Test Taking Strategies

Peak Performance
Test Taking Strategies
How to channel your self-defeating energies of total
nervousness, testing fear and self-doubt into totally
enhanced fool-proof, SUPER strategies that amazingly
'kick-up' your Praxis II test taking execution now!
By Teaching Solutions
First Copyrighted © 2008
This guide has been updated many times since the original date of
copyright. Teaching Solutions constantly and immediately updates the
Comprehensive Success System according to test changes and the latest
research regarding the test made by our staff of educators. No part of this
study guide may be copied in whole or in part, rewritten or otherwise used in
any format (including electronically) other than the one provided without the
written permission of Teaching Solutions/Educational Services, Inc.
Table of Contents
Advice for Test Takers Whose Test Preparation Strategy Just Doesn’t Work..............4
Subject Review ..........................................................................................................4
Exam Techniques.......................................................................................................5
Exam Practice ............................................................................................................5
Time Management .....................................................................................................5
Who’s at Fault When You Procrastinate? .....................................................................8
Procrastination Before Preparation............................................................................8
Procrastination During Preparation ...........................................................................9
Is Worrying Hold You Back—or Pushing You Forward? ..........................................11
The Danger of Exam Anxiety..................................................................................11
Benefits of Anxiety..................................................................................................11
Causes of Exam Anxiety .........................................................................................12
Conquering Exam Anxiety ......................................................................................12
Are You Ever Stumped by a Multiple Choice Question? ...........................................15
The Multiple Advantages of Multiple Choice .........................................................15
Step 1. Can You Do This Question?....................................................................16
Step 2. Eliminate the Worst Answer....................................................................16
Step 3. Eliminate the Answer That’s Almost Right ............................................17
Step 4. Choose From the Answer Choices That Look Similar............................18
Tackling Math Questions.....................................................................................18
Do You Ever Get Writer’s Block on an Essay Question? ...........................................22
What Are the Examiners Looking For in an Essay?................................................22
Length ..................................................................................................................23
Vocabulary and Diction.......................................................................................25
Float Information Directly From Your Study Guide Into Your Memory....................29
The Principles Behind Memorization......................................................................29
Linking and Numbering.......................................................................................29
Journeys and Rooms ............................................................................................31
Three Types of Test Takers, Which One Are You? ....................................................33
Type 1. Test-Takers Who Fail .................................................................................33
Signs that you’re going to fail the exam..............................................................33
What to do if you think you’re in danger of failing.............................................34
Type 2. Test Takers Who Pass ................................................................................34
Signs that you’re going to pass... and do little more............................................34
What to do if you think you’re going to do little more than pass........................34
Type 3. Test Takers Who Pass With Flying Colors ................................................35
Signs that you’re going to pass with flying colors: .............................................35
What to do if you’re going to pass with flying colors: ........................................35
Conclusion ...................................................................................................................36
Just about everything worth doing these days requires taking a test. It doesn’t
matter whether you’re trying to pass your law school exams, aiming to pick up a
teaching certificate or just want a driving license before you can get behind the
wheel, you first have to show that you’ve got what it takes. In theory, that should
mean showing off your knowledge.
If you want to be a lawyer, you’ll have to demonstrate that you know the law. If
you want to be a teacher, you’ll be quizzed on teaching methods and principles. If
you had a driving test coming up, you’d be examined on your ability to operate a car
safely. In practice, just about every test can be passed with some knowledge of the
test material and plenty of knowledge of test-taking techniques. That’s because
there’s no such thing as an individualized test. All tests are standardized. If they
weren’t, the examiners wouldn’t be able to compare your results to those of other
candidates’. That means that most tests are predictable. When the tests are
predictable, so are the answers. Or at least the methods of finding the answers.
In this book, we’re going to show you some of the most important and effective
methods that you can use in just about every test you can take. We’ll take you right
through from exam preparation to techniques to use on the day itself and even to the
post-exam world so that you can find a job, build a career and give yourself the
freedom and wealth that you’re working for.
We’ll begin by discussing some of the biggest problems that can get in the way of
effective exam preparation. We’ll talk about beating procrastination, turning nerves
into nudges forward and building a study plan that you’ll actually follow.
We’ll then move onto the exam day itself. We’ll explain how to blast your way
through multiple choice questions, reveal how to write exam essays that can’t help
but impress examiners and show how to allocate time, organize your thoughts and
score the highest result possible.
Once the exam is over though, you won’t (normally) be given a job together with
your results. That’s why we’ve also included a chapters on how to write a winning
résumé and find—and land—a high-paying job in your field.
Preparing for and passing your exams is only the first step towards building the
career you want. We’ll show you how to go all the way.
At the beginning of this chapter, we pointed out that passing your exam will
require both knowledge of the material and good exam technique. Those two abilities
work together.
Knowing the best exam techniques will help you to work faster, leaving you more
time for the tough questions—and they’ll help you to guess when you get stuck.
But even if you can’t put every piece of knowledge about your subject in your
head, the more you know, the bigger your head start. That’s why we start with test
Advice for Test Takers Whose Test Preparation Strategy Just
Doesn’t Work
When you’re getting ready for a test, you need a plan. It doesn’t matter which
kind of test you’re taking, you need a clear route from where you are now to where
you to where you want to be when you’re asked to stop writing now please.
But creating a plan is one thing; putting it into practice is something completely
different. After all, how many times have you told yourself that you’re going to study
this subject for so many hours a day, take a break that lasts this long, then review
that book for the rest of the day before getting a good night’s sleep so that you’ll be
fresh for the next day’s work? And how often has that plan collapsed before the end
of the first day?
There are two problems with most people’s plans for test preparation: a lack of
realism; and a misunderstanding of the stages that every test preparation strategy
must pass through to get you where you need to be at the end. Understand those
stages and you’ll be able to create a realistic plan.
Every test preparation strategy needs to have four stages:
Subject Review
Exam Techniques
Exam Practice
Time Management
Subject Review
Getting your course material out of your books and notes, and fixing it in your
head permanently—or at least long enough to get you through the exam—is always
going be the hard core of your exam preparation. The better you succeed at this task,
the easier you’ll find the exam, the less you’ll have to make educated guesses and
the higher your score will be.
So much for the pep talk. What’s the best way to start moving what’s on the page
into your head?
The first step is to condense everything you’ve got. This is the easy bit. But don’t
let that fool you into thinking it’s the sort of thing you can do with half your brain in
your books and the other half on the television.
The act of turning your notes into nuggets that you can remember is one of the
most important steps in remembering what you’re reading. That’s because the best
way to remember is something is to use it and to understand it.
Sure, you can just plough through your books and your notes as quickly as
possible, highlighting the main points so that you can focus on the memorization.
That would make this stage of your exam preparation relatively painless. But it would
also make the next stage much more painful.
When you draw up your schedule, try to give yourself more time than you think
you’ll need for this stage so that you can spot the bits you don’t understand. Think
about the points you’re summarizing so that you can see the logic behind them. If
you can understand the argument behind what you’re reviewing, you won’t need to
remember everything. Know just a part of the argument or the equation and the rest
will follow naturally.
Careful notes won’t be enough though. You will also have to spend some time
hammering what you’ve learned deep into your head. We can talk about
memorization techniques later in this book but for now bear in mind that while
recitation will work to some extent and acronyms are always easier to recall than
entire paragraphs, the best way to remember something is to use it.
Rather than walking around the room with your eyes closed chanting equations to
yourself or reciting quotes from Moby Dick, try to do as many sums as you can that
use those equations or write short passages that use those quotes or those
Yes, that takes time. But so does turning “the square of the hypotenuse is equal
to the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides” into a nice song that you can
remember. It’s also a lot more effective.
Exam Techniques
It would be great if you could walk into an exam room secure in the knowledge
that you know absolutely everything there is to know about your topic. Whatever
question they throw at you, you’ll be able to just bat away like Babe Ruth attacking
some under-arm pitcher.
But not even Babe Ruth struck home every time he swung his bat and it doesn’t
matter how well you prepare or how easy the exam, there are always going to be
some questions that leave you uncertain about the answer.
The better you prepare, the more you understand your subject—and the more
you remember—the fewer of those scary doubt-moments you’ll have. But even with
the best preparation, you’ll still have them.
The key to getting past those moments with the right answer is to understand
how your exam works. Every exam is predictable and just about every exam lets you
employ techniques that—even if they don’t tell you the correct answer—will let you
cut out the wrong ones, improve your chances of choosing the right one and help you
to make an educated guess.
