Have you failed to complete a test paper because you ran out of time?

Have you blanked out on seeing a tough test paper?

Have you been routinely losing marks because of silly mistakes?

And what if you were not in your peak state of mind while taking that important test?

These aren’t uncommon situations. Many struggle with these and many other issues while writing exams, which you can better cope with if you’ve a good test-taking strategy.

What’s a good test strategy, though?

In essence, a solid strategy will identify the steps you should take on the exam day to perform to your potential. Most of these steps will be for anticipated situations such as what to eat in the breakfast, what rituals to follow before entering the test center, and so on.

Some steps, however, will be geared toward unanticipated situations such as responding to surprise questions and falling behind on the time.

If you have, then you’re normal. Many struggle with these and many other issues while writing exams, which you can better cope with if you’ve a good test-taking strategy.

In this post, I’ll cover test-taking tips and strategies for the big day, the exam day, categorized into three phases: pre-exam hours, exam hours, and post-exam hours.

It’s an exhaustive list and is ideally suited for students taking challenging standardized tests for admission to colleges or prestigious jobs, but these exam tips and strategies can also be used for less-competitive exams such as those in middle school, high school, or college.

Before getting on to the meat of the post, I should state the obvious about the night-before: get at least 6 hours, preferably 8 hours, of sleep the night before. You know why.

Phase I: Before the exam

Get some cardiovascular exercise

test strategy - get some exercise

This is probably the most ignored test-taking tip, as students don’t appreciate that cardiovascular exercise can positively impact performance in the exam. Many, to squeeze out more time for the prep, in fact stop exercising as the exams draw closer.

Physical exercise has been shown to improve concentration, alertness, and mood. Although nothing better than long-term regular exercise, even single session of exercise has been shown to improve concentration.

In this study, for example, students were divided into two groups. The experimental group was subjected to 12 minutes of aerobic exercise (running) and the control group was shown a 12-minute video. Immediately after the two activities, they were given a test to evaluate how focused (or selective attention) they were on their task. The group which indulged in sedentary activity (watching 12-minute video) didn’t show improvement in selective attention, whereas the other group (12-minute running) showed significant improvement. Significant.

And in a review of several published scientific articles that examines correlation between physical activity and academic performance, this research brief by University of Texas, Austin says:

Physical activity can have both immediate and long-term benefits on academic performance. Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks, which can enhance learning.

Better concentration can be the reason behind lesser number of silly mistakes or better odds in solving difficult questions.

However, not all type of exercises yield the same benefit. As seen in the aforesaid 12-minute study, cardiovascular exercises such as running, cycling, stair-climbing, and skipping, that up your heart rate, work the best.

Take Action – Phase I

  • Don’t miss physical exercise on the exam day.
  • Have a light low-GI meal before the exam.

What to eat before the exam?

Some test-takers fatigue in less than an hour after the exam begins, and, as a result, find it difficult to concentrate. This happens because of wrong choice of food before the exam.

What’s the best option?

An hour or so before the test, eat something which is high in low-GI carbohydrates.

GI or Glycemic Index of a food tells how quickly, during the digestion process, it converts into glucose and releases energy. Lower the GI, longer it takes to release the energy, and hence the longer your energy lasts.

Some of the low-GI food options are wholegrain sandwiches, oats, porridge, low-sugar museli, low-sugar energy bars, yogurt with seeds/ nuts, egg with wholegrain bread, low-fat dairy, soups, salads, and most fruits. If you noticed, these are also healthy options.

Be in a good frame of mind

test taking strategy - be in a good frame of mindYour weeks and months of hard work can come to a naught, if you don’t handle this day well. I’m not talking about preparation or skills, here.

I’m talking about how you cope with psychological factors: pressure, anxiety, and surprises, to name some. Many prepare. Many put in weeks… and months. But two students with similar preparation may end up getting very contrasting results. It happens all the time.

So, you got to step it up hours before the exam and be in your best frame of mind (in fact, as you’ll learn in one of the two links that follow, exercise also plays a part in lifting your mood up and reducing anxiety). You can reduce your anxiety and panic level even if you’ve a history of falling prey to them.

Because these are vast topics in themselves, I’ve covered them separately. The two must-reads in this regard are how to overcome anxiety during the entire exam phase and how to avoid choking during the exam.

