Do you struggle with taking tests? Do you feel like when the test is handed out, you studied the wrong things? Or can’t remember anything? You’re not alone! These feelings are unbelievably common, and I’m here to help. Not so much with tips and tricks, but with something helpful and real: the psychological mindset that will change the way you approach test-taking from here on out! Ready? Let’s do it!

How to Take a Test

I’ve decided to write down the methods that I use to take tests. Not because I have some amazing intellect (far from it!), but only because I have survived in my education to this point largely due to a strong will to succeed.  

I do not include tips on taking different types of tests, for example the method of narrowing down possibilities in a multiple choice test, or how best to write an essay, or what to do for various other types of exams.  While those tactics are all very important, this article serves as a guide as to the best way to organize and structure your mindset for taking a test and doing as well on it as you possibly can. I truly think this can help you, and I hope it does!


The Test as an Imperfect Tool

The first point to remember when taking an exam is that tests are not perfect, and they never can be.  Think about it, the purpose of a test is to determine how well you have been able to grasp the facts and concepts of any given subject.  To truly determine this, the instructor would have to ask every possible question that dealt with that subject. This simply is not possible.  The test would be incredibly long! Your instructor only has what, an hour? The fact of the matter is that the instructor must ask some representative group of questions, and assume that your knowledge of those principles represents your knowledge of the entire subject.  You need to use this fact to your advantage; in order to ace the class, you really only need to know the answers to that one set of representative questions.  

I know what your thinking, “Well of course that is all true, if I knew the test questions ahead of time, anyone could ace the test, but there’s a name for that, it’s called cheating!”  Now, I’m not suggesting you cheat, far from it, in fact, quite the opposite. What I am trying to point out, is that in most cases, virtually all cases, you know what the instructor deems most important. We’ve all heard it, during one particular lecture, you will hear the instructor say, “Now this point is really key,” or “I really hope you are understanding this because this is really important,” or “If you only learn one thing in this class, this should be it,” or even, “This is going to be on the test!”  You get the picture. Whenever you hear these types of phrases, you can be sure the instructor finds it important. If the instructor finds it important, it will probably be on the test. Anytime your instructor uses these types of words in relation to an idea or concept, put a large asterisk next to it in your textbook or notes. This will be on the exam.

It can be tough, and even rather daunting to be asked to have complete mastery of a subject, so don’t think of it that way.  The truth is you only have to have a mastery of the key points that the instructor finds important, so spend your time studying those points, it’s not cheating, it’s being smart about the way you listen in class, and spend your time studying.  And if you really think about it, you don’t want to waste space in your brain with insignificant facts that the instructor mentioned during class, but doesn’t really find all that important. Think about what you will remember from this class a year from now, you’ll only remember the main points anyway, so study those points.


A Game with an Opponent

Another idea I find important is that any time you are taking an exam; you are really in a contest.  The contest is between you and the instructor. Who will prevail? The instructor is trying to prove that you don’t know the most important parts of the subject.  You are trying to prove that you do. So what do you do? Well, what do you do in any other contest or sport?

Let’s look at an analogy that may be helpful. Imagine you are going on a hunt of some kind; let’s say you are hunting geese (full disclosure: I know nothing about goose hunting…!).  Anyway, you may say, “I don’t stand a chance; think of all the advantages that geese have over me in this situation. They can fly. They are extremely alert. They have vastly superior senses of hearing, sight and smell. Therefore they will hear, see ad smell me coming long before I can get anywhere near them.”  And, in fact, all of these things are true. And yet, thousands of geese are killed by hunters every year! How is that possible?

Well, perhaps if there were some super-human who could somehow hear, see and smell better than the geese; then surely that person would be able to outsmart them? Unfortunately, this isn’t possible, and to be quite honest, it isn’t necessary.