We’ll explain those techniques in detail because it’s a giant subject in its own
right. But again, for now, just bear in mind that once you’ve completed your review,
you will need sometime to review exam techniques.
Exam Practice
Exam practice is crucial. It’s certainly no less important than the efforts you’ll put
into memorizing your course material. Taking test exams will help you to both identify
the areas in which you’re still weak and reveal which aspects of exam technique you
still haven’t mastered.
Of course, you can never replicate the exact atmosphere of the real exam. On
the day itself you will be nervous. You’ll be excited and you’ll be surrounded by other
people who are likely to be sitting around with open books on their knees, kicking
away at whatever self-confidence you have.
While all of those things can be scary, they also give you the adrenaline and the
focus to work fast through the test and stay on the ball. In a real exam, the sight of a
hundred heads bent over their exam papers and scribbling away is likely to stop your
daydreaming and window-gazing in their tracks and send your eyes right back to the
When you take a practice exam at home, you won’t have any of those things. So
don’t worry too much if questions take you a little longer than they should or if you
find yourself getting distracted when you’re sitting at home.
Instead, pay attention to those areas that you find difficult and leave yourself time
to review them again before you take another test.
Your test preparation should go from review to practice tests to more reviewing,
so don’t leave your practice tests until the day before the real thing. All that will do is
tell that there’s still some things that you don’t know without giving you time to fix
Time Management
While you can rely on working a lot faster in the real exam than on a practice test,
one of the strategies you’ll want to check when you sit down with your clock and a
sample paper is your timing strategy.
You should know, long before you step into the exam room, how long you’ll want
to spend on each section of the exam and — no less importantly — how long to
spend on each question.
That might sound a little strange. You’ll certainly find some questions easier than
others in the exam. The easy ones you’ll do quickly, leaving you with more time to
spend on the tougher ones.
That’s why if your exam allows you to pick and choose your questions, you
should first read the paper through, even if that gobbles up the first ten minutes or
more of the exam. Not only will that show you which questions are easier than
others, it will also set the back of your mind turning over the problems you’re going to
find tough. When you’re ready to tackle them, your reaction will be one of readiness
and familiarity rather than panic and confusion.
Forget about the order of the exam then if you can, and instead read through the
paper and dive into the simple questions. Do them as quickly as you can so that you
can save up the extra time credits for the tricky bits. If you find that one of these
simpler questions is taking longer than it should, then consider stopping and moving
Be careful about breaking off questions in the middle of an answer. While you
don’t want to spend half the paper stuck on one question, coming back to a question
that you’ve already started will cost you extra time as you try to remember where you
were and what the question was asking.
In short then, your timing strategy should consist of:
calculating the amount of time you should spend on each question
reading through the paper to decide which questions are easy and should be
tackled first
completing the easy questions as quickly as possible to keep extra time for
the tough nuts
and finally, reading through the paper at the end of the exam to make sure
you haven’t made any silly mistakes
Preparing for your exam then is not as difficult as it might look. Revising your
course material will take up the bulk of your time. Exam techniques will consist of
reading through the relevant chapters of this book and applying the ideas we
describe in your practice papers so that you grow used to them. Practice papers will
take up whatever time is left before the exam with rushes back to your books and
your notes to fill in the gaps in your knowledge that the practice tests identify. And a
timing strategy will take all of about five minutes to form although it has to be
carefully implemented during the exam itself.
All of this is simple enough. A bigger challenge is actually getting your head down
and doing it. For a recommended allocation of the relative amount of time you should
plan to spend on each of the tasks required for test success, refer to figure 1.
In the next chapter, we talk about the great enemy of every exam-taker:
procrastination—and show you how to beat it.
Material Revision
Review Exam Techniques
Practice Tests
Time Management
During Test
Read Exam
Complete Easy Questions
Complete Tough Questions
Check Paper
Figure 1 – Relative time allocation. The purple section represents time spent on
the actual test.
Who’s at Fault When You Procrastinate?
All exams, regardless of the topic, have one thing in common. They all have a
nasty habit of creeping out of the undergrowth and scaring you just when you least
expect it. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known the exam was coming or how
You were of time ticking down towards the big day, every exam-taker has that
moment when someone asks them if they’ve started revising yet, and is left feeling
like an elephant is sitting on their chest when they realize there’s only month or a
week to go before exam day.
That’s because the time before an exam is deceptive. Look at the calendar and
you might see that you’ve got a couple of months before you have to step into the
exam room. That can look like a lot of time, especially when you’ve still got plenty of
classes between now and then.
But if you were to count up the amount of actual review time you have before the
exam you’d probably be surprised at just how little there was. Depending on your
schedule, even over the space of two months, you could find yourself with just three
or four full study days and a handful of evenings before you have to start disciplining
yourself and swapping time at the bar for time with the books.
It’s important to understand the difference between the amount of time you have
before the exam and the amount of study time you have before the exam.
In practice then, there are really two kinds of exam procrastination:
Procrastination before preparation
Procrastination during preparation
Procrastination Before Preparation
We’ve already seen how easy it can be to procrastinate even beginning your
exam preparation. The exam looks a long way away, there will be plenty of time to hit
the books later and there’s little point in starting right now.
That’s exactly the sort of attitude that can bring the exam up much faster than
you ever expected. The ideal way to beat this sort of procrastination is to know at
least two months before the exam when you’re going to start seriously hitting the
books. Of course, it would be great to know even earlier but that’s just not going to be
possible until you know exactly what’s in the course. Only then will you have an idea
of what you need to study and how long each section is likely to take you.
When you come to set the date of your exam preparation, make sure that you
don’t just look at the calendar and calculate how many days and weekends there are
between now and exam day. Calculate how much review time you have between
now and exam day.
That means looking at free weekends—not the weekends on which you have
camping trips planned or that have a big game you want to see but actual free time
that you’re going to give over to study.
While you won’t be able to review everything before the course ends, you can
make a start by reviewing and summarizing your notes for the beginning of the
course. So much for the theory. What do you do in the more likely situation in which
you know that you should be starting to prepare, but you just keep putting it off?
First of all, realize that you’re not alone. That’s not an excuse to sit back with
everyone else, but it should make you feel a bit better.
Next, make a start. Even if it’s not your main drive into the exam, there will be
plenty of times when you’re flaked out in front of the television or planning to lie on
the beach when you can grab one of your notebooks and get reading.
You can’t revise like this all the time and expect to pass the exam. You’re going
to have to be a lot more organized than that. But it will get you into the habit of
studying, it will make the material familiar when you really get down to it and it will be
a constant reminder that you have an exam coming up. It should certainly make it
less likely that you’ll be surprised by the sudden appearance of your exam when you
least expect it.
Do not though mistake quick peeks at books when you’re feeling bored for real
exam preparation. You’re still going to have to set a firm date—often at least a month
before the day of your exam—for the real heads-down stuff. And that’s a date you’re
just going to have to know and keep.
Procrastination During Preparation
Making a start isn’t actually as difficult as it sounds. You will do it eventually
(although if you don’t keep an eye on those dates and count your study days, it could
well be a bit too late to be totally effective.)
One of the first things you’ll do once you start revising properly is to allocate time
to each of the topic in your course. You’ll need to know, of course, how much time
you have available and which topics you’ll need to review.
How you allocate time to these topics and the amount of time you give to each
one will depend on the exam. Obviously the more important areas that are most likely
to turn up on the exam, that are worth more marks or which you find most difficult will
need the most time. But drawing up a plan for review is one thing; keeping to it is
quite another.
It’s a common experience of exam-takers to draw up a nice detailed study plan
then find themselves doing something completely different to the details they’ve
planned. That doesn’t just mean that they don’t cover all the information they need to
cover, it also means that they’re likely to become anxious, depressed and worried
about all the work they’re not doing—a situation that’s only going to make their
review harder to do.
When you find yourself staring at your plan for reviewing your course material
and feeling that you really don’t feel like doing it and would rather be doing something
completely different instead, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly a natural
thing and just about everyone feels that way at some point during their exam
preparation. But it’s not a problem with you; it’s a problem with your review plan.
When you create a review schedule, the plan that you come up with is usually
ideal. It’s the plan you’d like to follow if life were perfect and everything worked
exactly the way it should.
In practice, your mind often has plans of its own. You’re always going to find it
much easier to study the topics that interest you and very difficult to study the tough
areas that you find dull and uninteresting.