Phase II: During the exam

Knowing the location of the test center is given.

And so is avoiding nervous students (and absorbing their negative energy), last-minute study, or speculating the content of the paper, if you don’t want to flare up your nerves.

At last, it’s time. Your months of wait is going to be over soon.

You take the hot seat, and action begins.

Start with easier questions

After you’ve filled in the pre-exam data (required by most tests) and after you get the go-ahead to take the test, read the instructions just to make sure there are no departures from previous year’s papers. Thereafter, quickly glance through the test and mark the easier questions (though, it may not be an option in some cases such as in Computer Adaptive Tests (CAT)).

The best do that.

Here is what Nitin Jain, ranked first in IIT-JEE and AIEEE in 2009 and winner of gold medals in three international Olympiads, says about how he started on an exam:

One must attempt the easy questions first. Skip the difficult ones and go back to them later. Plan to make three phases through the questions: first for the easy ones, second for those you have to think on and work hard to answer, and a third round for the difficult ones. Getting stuck on hard questions early in the exam not only wastes time, but also builds frustration that can bring your morale down.

That’s commonsense, isn’t it? Yet, some start with the first question even if it’s hard or grapple with a difficult question for too long.

Solving tough, quantitative subjective-type questions

How to save time on tough, quantitative subjective-type questions?If you aren’t too confident on a question that requires manipulation with numbers, then it’s better to first get the crux of the problem in few steps in the rough sheet than attempt it straightaway on the main answer sheet. (Because it’s in rough, you only need to focus on getting the crux and not on writing elaborate steps.)

If you attempt it straight on the main sheet, you may have to cross your work and redo it if you get it wrong (and there is decent chance of it going wrong because it’s tough).

So, for tough, quantitative subjective-type questions, first get the crux of the question in rough, and then elaborate it on the main answer sheet. This way, you’ll reduce the chance of redoing your work, thereby avoiding wasting time.

Answering essay-type questions

Such questions typically require long answers ranging anywhere from 50 to 500 words.

Key to answering such questions is to identify 3-4 points around which you’ll articulate your answer. They are critical; they lay the foundation for your answer.

So, instead of jumping right into answering the question, first brainstorm these points and quickly jot them down along with supporting sub points. This way, you’re more likely to write the answer well in the first go itself and not restructure it at a later stage when some new point strikes you, thereby avoiding wastage of time.

Second, you may want to leave some space in your answer sheet immediately after you finish the answer, just in case you recall a new point at a later stage.

Answering Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ)

If you’re stuck on an MCQ, make a smart-guess and move on.

Time management during the exam

time management during the examDon’t stay with time, stay ahead of it.

That’s one of the goals top one-percentile of test-takers pursue while taking a test, and it’s not difficult to see why:

  • If you start with easy questions, which most do, then you have to be ahead of time, because you’ll soon face tough questions, which will invariably take longer to answer. That’s common sense, isn’t it?
  • What separates the top of the top performers from others?

    It’s their ability to solve even those questions which are extremely tough, which in a typical exam won’t constitute more than 10-20% of the questions.

    How do they do it?

    One part, of course, is their level of preparation. But the other part, and often less emphasized, is that when they come to these questions, they’ve plenty of time left (much more than the average time per question), which makes it possible for them to pause, think, and do some extra work in the rough sheet.

    Won’t it be harder for them as well to solve these tough questions if they aren’t left with much time?

    It will be.

    But they kill easy questions in no time and save plenty for the tough ones, and these are the questions which separate them from the rest. It’s as simple as that

Let me give an example of what is meant by staying ahead of time.

Let’s take a complex case – a test with three types of questions (A, B, and C):exam with three type of questions

You start attempting questions, easy first, and after every hour you want to check if you’re ahead on time, at par, or lagging behind.

This is one way you can do it:time calculation 1

Now, after an hour you pause to check your progress. You quickly go through your answer sheet and find that you’ve answered 5 questions in type A, 5 in type B, and 2 in type C.

These questions should have taken you:time calculation 2

So, you’re 7 minutes ahead of time at the first milestone, one hour. That’s excellent progress.

This example requires some calculation, but it isn’t difficult. If you’ve done this in mock tests, it won’t take you more than 30 seconds to check your progress.

