in your problems, or even creating a song or anything that helps you remember them. That last one may sound silly, but it can work. 

Brush Up on Your Multiple Choice Skills

Besides an optional writing section, the ACT is entirely multiple choice. Brushing up on your multiple-choice strategies is an essential ACT test-taking skill. Some common things to look out for in multiple-choice answers are: 

Multiple choice questions seem easy in theory but can be pretty tricky. Remember that the tips above don’t mean all answers using never or always will be incorrect. These are just clues and tips to help you out: always consider the question and your best judgment!

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 along if you’re agonizing over an answer. Spending too much time on one question is a habit that many students fall into, but it could potentially derail your success on the rest of the test. 

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 than you anticipated. 

FAQs: How to Improve Test-Taking Skills 

If you still have questions about how to improve your test-taking skills, these FAQs should help provide the clarity you need. 

1. I Tend to Procrastinate. How Do I Avoid Cramming? 

Procrastination is tough and doesn’t set anyone up for success. To avoid cramming due to procrastination, developing a study schedule is your best course of action. 

Hold yourself accountable: create calendars and timers, or use an organizational tool to keep yourself on track. Procrastination doesn’t have to stand in the way of improving test-taking skills for high school students.

2. What Can I Do to Ensure There Are No Gaps in My Knowledge? 

The best way to avoid foundational gaps for tests is to attend all your classes. Attending every class means you won’t miss out on any key concepts, and you won’t be missing any notes when your review time rolls around. 

3. How Do I Make a Good Study Plan? 

Crafting a good study plan is essential to performing well on tests. Some people like to do shorter study sessions more often during the week, while for others, it makes sense to do longer sessions a little less often. 

When you’re focusing on content, you can develop a study theme for each day with related concepts. 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 focusing on math test-taking skills one day and reading on another. You can also look into a test-taking skills course if you want more direction.

4. Which Test Is More Difficult: the SAT or ACT? 

Many students wonder whether the SAT or ACT is easier. Both are challenging tests, and the decision is yours alone. Neither test penalizes guessing, and the ACT has a science section that you won’t see on the SAT. The ACT also has trigonometry questions, whereas the SAT doesn’t.

5. How Do I Minimize Pre-Test Jitters? 

Feeling nervous before a test is expected. It would be best if you aimed to get a good night’s sleep the night before your test, eat a healthy breakfast similar to what you would typically eat, and show up early to your test. 

To minimize anxiety, you can prepare for the day the night before: choose your clothes wisely (layers), put all the things you need in your bag, and set a few alarms if you’re nervous about sleeping in. 

6. How Do I Get Better at Time Management? 

Excellent time management is crucial to performing well on tests. When you first have the paper set down on your desk and after you’ve carefully listened to instructions, take a moment to scan the entire test. 

From there, you can plan out how you want to use your allotted time: if you have 60 minutes to answer 30 multiple choice questions, aim to spend a little less than two minutes on each question. This strategy can help ensure you don’t run out of time.

Improve Test-Taking Skills, Secure Your College Future

Having poor test-taking skills now doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to improve test-taking skills today. Using the tips above, you’re sure to have more confidence and better strategies for any test you take, including the SAT and ACT. 

Remember to minimize test anxiety as best you can, create a consistent study schedule, and modify your study strategies to make sense for the type of test you’re taking. With the right tools and enough time and dedication, you can improve your testing skills.

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