As long as everything gets covered in the time that you’ve allotted before the
exam it doesn’t matter when you study the topics on your list.
Your study schedule then should be flexible, to reflect the fact that you can’t
possibly know how you’re going to feel like studying until you’ve already sat down
with your books. It should be general rather than detailed and rewritten at the end of
each day to reflect what you’ve managed to do so far and what you still have to do
before the day of the exam.
None of this means that you can just throw schedules to the wind and review
what you feel like reviewing whenever you feel like reviewing it. It’s most likely that
you’ll start naturally with the most interesting topics on your list and once you’ve
reviewed those, find that you’ve got nothing left but the tough and the dull. At that
point, you’re going to need discipline.
Discipline will be easier to enforce when your distractions don’t include the easy
bits of your course material that you’ve already covered. You’ll feel confident
because you’ve already mastered part of the material and you’ll realize that you don’t
have too much further to go before you’ve completed all of your review and can move
on to taking practice exams.
Of course, you could just create a schedule that put your most interesting topics
first. For true procrastinators though that would just mean that the first topics they’d
review would be the ones that they find hard. That’s because procrastination isn’t the
same as laziness, despite what people might tell you. It’s pretty rare that instead of
doing what you should be doing, you’re going to be doing absolutely nothing.
You will be doing something—it just won’t be the something that’s next on your
list of things to do. Procrastination is doing the right things in the wrong order.
What‘s important for your exam preparation though isn’t when you do something
but the amount of time you spend on each of the things that you do. You will want to
spend more time on the harder or more important topics — and you should make
sure you do that.
You’ll also want to spend some time on relaxation and entertainment, even during
the heart of the exam period itself—although you shouldn’t be spending too much
time on either of those.
But the bottom line is that the best way to beat procrastination before exam
preparation is to make a slow start and the best way to beat procrastination during
exam preparation is to have a flexible schedule that pays more attention to the
amount of time you’re giving to each topic than the specific times you give to each
one. Doing that should help you to reach your goal: a complete exam review.
As you get closer to your exam, one of the inevitable results will be a rise in your
anxiety levels. Preparing for your exams properly should help to keep that anxiety
under control but there are other strategies that you can use too that will help not
only to control your anxiety, but use it to improve your grade.
We talk about that in the next chapter.
Is Worrying Hold You Back—or Pushing You Forward?
There’s no getting around the fact that exams are stressful. The closer you get to
the day of the exam, the more nervous and worried you’re going to feel. Exams and
nerves are as inseparable as Ben and Jerry.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Exam nerves have advantages as well as
disadvantages. In this chapter, we’re going to explain the dangers of anxiety, its
benefits and causes—and ways to conquer and use it.
The Danger of Exam Anxiety
For most people, exam anxiety is unpleasant but harmless. It might make them
feel a little bit nervous or jittery, they might have trouble sleeping or find it hard to
relax, but it doesn’t usually affect their ability to learn or take the exam. Or at least, it
doesn’t affect the exam adversely.
For some people though, exam anxiety can be the great enemy. Instead of
feeling excitement, they feel petrified. Instead of focusing on the questions in the
exam, they focus on their fear of failure. Instead of writing like the wind, they freeze.
Often, the result is that instead of reproducing the information that they have
stored in their head and answering questions on topics they know, the anxiety blocks
the exam-takers’ outlets and stops them from showing off their knowledge. It stops
them from passing an exam on a topic they know.
That’s a huge waste, but it happens all the time. Just about every class has at
least one student who knows the stuff but is blocked by exam anxiety from achieving
the result they deserve.
If that’s you, you want to make sure it isn’t you for your next exam.
Benefits of Anxiety
So much for the dangers of anxiety. They should be clear and it should also be
clear that the anxiety is self-feeding: the more someone worries, the less work they’re
able to do. The less work they’re able to do, the more they worry. That’s a cycle that
has to be broken.
But anxiety has benefits too. The first benefit is that it shows you care. You’ve
probably seen people who approach an exam as though it were a walk through the
park. They seem to be completely unconcerned about the importance of the test
they’re about to take and fearless about the consequences. That’s not a sign of
confidence; it’s a sign that they don’t care.
Conversely, the fact that you’re feeling nervous is a sign that you recognize the
importance of the exam you’re about to take. You’re not taking it lightly, which means
that you’re going to take your preparation seriously too.
When you first feel anxiety then, you can find relief in the confirmation that you’re
taking a correct attitude towards your exam. That should already help to make you
feel a little better.
A correct amount of exam anxiety also makes it less likely that you’re going to be
distracted as you’re preparing. Few things focus the mind as sharply as a deadline
and knowing that your exam is coming up and feeling that tightening in your stomach
will pull your eyes away from the window and back to your books pretty fast. Your
fear will keep you studying when you could be dreaming, playing or procrastinating.
But exam anxiety is at its most useful in the exam itself. This is a feeling that you
just can’t replicate on any practice test. When you step into the exam room, your
anxiety will be at its peak. Your adrenaline will be blasting through your veins, your
brain will be working overtime—and you’ll find that you can think and write faster than
you ever thought possible.
If you found that your mind had a tendency to drift to what you were going to
have for lunch or which DVD you would rent that evening when you were studying in
your bedroom, when you step out of the exam room, you’ll be amazed at the amount
of focus you were able to achieve throughout your exam.
You’ll be more tired than you felt after two or three hours of studying, but that’s
one of the side effects of exam anxiety.
Causes of Exam Anxiety
You might think that the cause of your exam anxiety is pretty obvious: you’ve got
an exam coming up.
While that’s certainly true, it’s a little more complex than that, especially if you’re
suffering from the sort of stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks fear that blocks your answers
from dropping out of your head and onto the exam paper.
Part of the problem is that the very idea of an exam or even the less harmfulsounding “test” or “quiz” carries with it the notion of an ordeal. Exams are intrinsically
scary. Even when you know the test is going to be a breeze, that you’ve aced the
course so far and you know what questions you can expect, you’re still going to feel
nervous... because it’s a test.
That’s just something that everyone has to cope with. But when someone’s exam
anxiety becomes overpowering, it’s usually because they’re affected by one of the
other two causes of test fears.
The most common of these is considering the consequences of failure. Most
exams are checkpoints that lead you further down the path you wish to travel. Fail to
pass that checkpoint, and you’ll be stuck on the wrong side of the path.
That can seem pretty scary. If you’ve been dreaming all your life about going to
law school and your LSAT results don’t give you the figures you need to get into the
school of your choice—or even any school at all—that could feel like a devastating
It’s certainly understandable that someone who believes that their exam
represents their once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve the career of their dreams is
going to find the thought of taking that exam pretty scary.
The other cause of exam anxiety can be even more dangerous. This occurs
when the exam-taker confuses the grade they’re going to get on their paper with their
worth as a person. Instead of seeing the number that’s going to turn up on the results
sheet as a reflection of how many questions they answered correctly on exam day,
they see it as a reflection of everything they ever can and will achieve in life, as
though an exam were an accurate measure of a person’s universal ability.
If the thought of that doesn’t you into a gibbering exam-induced wreck, nothing
Conquering Exam Anxiety
That all probably sounds a little scary. It’s really not as bad as it sounds. That’s
because there are lots of different methods to take the bite out of those pre-exam
These strategies won’t get rid of exam anxiety altogether; you always will—and
always should—have a little bit left to help you blitz through the exam. But there are
things that you can do to be both just slightly fearful and highly effective.
The easiest of these methods begins during exam preparation itself. Exercise can
be a great way to blow off steam before it builds up. Even a half-hour walk in the
middle of a review day can go a long way towards clearing your head, putting what
you’re doing into perspective and pushing those exam worries away.
More active exercise like gym-work or a competitive sport can go even further in
helping you to beat your fears into the ground. That’s very easy to do and will help
you to tackle exam anxiety before you even step into the exam room.
But if you find that you’re being hit by fear in the exam room itself, it’s still not too
late; there are a number of things you can do to get back in control.
The first is to send your mind somewhere else. One method used to help people
relax in any circumstance is to focus on something calming and pleasant. You
probably know of lots of people who like to take good luck charms with them into the
exam room. It’s hard to say whether a cuddly toy actually does bring good luck but it
can reassure a worried exam-taker that there’s a life outside the exam room and help
take their mind off exam with all its fears.
Even if you don’t want to take an object into the exam with you—and for some
exams, you won’t be able to take anything into the exam with you—you can still take
a mental image with you. That image should be something you immediately find
comforting: maybe a picture of your family, a favorite vacation destination or your
career goal.