So how do successful hunters do it then? Now, I’m not suggesting that a novice can go out by a pond and somehow land a bunch of geese. BUT, it really isn’t all that hard to grasp the concept: successful hunters study the geese. A hunter who really knows what he’s doing doesn’t try to beat the geese at what they do best, on the contrary, he has studied their habits, their patterns, the way they live and do things, and using this information, he exploits it, and earns his dinner.  He knows that the birds like to be in large numbers, and they are influenced by others of their kind, so he carefully sets out decoys and buys a duck call. He knows that they are sensitive to motion, so he stays very still and uses camouflage. And on and on. I don’t want to carry the analogy too far, but do you get the point? In order to beat your instructor, you will need to be a student, not only of the subject matter, but of the instructor himself.

I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying, “Well, this instructor has spent a lot of time instructing on such-and-such subject, so I’m going to spend my time studying that.” And that’s great, you’re getting the idea, but I want you to look deeper. It may take a little work, but it will pay off.

Imagine you have an English instructor who really likes essays.  You’ve heard this from students who took the course the previous year. Well, don’t waste time studying some subject that wouldn’t be easy for the instructor to make you write an essay on!  Exploit that teacher’s “weakness!” Figure out ahead of time how your instructor likes essays written, and then, even though you may not be able to predict the exact theme of the essay, you will be a lot better off.

The story is told of a boy who used principles similar to what I have written above.  He was sure the instructor was going to ask the students to write an essay about a cow for the examination.  So the night before, the boy worked and worked to write an essay on a cow. He studied the cow, so he would have good facts, he worked out his wording just right, and then he memorized it.  He was sure he would be ready for the exam in the morning. The next day he went to school and the instructor said, “Today is the day of your exam, and your assignment is to write an essay on a tree.”  The boy was stunned for a moment; then he began writing, “Once there was a tree, and beneath this tree, there stood a cow…”


I once took a class, probably one of the most difficult classes of my life, and it was a mathematics class called “Complex Analysis.”  And believe me, it was. I was really worried about the final exam. How was I ever going to pass the exam? Well, the instructor told us that the final exam would be a true or false exam.  Can you imagine? A math test that is true or false! Needless to say, I spent a lot of time thinking about that. When the day finally came, I was ready. I had studied almost exclusively, those principles of Complex Analysis that could be asked using the true-or-false format!  

Mastering Your Mindset

Now we are really getting to the important part.  I hope you are still with me. Everything that we have talked about so far deals mainly with the time leading up to the exam, the days and weeks preceding it.  The last couple of points I want to address have to do with that time beginning the night before the exam. Let’s imagine it. You have gotten through the entire semester or quarter.  You are sitting in the library, the coffee shop, or your room, possibly at your desk doing some last minute cramming, and you think to yourself, “This is impossible. How am I ever going to pass this test? It is hopeless!  I know nothing. I’m an idiot, the teacher is brilliant, all the other students get it, and I am going to fail.”

Hey, don’t feel bad if you are thinking like this, most people do. I think these thoughts before every test I take!  It is the way you approach the exam from this point on that will make all the difference…!

The principle I use is very simple.  In fact, it is ridiculously simple. If you’re thinking I’m going to tell you something like, “Just have confidence in yourself,” or “Believe you can pass, and you will,” or “Think happy thoughts.”  You are wrong. While I do advocate those things I just mentioned, the truth is that they probably won’t help your state of mind too much.

No, what I suggest is not that. What I want you to do is to look at the facts.  That’s right, just think about your situation and lay out exactly what situation you are in. I’ll give an example of the typical way in which I do this.

I’ll say to myself, “Okay self.  Let’s face it, you are probably not the smartest guy in this class, far from it, you’ve done only average or below-average on your assignments and previous tests while others in the class have aced them.  And you probably did not study as much as you should have, I mean look at you, you’re here on the night before the exam, and this is the first time that you have seriously cracked the textbook to study! 

And this instructor is tough, sure you know his style and what he considers important, but if he knew the truth, he would definitely say you need to go back and repeat the course. I acknowledge that all of these things are true.”  

At this point, I have pretty much laid it all out. I can’t outright disagree with any one of the previous comments. And it does seem pretty depressing!

