You are here: American University Provost Academic Access Skills and Workshops for Academic Success Exam Preparation

Study and Test-taking Strategies

When studying, think strategy. In the links on this page, we've included some suggestions and tips sheets students have found useful at the ASAC. Many are based on the idea of "distributed learning," in which studying a little over a longer period of time is more effective than last-minute intensive cramming. Many also include ways to organize information, including lecture and reading notes, into effective study guides. There is a wealth of study skills books and methods out there: just pick (and adapt) what works best for you and your learning style.

When taking tests, get to the essentials fast: it is important to focus on how you will prepare before the exam, what strategies you can use during the exam, and what you can do after the exam to help you on the next one. Consider the "Three Critical Stages" below for tips on how to get ready for your next test.

Three Critical Stages of Test Preparation

These three stages of preparation will help you prepare for a test or exam.

  • Find out what the exam will cover.This will give you a "set" for reviewing. No exam covers everything taught in the course.

    Find out what kind of exam it will be: objective, essay or a combination of both.For essay exams: find out whether there will be several short questions, one or more long questions or both.

    For objective exams: determine what type of objective exam it will be (multiple choice, fill-in the blank, definitions)

    Review for the exam: Start reviewing methodically and fairly early.Do not leave it until the last minute.

    Separate review time from your work on daily homework assignments.

    Review in short chunks every day, at most two hours at a time.

    Divide the raw material in each course into logical sections and concentrate on one at a time.

    Relieve your mind by reviewing your worst subject early.

    Review your toughest subject just before the exam - the day before, or even the night before. This is a sensible form of cramming because it is really review.

    If you have not been reviewing periodically throughout the semester, begin reviewing about two weeks before a major exam.

    Make sure you know certain elementary facts about the exam.Learn when it is, where it is, and what you are expected and allowed to bring with you. Then get there early with the appropriate materials.

Before you start writing, glance over the whole exam. This gives you a "set" for the exam: what it covers, where the emphasis lies, what the main ideas seem to be.

When you begin your work, tackle the questions in the order that appeals to you most. There is nothing sacred about the order in which the questions appear. Doing well on a question that you feel relatively sure of will be reassuring and will free your mind of tension.

Keep point value and time allowance in mind. Determine a rough time allowance. If the total point value of the test is 100, then a 50-point question is worth about half your time, regardless of how many questions there are.

Work methodically. If you tend to rush, slow down. If you tend to run out of time, pace yourself.

Underline all significant words in the directions, such as "Complete 2 out of 3 essays."

When you are finished, check over your entire paper. This will allow you to see if you have left out any questions and ensure that you have followed directions. Catch careless errors, but don't change your answers unless you are certain you have made a mistake.


Learn how to take exams by analyzing what you have done on a previous exam.  When you get your exam back, go over it, thinking about what it shows about the professor's expectations and style of testing. Did you prepare effectively for this kind of test? What might you do differently next time?

Detect where you tend to lose points:  Is there a pattern of why you missed points? Did you get the main idea but rush through the steps, proofs, or essay?  Did you misinterpret questions or even test directions? Did you spend too much time on lesser-value items? 

Note what you did right.  This may save you worry the next time. That question on the test that haunted you for the next several days may prove to be the one you did the best on. Why did it get such a good reception? Often, such analysis proves genuinely reassuring.