Figure 2 – Find something pleasant to focus on and help you to relax
If you’re working your way through the exam and finding yourself slipping into a
cold panic, use that image to remind yourself that your test isn’t an ordeal by fire and
it’s not the most important thing in the world.
One of the reasons that this method works is that it forces you to take breaks.
That’s not only important to do during your exam preparation; it’s can also be an
important strategy during the exam itself.
Obviously, you can’t take half an hour for a walk through the park or a phone chat
with your friend but you can take a mini-break of even just ten or twenty seconds
between sections of an exam paper to take a deep breath, slow your pulse and
loosen your muscles before diving in again.
It might seem a little odd to think of taking breaks during an exam but shaving a
minute or two from your overall exam time will actually help you to speed up as you
refresh yourself and slow the rise of crippling anxiety.
The most serious causes of exam stress though require more serious efforts to
conquer. When you’re so scared of failing that you prevent yourself from succeeding,
you’re going to have to make a very special effort to change the way you think about
the upcoming exam.
It’s important to remember first of all that an exam actually says nothing all about
who you are (and many exams say little about what you know too). Instead, exams
say much more about the people who set them and about your ability to take exams.
Inspirational books are full of stories about great men and women who flunked
exam after exam but went on to change the world. Sure, it’s nice to pass and it’s
even nicer to pass with flying colors but your life and your wellbeing do not depend
on how well you do in any two or three hour time span. No one is going to judge you
by your exam results. And in the very worst case, you can usually take your exams
That’s something that’s just too easy to forget. It can often feel like this is your
one and only shot at your dream but that’s very rarely true. While you’ll certainly want
to get through the first time, a little bit of patience and another shot in the future can
be a lot easier to bear than giving up.
And even if you can’t try or wouldn’t want to, there are a million different things
that you can do. Everyone has more than one option in life and if this one doesn’t
work out, there’s always another opportunity just around the corner. Remember that
when you feel your fear of failure.
Understanding and conquering your exam anxiety is an important part of
preparing for your exam and performing well on the day. Exam strategy is no less
We’re going to talk about that in the next chapter.
Are You Ever Stumped by a Multiple Choice Question?
So far in this book, we’ve been talking about exam preparation. We’ve explained
how to create a study schedule that actually works, how to beat procrastination and
how to give yourself the sort of attitude that keeps you excited without being
In this chapter and in the next, we’re going to get down to the nitty-gritty of examtaking: tackling the questions themselves.
While every exam is different, the formats of exams are often the same from
subject to subject. Most exams in fact use either multiple choice questions or essay
questions. Often both.
Each of these types of questions can be made much simpler than they look by
using a number of very simple techniques. In this chapter we’re going to look at
techniques to beat multiple choice questions.
The Multiple Advantages of Multiple Choice
Multiple choice questions are good for examiners—and they’re also good for
examinees. Whether they’re good for the selectors who want the best candidates is
a whole other question.
They’re good for examiners because they’re very easy to mark. Even a computer
can do it. It’s a sad fact that unless you protest about the grade you get (which is
rarely worthwhile) no human eye will ever see the exam papers you hand in. They’ll
be fed into a machine which will spot where you’ve put your dots, count how many of
them were in the right place and spit out a grade. That’s much easier than paying a
bunch of junior academics to read through thousands of papers and give a grade that
looks subjective.
They’re also easy to write. Once the examiners have set the question, the answer
choices—whether there are four or five of them—tend to follow a set pattern: one, of
course, has to be right; one is usually wildly wrong; and the remaining one or two
choices will often represent common mistakes. That’s much easier than having to be
creative for each question.
But this makes life very easy for the people taking the exams too. If you know
how the exams work, you can work according to a formula that guides you to the
correct answer.
At the heart of this system is the process of elimination. The strategy is to
knock out the answer choices that can’t be right so that the odds of picking the right
choice rise with each elimination.
It’s a very effective strategy but we should point out that it’s not foolproof. The
process of elimination is a great way to find the right answer when you’re not sure
what the correct answer is. But your first priority should always be to know the
As we pointed out earlier—and it’s worth repeating—the more you know your
material, the faster you’ll be able to blast through the exam, leaving you to spend
more time on the few questions that you find hard. And these questions will be there,
no matter how well you prepare or how much you know about the material. Even the
best student in the class will have moments when they forget something they knew or
realize that they don’t know something as well as they should.
The process of elimination techniques that we’re going to teach here then are not
replacements for good review. But they are an invaluable way to add some extra
points that you will otherwise lose.
Here’s how you approach—and beat—a multiple choice question:
Step 1. Can You Do This Question?
When you look at a multiple choice question, you should have one answer
already in your head and one answer that should come with your first glance.
The answer in your head is how much time you have to spend on the question.
You should already have that figured before you step into the exam. The question
you need to answer is “Can I do this question?”
That looks obvious but it’s vital. There are only two types of question in any
exam: the questions you find easy and the questions you find hard. You don’t want
to get them confused.
If you know that this is a question on a topic that you haven’t revised, aren’t
confident about or were never very good at, you don’t want to waste valuable time
trying to prise it open and take it apart. If you’re never going to figure out the answer
then you want to be able to make an educated guess and move on.
Of course, you also want to be certain that you’re not making a guess—even an
educated one—when you could be making some smart calculations.
Your first decision then when you’re looking at a multiple choice question is
always going to be whether you can calculate an answer in the time that you have
available to answer it. Only if you believe that using the knowledge in your head
would take you much longer than you have available—or isn’t going to happen at
all—is it worth moving onto the process of elimination.
That starts with...
Step 2. Eliminate the Worst Answer
Faced with a list of answer choices, you’ll often find that one of them is a real nobrainer. It looks like it might have sneaked in from another question and sometimes
another exam. It’s just so outrageously wrong that you can’t help but feel that only
someone suffering from complete confusion, was guessing without even reading the
question or choosing the odd one out each time would pick that choice as the
These answer options don’t turn up on every exam or on every list of answer
choices. They are more likely to appear on exams with five answer choices than four
and they can have a tendency to be the last option in the list.
Why examiners use them is really not clear. It’s possible that they’re trying to be
helpful by giving you a choice that’s in practice out of four instead of five (although
cutting that answer out would have the same effect). It’s possible that they believe it’s
exactly the answer the bottom ten percent would choose and therefore ensures that
those people don’t chance their way to a passing grade.
And it’s also possible that they just ran out of good answer choices and threw
something in almost at random.
Whatever the real reason, the fact is you’ll often find on multiple choice exams
that one answer choice is more obviously wrong than any of the others. It’s a breeze
to knock that one out of the way.
For example, this is a question similar to those that appear in the study guide for
educational leaders in Florida:
Teachers are complaining that a new instructional method is
inhibiting the progress of their students. What course of action
should the principal take?
A. Instruct all teachers to continue using the new method despite the
lack of student progress
B. Meet with teachers to review student progress and determine the
nature of future training
C. Return to the previous instructional method while an assessment
is conducted
D. Ask a consultant to provide assistance
Forget about the exam language that makes each of the answers sound official
and correct, and look instead at what the options are saying.
You might know nothing about teachers, principals or instructional methods but
common sense will tell you that it can’t be right for a principal to ignore what the
teachers are saying when they report that their students aren’t succeeding. If the first
answer choice was right and following orders was always the best step regardless of
the consequences then being a principal would be too easy to need a test.
It’s pretty clear that someone with no idea what the correct answer was could
easily knock out ‘A’ and leave themselves with a one-in-three chance of getting a
point with no knowledge of the subject at all.
Step 3 will increase those odds even further.
Step 3. Eliminate the Answer That’s Almost Right
So you should have already killed off one of your answer choices, leaving you
with a small but tougher selection of answers, any one which could, at first glance, be
right. Often though, you’ll find that one of those answer choices is only half-right. In
any exam, an answer that’s half-right is all wrong.
These sorts of answers are more common on math tests than other types of
exam. They’re there to trap the lazy or rushed student who glances at the question,
makes a quick mental calculation, spots an answer choice that’s in the ball park and
assumes that that’s the one.
For example, a question on the GMAT, used to assess applicants for business
school, might look something like this:
A firm’s net incomes have doubled each year for three years. If
the total income during that period was $48 million, how much
did the company make in the first year?