BUT, if I am going to be honest with myself, if I am going to truly look at the situation from all angles, then in the interest of full disclosure, I DO need to admit a few other things.  So I continue…

“Okay Self, that is all true, but if we’re going to look at those things, then let’s also look at the rest of the facts. You’ve attended nearly every class period or lecture that this instructor has given in relation to this course. And while you may not have retained everything you heard in those class periods, you cannot deny that you have at least been exposed to everything that the instructor expects of you.  Not only that, you have done all of the assignments, and taken all of the tests previous to this last one. You may not have aced them or even done particularly well on them, but you certainly didn’t fail them.”

I continue, “In addition, you have seen those corrected assignments, so you now know how to do at least those problems. If we judged you based on your performance so far in the course, you would be doing all right. And don’t forget what you have learned about the instructor for this course.  Sure the last tests have been difficult, and what you have heard from previous students tells you that this one will be no different, but that isn’t all bad, indeed, the instructor has effectively tipped his hand! You have a very good idea of what the format and structure of the exam will be!”

Sure this instructor is brilliant, and maybe, just maybe, if he could interview you one-on-one for several hours, he would determine that you are not worthy to pass this exam. But let’s face it, he can’t do that! He won’t get a one-on-one interview with you. And you may not know the subject very well, but he doesn’t know that! The truth is, he will never know that. Just because you do poorly on an exam doesn’t mean you don’t know the subject matter, and similarly, the fact of the matter is that just because you do well on an exam doesn’t mean you DO know the subject matter, so you don’t need to worry about that.”

“Last but not least, you are blessed with a great and wonderful mind, which is able to accomplish far more that you could ever imagine!  Look at the tough times that you’ve come through before. They seemed just as desperate as this one, but your mind pulled you through. You can’t deny that your mind is pretty amazing, and you have all of your faculties available to assist it in any way it needs. You also have all of your physical attributes in perfect working condition, so you don’t have to worry about that either.” And so on.

Once you have laid out the truth, I mean everything, the bad, the ugly, and the GOOD!  The situation rarely looks as dire as it might once have. I’m not talking about lying to yourself, or trying to trick yourself into thinking you will do well.  That never helped anyone, and to be honest about it, it really doesn’t work. You can’t lie to yourself about this, it just doesn’t make sense. The truth is that once you see both sides of the situation, you are in a much better position to address those things that truly need to be addressed, like my final point…

The Physiology of Test-Taking

The last point I’ll make is short but sweet.  It has to do with your physical body, and the way that you are prepared to take the exam.  It is to your great advantage to be in tip-top physical shape when you take that test. I’m not talking about having rippling muscles, or preparing for a test by running every day as if you were getting ready for a marathon.

While those things have great benefits too, I am talking about your physical well-being when you step into the examination room. Are you well-rested? Have you gotten a good meal? Have you gone to the restroom before hand? Do you have a sweatshirt in case you get cold?  Dry socks, etc… Think about these things; don’t just say you’ll do the best you can.

Scientists have spent centuries trying to find the links between body, mind, and soul, and honestly, when it comes to how these facets of your being interact, they still have a long way to go. About all they can say definitively is that they are intricately related. (No crap, Sherlock!) The evidence they do have backs it up, so for Pete’s sake don’t take your physical well-being for granted! In a lot of cases, I would even say that a good nights rest is of far more importance that a couple of extra hours of cramming. The same goes for a good meal. Our bodies have a far greater impact on the functioning of our mind than we usually realize, so treat your body right, and expect your mind to be functioning at its peak performance.


I hope these brief points have been helpful.  While there is no substitute for genuine knowledge, a good, honest assessment of your instructor, yourself, and your testing situation can serve you well in your educational career.

I know this process has helped me, and I genuinely  hope this helps you. I really appreciate you as a reader of this website. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t get to do this, so thank you for reading!


P.S. What are your best tips for test-taking? Am I missing something obvious? What do you do that has helped you pass tests and pass classes? Conversely, am I way off base? I’d love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments section below!