$2 million
$4 million
$8 million
$16 million
$24 million
Faced with a question like this, the examiners will expect an average applicant—
as opposed to an applicant who’s going to pass the exam— to begin playing with the
numbers as soon as they see the question. One of the things they’d expect an
applicant to do is divide 48 by 3, which is exactly why they place 16 as one of the
answer choices.
A smart applicant though would immediately knock out the first and last choices
because they look too low and too high respectively. He would then remember that
when an answer choice looks tempting at first glance it’s probably wrong—and knock
out answer choice ‘D’. That would leave him with a fifty-fifty chance of guessing
It’s worth pointing out here that this system obviously works in reverse too. If you
find that you’ve reached an answer choice too quickly (and you’ll know when that
happens) stop before you make your final decision. You could be falling into the
examiner’s trap.
Step 4. Choose From the Answer Choices That Look Similar
One way of telling whether or not you’ve been eliminating correctly is to take a
look at the last two answer choices remaining. They should look similar.
Ultimately, the examiners want you to work your way to the correct answer
choices using the techniques and methods that you’ve been taught on your course.
They don’t want you to be able to guess your towards a pass grade by always
choosing the answer that was obviously correct so they hide each correct answer by
camouflaging it with an answer that appears correct, but isn’t.
This isn’t the same as an answer that’s half-right. After a little more thought, a
half-right answer is always clearly wrong. But an almost-right answer needs serious
thought to tell it apart from the correct choice.
For example, in the question faced by the potential principal in Florida, after
removing ‘A’ as obviously wrong, the candidate would be left with:
B. Meet with teachers to review student progress and determine the
nature of future training
C. Return to the previous instructional method while an assessment
is conducted
D. Ask a consultant to provide assistance
In this particular exam, asking a consultant to intervene is always a trap for testtakers looking for an easy solution and the only real choices are ‘B’ and ‘C’. Both of
these answer choices could be right: they both put the students’ interests first, they
both meet some of the principles of educational leadership... and neither of them is
obviously wrong.
A candidate who knew the material would know which of the two options best met
all of the principles of educational leadership and could assess which of the two is
the correct answer.
A candidate who had no idea which was right now has a fifty percent chance of
making a correct guess. Starting an exam with a minimum grade of fifty percent is
pretty good foundation from which to reach a passing grade—and a lot more!
Tackling Math Questions
The methods we’ve discussed so far can be used in just about any sort of
multiple choice questions. Even if the questions that you meet in your exam don’t
have all of these clues to help you implement the process of elimination, there’s a
good chance that you’ll come across some of them and increase your guessing
chances—and your final grade.
But if you’re taking a paper with math content, there are a number of specific
strategies that you can use. And again, even if you’re not taking any sort of math
exam, it’s still worth becoming familiar with these techniques in case you can apply
their principles to your papers.
Use Common Sense
You might think that common sense and arithmetic don’t necessarily go together
but often, you’ll find that using common sense is the best way to identify a very wrong
For example, you might come across a math question that looks something like
Of DVD players produced in Korea 23% are produced in Seoul.
If Korea manufactures 4 million DVD players each year, how
many Korean DVD players are made outside Seoul?
0.13 million
0.55 million
3.08 million
3.50 million
10.00 million
In a question like this, the first thing you’d notice is that one of the figures is
higher than the total number of DVD players produced in Korea. If only 4 million DVD
players are made each year, then there can’t possibly be 10 million produced in
Korea outside Seoul.
Obviously, the particular examples that you meet in your math paper might not be
so obvious. But there is a good chance that when presented with an apparent “reallife” situation in a math paper, there will be at least one answer choice that common
sense tells you can’t possibly be right.
Even in math exams, common sense can often be a better way of arriving at an
answer than by performing a calculation.
Work Backwards
One of the most important messages to remember when taking a multiple choice
exam is that the correct answer is quite literally staring you in the face. Whatever the
subject of your exam, you can be certain that one of those answer choices is right. All
you have to do is figure out which one that is.
One of the easiest options, especially for questions involving equations, is to
work backwards, testing each potential answer in turn to see if it works. With
equations, this is an absolute breeze.
Equations ask you to try to calculate a missing value. In a multiple choice test,
you’re given a list of missing values and asked which is the correct answer.
There’s no reason why you can’t simply plug in each of these options in turn, test
it and see which one works. It will often be a lot easier than trying to create an
equation out of a situation and working through it.
The problem is that easier isn’t always the same as faster. Working backwards is
a good option if you’ve got plenty of time but little confidence in your ability to
calculate using the methods you’ve been taught.
But try to use this method in every question and it’s likely that you’ll run out of
time before you complete the exam. Smart examiners will have made sure that’s the
To estimate isn’t the same as to guess. An estimate is a rough calculation based
on solid knowledge. In a multiple choice question, you can use an estimate to rule
out particular answer choices and often more than one at a time.
If we take another look at the math question about Korean DVD players for
example, we can see that after removing answer choice ‘E’, we still have four more
options to choose from:
Of DVD players produced in Korea 23% are produced in Seoul.
If Korea manufactures 4 million DVD players each year, how
many Korean DVD players are made outside Seoul?
A. 0.13 million
B. 0.55 million
C. 3.08 million
D. 3.50 million
E. 10.00 million
This question is really asking the candidate to calculate 77% of 4 million. That
might take some thought. An easier question might be to calculate 50% of 4 million.
That would give the answer 2 million.
How does that help a candidate to answer the question? Two of the answer
choices are less than 2 million. But the answer must be higher than 2 million so the
candidate can cross answer choices ‘A’ and ‘B’ too, leaving just two final options:
0.13 million
0.55 million
3.08 million
3.50 million
10.00 million
Again, we’re still left with two similar answer choices—a clue that we’re on the
right track—but at least we’ve reached the point where we’re guaranteed a minimum
score of fifty percent.
Multiple choice questions are examiners’ gifts to candidates. They don’t make the
exam a give-away but they do mean that even an under-prepared candidate with
good exam technique can pass the exam, make up for their lack of knowledge and
build up a good grade. You should make these techniques as much a part of your
exam practice as reviewing your notes and reading your text books. A summary of
multiple choice techniques is provided in Figure 3.
Of course, not all exam questions are multiple choice. One type of question that
will test you in a very different way—and require very different techniques—is essay
We’ll explain how to tackle those in the next chapter.
Assess The Question
Determine whether you can calculate the
answer to the question in the time
available or need to use the process of
Identify The Worst Answer
One answer is often obviously wrong.
That option should be your first
Take Out The Half-Right Answer
Choose One Of The Similar Answer
One answer choice is often a half-way
stage from the beginning of the
calculation to its end point. Spot it and
you’ll know you’re on the right track—and
that your odds of guessing right have
The last stage of the process will give
you two answer choices that should look
similar. You now have a 50/50 chance.
Tackling Math Questions
Use Common Sense
Math questions are often set in real-life
situations. Common sense rules in real
Work Backwards
One answer in front of you is right. If you
have the time, test each one in turn.
Come up with a “ballpark” figure and
knock out the choices that can’t be right.
Figure 3 – Multiple choice strategies
Do You Ever Get Writer’s Block on an Essay Question?
Multiple choice tests are becoming increasingly common for just about every kind
of exam on every type of subject. You’d be hard pressed these days to find an exam
which asked you to write full answers from the top of your head and in the space
Examiners have taken some flak for that from selection committees who do want
something from candidates that represents original work. That’s one of the main
reasons so many exams ask candidates to write essays.
On the whole, you can expect to come across two kinds of essay questions on an
examination paper: essays that test your subject knowledge; and essays that test
your writing and organizational ability.
Neither of these essays, of course, says very much about the candidates who
wrote them.
Any argument that you can make in the space of about an hour or so with no
references or books at your disposal is barely going to be worth making. That’s as
true of a literature essay that asks you to compare King Lear with Julius Caesar in
terms of examples of tragic heroes as an essay question that asks you to decide
whether Fred would be better building a supermarket or a bowling alley in the high
street and explaining your reasons.
The only difference between essays that test your knowledge and essays that
quiz you on all of the main essay-writing skills that the examiners will be looking for is
that for the first type, you will need to have some specific knowledge. But if you don’t
have that knowledge, all isn’t lost.
We’ve already pointed out that when you try to answer a multiple choice
question, the answer is staring you in the face. That’s not the only answer that’s
staring you in the face.
Almost every exam paper is a treasure trove of clues and hints that can help you
to boost your grade. If you needed to write an essay on King Lear for example, and
you can’t remember the names of his daughters, flick back through the paper and
see if they turned up on an earlier question.
If you have to answer a question about the separation of powers for a constitution
essay, you might well find that many of the points you need to make have turned up
in different parts of the exam.
You might not be able to take a text book into the examination room with you, but
your examination paper can be a great resource when you’re looking for information
to write an essay.
You can even use it to check spelling and to look for grammatical forms on
language tests. When you’re writing your essay, it pays to make use of the
examination paper they give you.
What Are the Examiners Looking For in an Essay?
Clearly, examiners recognize that in an exam environment, you’re not going to
produce War And Peace, a Ph.D. thesis or anything that’s going to change the world.
In fact they’re not going to expect much beyond three basic elements:
Let’s look at each of these in turn...
One of the first questions that people ask when they realize that they have to
complete an answer question is: “How long does the essay have to be?”
Of course, there’s no one answer to that. The number of pages you produce will
depend on the size of your handwriting, and the number of words will be affected by
the amount of time that you have available.
In general, you can roughly estimate that you can write up to four pages, or about
1200 words, in the space of an hour in the exam.
That’s not a golden rule though and it’s unlikely that the examiners will be looking
for a set length. It is likely though that they’ll mark down an essay that’s little more
than a couple of lines. They will want to see that you put some work into your essay
and produced something that looks like a full answer rather than a hasty response.
That doesn’t mean that they’ll give more marks to an essay that goes on for page
after page. If you’re constantly asking for more paper and writing faster than you can
think, that’s a pretty good sign that you need to stop for a second and read through
what you’ve written.
There’s a good chance that your structure has broken down and that you’re
making up for not knowing how to build your argument by babbling. Instead of one
point leading naturally onto the next to create and reinforce your argument, you’re
trying to throw in every piece of information you possess and hope that if you
mention enough points you’ll get a top score.
On most exams, a well-structured essay that’s short and contains just a few wellmade points will do better than a long rambling piece that contains lots of information
in no particular order.
Length is one test of how well your essay question follows a firm structure.
So what sort of structure makes for a good answer to an essay question? The
simple answer is... a simple one.
If you were writing the sort of long essay that you might have had to produce for
your coursework, you’d probably break it down into various sections, with each
section dealing with one of the areas you’d need to describe. Each of those sections
might be several pages long.
In an exam essay, each section is going to be about a paragraph long. That’s it.
That’s all you’re going to have time for and that’s all the examiner is going to expect.
Not only will you have less room to describe each point though, but the limited
amount of time you have will also restrict the number of points you can expect to
cover, even when you’re only covering each point in very little detail.
On the whole, you can expect to produce and describe no more than four points
in an essay question that you have one hour to complete. Your structure then might
look something like this as shown in figure 4:
Introduction—Paragraph 1
Restate the question and describe what
you’re about to say.
1st Argument In Favor—Paragraph 2
Present the first argument in favor of the
proposition you’re supporting.
2nd Argument In Favor—Paragraph 3
Present the second argument in favor of
the proposition you’re supporting.
1st Counter Argument—Paragraph 4
Present the first argument against the
proposition you’re supporting.
2nd Counter Argument—Paragraph 5
Present the second argument against the
proposition you’re supporting.
Conclusion—Paragraph 6
Summarize your arguments and explain
why you believe the arguments in favor
defeat the arguments against.
Figure 4 – Basic essay structure
That’s a very basic outline but it works for almost every kind of essay on every
subject. What’s important about it is that it’s organized. Your arguments and positions
aren’t poured onto the page as you remember them; they’re presented in such a way
that they show that you’ve considered the pros and cons of the topic and can support
your point persuasively.
Note that it’s important that you present the arguments against your position as
well as the arguments in favor.
The examiners will want to show that you’ve considered the subject carefully and
with an open mind. They’ll want to know that you’ve reached your conclusion solely
by weighing up the arguments in favor and against, and not by not knowing about the
problems your position might cause.
If you can show that you’ve done that, you can pretty much argue anything and
get the points.
Of course, you don’t have to use an outline exactly like this one. There’s no
reason why you can’t change the order of the paragraphs, add paragraphs or remove
them. Some ideas are given in figure 5.
Introduction—Paragraph 1
Introduction—Paragraph 1
1st Argument In Favor—Paragraph 2
Argument In Favor—Paragraph 2
1st Counter Argument—Paragraph 3
Counter Argument—Paragraph 3
2nd Argument In Favor—Paragraph 4
Conclusion—Paragraph 4
2nd Counter Argument—Paragraph 5
Conclusion—Paragraph 6
Introduction—Paragraph 1
1st Argument In Favor—Paragraph 2
2nd Argument In Favor—Paragraph 3
1st Counter Argument—Paragraph 4
2nd Counter Argument—Paragraph 5
Winning Argument In Favor—Paragraph 7
Conclusion—Paragraph 8
Figure 5 – Possible essay organizational structures
Which of these structures you use will depend entirely on the question and the
amount of time available. But you should be able to use one of them to create a
winning essay. Try to figure out which one you plan to use in the exam and you’ll
save yourself some valuable thinking time at the beginning of your answer.
Vocabulary and Diction
So far we’ve been talking about what you’re going to say in your essay question.
How you say it though is also important.
The examiners aren’t going to expect you to produce a piece of text that looks
like it fell out of the Complete Works Of Shakespeare, but they will usually expect you
to know the difference between the sort of language you use while chatting with
friends in a café and the type of diction that you can find in books.
The latter type of language is the type they’re looking for—the type that uses
words like “diction” when you could say “words” and “latter” to refer to the first of two
different things in a list. The most important point to remember about the language
you use in your essay is that the result has to be clarity. Long sentences are only
impressive if they’re the best way to put across your point; otherwise use short
sentences and replace conjunctions such as “and” or “but” with periods.
One good rule that you should always try to keep is not to let a sentence run for
three lines or more because by the time the reader has reached the end of the
sentence, he will often have forgotten what was said at the beginning of that
sentence—and the same is usually true of the writer. See what we mean?
When you find a sentence runs and runs, look for a place to cut in two. It will be a
lot easier to read.
Similarly, you will be pushed for time when you’re writing your essay and it’s
certainly true that with more time, you’d produce a better essay. But you still can’t
use abbreviations to help you write faster.
It’s really a question of manners: your aim as a writer is to make the reader work
as little as possible to understand what you’re trying to say. A sentence that says:
“Prof. Smith’s argument that the govt. will always be in conflict
with the Sup. Ct. and will try to persuade the House of Reps. to
help it, is false.”
is much harder to understand and demands much more from the writer than saying:
“Professor Smith’s argument that the government will always be in
conflict with the Supreme Court and will try to persuade the House
of Representatives to help it, is false.”
You’d receive more marks for writing a small amount clearly than writing a large
amount that’s hard to read.
It would be nice if we could provide a comprehensive list of words that you should
always use and a solid set of rules that you must always follow when writing your
essay. But it just doesn’t work that way. Everyone has their own writing style and
different questions and different subjects require different language.
What we can say though is that just about every essay question requires the
candidate to:
Make their position absolutely clear. When you’re presenting an argument,
there should be no doubt where you stand on the issue.
Write clearly and naturally. But without using colloquialisms or abbreviations.
Write neatly! If the examiner can’t read it, he can’t give you a mark for it. If
you’ve got bad handwriting, you’re better off writing slower and writing less
than writing more that can’t be read.
Some tips are summarized in Figure 6.
“The company dominated
the market because it
launched its products
before its competitors and
focused on early
“The company dominated
the market by both
launching its products
before its competitors and
by focusing on early
Make the subject of your
pronouns clear.
“The unions would support
the measure but the
employers would be
opposed. They would
make their position public.”
“The unions would support
the measure but the
employers would be
opposed. The unions
would make their position
Use active verbs, not
“The shop would be driven
into bankruptcy by the
“The bank would drive the
shop into bankruptcy.”
Make your point clearly in
as few words as possible.
“There were many cases
in which it was necessary
to cut taxes.”
“It was often necessary to
cut taxes.”
Don’t overstate your case.
“Life during the
Depression was very, very
“Life was difficult during
the Depression.”
“Like” governs nouns and
pronouns, not verbs and
“Like in the English Civil
War, in the American Civil
War families were
“Like the English Civil
War, the American Civil
War divided families.”
Avoid using “because” as
a conjunction.
Figure 6 – Tips for impressive writing
When we discussed multiple choice questions, we pointed out that it pays to take
a few minutes at the beginning of the exam to read all the questions, when possible.
A similar delay is even more valuable when answering the essay question. You
should be prepared to spend as much as a quarter of your writing time—and even a
third—thinking about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. That’s
true even when you already know which structure you plan to use.
Ideally, you’ll have the entire essay written in your head before you even put pen
to paper.
The more you’re familiar with what you want to say, the faster you’ll be able to
write and the better your essay will sound.
The first fifteen to twenty minutes of a one-hour essay then will be spent deciding
which structure you wish to use, and what the arguments and counter-arguments are
likely to be.
The remaining thirty minutes will be spent writing and the last ten minutes reading
through what you’ve written. You don’t want to be in the middle of a sentence when
you’re asked to stop writing.
Essay questions are really very easy. They do require more work than multiple
choice questions but with the right preparation, they’re still a breeze. If you’re still
worried about the quality of your writing skills though, the best remedy is to read
good quality writing.
Try reading at least one article in the New York Times every day or make a point
of reading high-quality non-fiction. When you get used to reading good sentences,
you’ll notice when yours don’t work.
In the next chapter, we look at a topic that every exam taker will grapple with
during their exam preparation: memorization.
Float Information Directly From Your Study Guide Into Your
One of the biggest criticisms leveled against exams is that what they test most is
the candidates’ memories, not their abilities or their intelligence. You might be the
best teacher in the world or possess the greatest legal mind ever but if you can’t
remember the phrasing of some paragraph of the State Education Code that you’re
never going to need or recall the name of the plaintiff in some test case from the
1950s then you could lose your chance to put your special skills to the test.
That means that exams are often neither fair nor a good way to test suitability
for a career. But knowing that isn’t going to help you. Giving your brain superhuman
recall abilities though certainly will.
There are all sorts of methods for turning what appears to be a random database
of information into points that are easy to remember. You’re probably familiar with the
acronym Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, used to memorize the order of
mathematical functions (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition,
Subtraction). You’ve probably also been told that singing what you’re trying to learn
makes the information easy to memorize. (After all, you can probably sing all sorts of
songs whose lyrics you never even tried to learn.)
Both of those methods are perfectly good, but there’s also a whole range of other
more complex—and more powerful—techniques that you can use to store and recall
information that you need for your exam.
In this chapter, we’re going to explain the two most effective (and easy to use)
techniques for transferring the words you see in your notes, your text books and your
study guides into your head—and keeping them there ready for when you need them
in the exam.
The Principles Behind Memorization
While there are lots of different methods to make memorization effective, they all
follow the same principles:
The more vivid the items you’re trying to learn, the easier they’ll be to
If you can associate the items you’re trying to learn with vivid images, you’ll
be able to recall them very easily
Both of the techniques described here simply show how you can link information
you’re trying to learn, whether it’s the chronological order of US Presidents, the main
points of the Reform Act or anything else, with vivid images that stick naturally in your
Linking and Numbering
The simplest method of memorizing a large amount of information is to turn each
point into an image and link each image together into a chain. Instead of trying to
remember each point in turn, you would be able to remember just one picture. That
picture would lead naturally to the next picture and so on.
With each picture representing one point, it would be very easy then to turn those
pictures back into facts to recall all the information you need.
For example, let’s say you needed to learn the names of the first seven American
post-war presidents:
Harry Truman
Dwight Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson
Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter
Trying to turn a list like that into a song or an acronym might not be too effective
but turning each element into a link in a chain of linked images would work much
A muscle-bound hero, a true man (Truman), peeks through a
bathroom window and plants his eyes on a shower (Eisenhower),
where he sees Kennedy struggling to open the door, which he
cannot do (Kennedy). His neighbor’s son, John (Johnson) is
knocking on the door trying come in and Kennedy is keen to get
out because the Nix are on (Nixon) and playing the Dodgers.
Kennedy is for the Dodgers (Ford). He sees the true man looking
through the window and tells him to go for his car (Carter) which is
equipped with a ray gun (Reagan) which he can use to open the
... and you get the point. If the story looks very strange, then we’ve been successful.
The stranger and funnier you can make your images and stories the easier they’ll be
to remember.
While this system might seem a little odd, once you’ve practiced it a few times,
you’ll find it very simple to use and highly effective. But it’s not foolproof. It’s quite
possible that you’ll forget an image and won’t know what comes next in your chain of
links, or that you won’t be able to recall easily the place of each President in the list.
If an exam question asked you to name the sixth post-war President, you’d have to
work your way through the entire list to find out.
That’s why there’s an alternative but related system that you can use when the
order of your list is as important as its content. To use this system you first have to
replace each number with an image. For example:
One — Sun
Two — Shoe
Three — Tree
Four — Door
Five — Knife
Six — Sticks
Seven — Heaven
Eight — Bait
Nine — Fine
Ten — Den
Now, you don’t have to use these particular images. On the contrary, you should
use images that you find easiest to remember. If you automatically rhyme “ten” with
“hen” or “one” with “gun” then use those as your images instead. It’s important to
produce picture replacements for numbers that you can think of instantly.
You don’t want to waste time and energy trying to remember what the image for
eight means.
Once you’ve created your list, the next stage is to combine that image with an
image of the element you’re trying to remember. The result should be a compound
picture that contains clues to both the nature of the element and its place in the list.
The list of post-war presidents then would look something like this:
1. Truman
— A he-man sunbathing.
2. Eisenhower — Someone standing in a shower wearing shoes.
3. Kennedy — A woodcutter trying and failing to cut down a tree.
4. Johnson
— A small boy, John’s son, knocking at a door.
5. Nixon
— A Nix hitter heading out to bat with a knife.
6. Ford
— A river forded with sticks.
7. Carter
— A car flying into the heavens.
The advantage of this system is that each image packs in a great deal of
information. Not only will you be able to remember the names of each of the
Presidents, you’ll also be able to recall the order in which they led the government.
The disadvantage though is that you have to remember each image. Again, that’s
why it’s important to make each image vivid, bizarre — and memorable. It’s always
going to be easier to remember an odd picture than a name and a number.
Journeys and Rooms
Creating a sequence of easily remembered images is most useful when you need
to remember a list of items. But not everything you need to memorize for an exam
comes in the form of a list. Often you’ll have to remember facts or blocks of
information, such as the pulse rate of a new-born baby or the factors that led to
Winston Churchill’s electoral defeat after the Second World War.
For this sort of information (or if you’re having trouble creating vivid images that
stick naturally in your head), you can use objects and images that you already have
around you as your mnemonic aids.
There are two very easy ways to do this: by using what you see on a journey you
take every day; and by using the contents of a room.
To use the Journey Method, make a list of all the things that you might see when
you go to college or walk your dog. You can actually make the journey and use a pad
to take notes if you wish, but it’s better to do it from memory. If you can remember
those details now, you should be able to remember them in the exam too.
Your list might start something like this:
— Bowl with keys
— Front door
— Car
— Junction with stop sign
— Freeway access ramp
Now, if you needed to remember the details of the Monroe Doctrine for example,
you would first isolate the particular details you needed to remember:
— The doctrine was expressed in 1823.
— It declared that the European powers should not colonize or interfere in
sovereign American nations.
— The United States would stay neutral in European conflicts that took place
outside the Americas.
— A war fought by a European power in the Americas would be considered a
hostile act against the United States.
— The doctrine was expressed by President Monroe in the seventh annual
address to Congress.
Then associate those details with elements on your journey, as shown in figure 7:
Journey Image
The doctrine was expressed in 1823.
A bowl containing a hotel room key with
a large plastic tag stamped with room
number 1823.
European powers should not colonize or
interfere in sovereign American nations.
The front door looks like the gate to a
fancy French chateau.
The United States would stay neutral in
European conflicts that took place
outside the Americas.
The gear in the car is set to neutral.
A war fought by a European power in the
Americas would be considered a hostile
act against the United States.
A tank sitting next to the stop sign waiting
to catch foreign cars.
Expressed by President Monroe in the
seventh annual address to Congress.
The ramp extending all the way up to the
heavens (seven).
Figure 7 – Journey elements as a memory aid
Because you already remember the images that you see on your way to work or
college each day, you don’t need to make a great effort to place each of the elements
that you need to remember in your mind. All you need to do is tweak each picture to
suit the information you’ll be tested on in the exam.
But a journey is slightly limited. It only follows one path. While you can add other
pictures that you might see during your trip, there is another method that offers even
more flexibility: to use the objects that you find in a room.
The principle is exactly the same: identify elements that you can remember easily
in a room and associate them with the information you’re trying to memorize. The
advantage of using a room though is that you can add objects to it and even a door
that leads to another room.
That lets you create special rooms for different subjects. So if you were trying to
remember verb forms and vocabulary for a language, for example, you could imagine
a gym and place imaginary objects throughout the room that were associated with
each verb model that you needed to remember. A door leading out of the gym could
take you to a living room in which the sofa is actually a photograph (to help you
remember that the French for “sofa” is “fauteuil”) and the magazine rack requires
money before you can take out an edition (to remind you that the French for “shop” is
The Room Method is certainly the most flexible of all the memorization
techniques you can use. It lets you remember an unlimited amount of information and
by placing each element in an appropriate place, they will all be easy to recall and
will guide you from one to the other.
Memorization techniques can look difficult to use but they’re really much simpler
and much more effective than they appear. They key is always to use graphic
pictures and to practice. The more you practice, the easier they’ll get!
Three Types of Test Takers, Which One Are You?
Look around the waiting area on exam day and you’ll see all sorts of different test
takers. Some people will be completely relaxed and confident, absolutely certain that
they’ve done all the preparation they need to do. Some will be red-eyed and tired
after a long night with a pile of books and others will be nervously checking chapters
right up until the last minute.
Ultimately though, there are only three types of test takers: those who fail, those
who pass and those who pass with flying colors. In this chapter, we’re going to
explain how you can identify which type of test taker you are likely to become in your
exam—and how you can move up a level before it’s too late.
Type 1. Test-Takers Who Fail
There are all sorts of reasons that people fail their tests. In this book, we’ve
already pointed out that nervousness and exam panic can prevent someone with the
ability and knowledge needed to pass from doing the best they can. We’ve also
explained how you can beat that anxiety.
Underestimating the amount of time you have
available to prepare and failing to use that time to
cover everything you need is also likely to leave
you with the sort of large gaps that take big chunks
out of your final grade. Without effective exam
preparation, even the greatest understanding of
exam technique can only bring in around fifty
percent of the available marks.
And then of course, there are the sort of people
who simply don’t have the ability to pass the test.
Everyone is good at some things and no one is
good at everything. Clearly, there could well be
some people taking your test—whether it’s a test to
become a lawyer, a teacher or anything else—who
would have been better off being tested on some
other skills. Fortunately though, these people are
relatively rare. Usually by the time people reach a
test date, they’re well aware of whether the path they’ve chosen is suitable for them.
Those who know that this isn’t their sort of test tend to drop out long before they’re
given the paper.
Lack of preparation is always going to be a much greater problem.
When you go into an exam ill-prepared, you’ll find that a number of things will
happen, each of which will make it very clear from the moment you turn over your
paper that you’re not going to pass the exam:
1. You’ll suddenly realize that there are big areas that you simply aren’t familiar
with... and your anxiety levels will go through the roof;
2. You’ll waste time trying to calculate the answer to questions you can’t do...
and to make up that time, you’ll waste marks guessing questions you could
have answered;
3. You’ll know as soon as you stop writing that you’ve failed the exam—and
you’ll know why.
Signs that you’re going to fail the exam
 It’s a week before the exam... and you still don’t have a study plan
 You’ve already decided that there are large parts of the syllabus that
probably won’t turn up on the exam (and by a strange coincidence
those are the parts that you find the least interesting or the hardest)
You feel that you don’t need to study too hard because you already
know the material pretty well
You don’t care too much whether you pass or fail, although you hope
you get through
What to do if you think you’re in danger of failing
 Recognize what you still need to study and clear your schedule so that you’ve
got time to study them
 Imagine the worst possible consequences of failure and use that image to
motivate yourself to work harder
 Ask your friends and classmates what they’re doing to prepare for the exam—
and compare their efforts with your own
 Review exam strategies such as the process of elimination so that you can
pick up extra marks even on areas you fail to cover properly
Type 2. Test Takers Who Pass
Only a small minority of test takers in any examination room will fail. The vast
majority of people will receive reasonable grades that recognize their work and
ability... but don’t mark them as outstanding students.
Test takers who get these sorts of grades work
hard. They attend their classes, take notes and set
aside time to review and prepare for the exam. They
take their work seriously and are rarely, if ever, worried
by grades that are dangerously low.
But a record of reasonable grades can also lull an
exam taker into a false sense of security. Because they
always work well enough to ensure that they don’t
receive a bad grade, they don’t put in the extra effort
needed to assure a great grade. In fact, they’ll assume
that those sort of top-level marks are only available to
the top-level brains who always seem to ace everything
they do.
They’ll accept that they’re going to get a mediocre
grade, aim for it, hit it... and miss out on the ‘A+’ mark they could have won.
Signs that you’re going to pass... and do little more
 You rarely receive very low grades... but you also rarely receive very high
 You believe that the very top grades are for other people, the ones with
professors for parents and all the time in the world to spend on their studies
 You believe that a mediocre grade is all you need and that it would make you
feel that you’ve actually done very well indeed
What to do if you think you’re going to do little more than pass
 Recognize that top exam grades aren’t restricted to people with extra-special
intelligence—they’re available to anyone willing to put in the effort to earn
 Talk to your teachers to find out which areas are your weakest and how you
can increase your knowledge in them
 Use practice exams to keep checking for those gaps... and to keep filling
Type 3. Test Takers Who Pass With Flying Colors
Like those who fail, test takers who open their results envelope and find that
they’ve received 100 percent or just a little under are very rare. There might be just
one or two in each class but these are the people who go on to have outstanding
careers with high salaries and even higher levels
of satisfaction.
Motivation has something to do with the ability
of these types of candidates to ace their papers.
They understand the benefits that will come from
receiving a top grade and they use the thought of
those rewards as incentive to motivate them to
put in the extra effort required.
But lots of people have good reasons for
preparing well and still fail to do so. Motivation
helps but it doesn’t do everything. Belief takes
motivation even further.
People who ace exams do so because they
believe they can. They recognize that top grades
aren’t a special preserve for those with superhuman smarts or deep backgrounds in the
subject. They acknowledge that they have just as
much chance of acing the exam as anyone else.
Those two factors together mean that when
they come to build their study plan and review
their examination techniques, they do it with a sense of determination. When they get
a question wrong on a practice test, they make sure that they understand why they
were wrong and what they need to do to get it right in the future.
And they aren’t frightened by what they don’t know. Because they understand
that every lost mark takes them further from that magic 100 percent score, they don’t
hope that what they don’t know doesn’t turn up; they try to plug every hole they can
The result is a top grade... and the sort of test taker that you should aim to
Signs that you’re going to pass with flying colors:
 Your friends and classmates frequently turn to you for advice
 You believe that mediocre grade—even if it meant that you had passed—
would represent a personal failure
 You’re enthusiastic about your work and you don’t begrudge the efforts you
have to make to do well
What to do if you’re going to pass with flying colors:
 Continue to believe that if you don’t work hard, you will lose marks and let
yourself down
 Keep looking for holes in your knowledge that could turn up on the exam
 Control your anxiety so that your desire to succeed doesn’t overpower you
Of course, there are many other types of test taker and you can probably think of
quite a few that you’ve met during your time in exam rooms. But these three are the
most important, and understanding where you stand in relation to them will help you
to keep your preparation moving towards the result you want—and are capable of
In this book, we’ve tried to give you all the information you need to get the highest
score possible in your exam—whatever the topic of your test.
We’ve explained how to prepare properly for an exam and create the sort of
study plan you’re actually going to follow... rather than one you’re going to ignore and
feel guilty about.
We’ve talked about pre-exam nerves, discussed how they can help you move
faster but also bring you to a halt, and suggested ways to stop that anxiety before it
stops you.
We then moved on to talk about strategies that you can use during the exam
itself. We talked about the process of elimination and revealed how you can turn a
one-in-five chance of guessing right into a one-in-two chance, giving you a firm
foundation on which to build.
We also supplied a number of sample essay structures that you can easily adapt
in an essay question that asks you to write about... well, just about anything really.
And we talked you through some of the most effective memorization techniques
that you can use to get the material currently in your notes glued into your head.
Finally, after helping you to identify whether you’re likely to fail, pass or pass with
flying colors, we helped to get your foot on the ladder once the results are in.
All of this advice is practical. None of it works if you don’t use it. Keep this book
with you as your exam approaches, follow the suggestions it contains and aim to ace
your test. There’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t get the maximum score.
Good luck!
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