Now, this was a bit complex test paper in terms of multiple type of questions. But, if you’ve a test paper with all questions carrying same weight, then you’ll probably get it in under 10 seconds.

The point is: you got to stay ahead of the curve (time), if you want to be a top, top performer (99.99% kind). And if you find yourself lagging, press the accelerator immediately, even in the first hour in a 3-hour test.

However, this is easier said than done. You’ve to be well prepared and you need to practice this time management strategy several times in mock tests. In fact, if you want to take this time management practice a step further in your preparation phase, time yourself even outside mock tests: just pick 2-3 questions and time yourself, trying to stay ahead of the curve – short bursts, but very effective in hardening you.

What if the test is overly tough?

I’ve a short answer for it, and the solution has worked for me on most occasions.

If the test is tough, it’s tough for everyone. Not just you, but other similarly-prepared students too would be struggling, and what ultimately matters is relative performance (how you perform compared to others).

So, don’t let a tough exam choke you. After you’ve attempted the easier questions, if any, try answering the tough ones as much as possible, if partial marks are awarded. In case of MCQs, eliminate as many options as possible and make smart guesses.

That’s how champion sports teams win from seemingly losing positions.

Take mental break(s) to recapture your waning focus

Take a mental break of minute or so once every hour: this will shore up your dropping focus, which invariably happens if you’re concentrating on something for long. During this brief break, divert attention from the test. Gaze the distant corner of the room or just close your eyes, thinking about anything but the test. Idea is to divert your attention from the test.

Replenish if the test is long

In her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on performance and brain science, advocates replenishing yourself to maintain performance:

The ability to perform difficult tasks declines over time – much in the same way that a muscle tires after exercise. In fact, glucose (which is a primary source of energy for the body’s cells, including brain cells) becomes depleted when you continuously exert effort on a difficult thinking and reasoning task. If you don’t take time to recoup your resources, your performance on whatever you do next can suffer.

If your test is long (more than two hours) and if eatables are allowed, then it’s a good idea to have a quick snack of, say, a banana or granola bar. It’ll not only replenish your energy but also divert your attention from the test (you may combine eating with the brief break discussed in the previous point).

Review your answer sheet in the last few minutes

You know this, but let me reinforce it.

If you finish the test before the time runs out, resist the temptation to hand over the answer sheet and rush out. (This will, however, be not possible in CAT, because you can’t go back to the answers which you’ve already answered.)

Ideally, take a minute or two of break (as discussed earlier, it’ll help you be more focused, which is important to catch silly mistakes), and then review your answers. Even one silly mistake unearthed is a big return on investment of this time.

Take Action – Phase II

  • Start with easier questions.
  • For non-MCQ, tough quantitative questions, get the crux of the problem in quick steps in the rough sheet to avoid wastage of time.
  • For essay-type questions, identify key points and supporting sub-points/ examples before attempting the answer.
  • In exam, check your progress at different milestones, and stay ahead of time. That’s one of the core exam-strategies of top test-takers.
  • Don’t let a tough test paper deflate you; it’s tough for others too. The very act of maintaining a calm head and trying your best will give you an edge over others.
  • Taking a brief break during the exam can increase your focus.
  • Eat something light, energetic during the exam if it’s long.
  • If you finish early, don’t let the euphoria of completing the test make you exit the test center immediately.
  • Review your answer sheet. If you’re a normal person, you would’ve committed at least one silly mistake.

Phase III: After the exam

What’s the first thing most do after coming out of the test center?

Tally their answers!

It’s hard not to.

It’s fine to know how you fared in the just-concluded exam provided you don’t have any other in the next few days, because a wrong answer discovered can pull your morale down, affecting your preparation for the next exam. You’ll be disappointed on wrong answers of even those questions where you just took a chance without much hope of getting it right. Such is human nature. Imagine the disappointment if you committed few silly mistakes.

Take Action – Phase III

  • Avoid finding how you fared in the just concluded test paper if more are to follow in the next few days or immediately after.


In this post, we learnt test-taking strategies – psychological as well as academic – for each of the three phases on the exam day: pre-exam hours, exam hours, and post-exam hours.

If you’ve a test strategy, then you’ve a plan for different scenarios that typically unfold in a test. A good strategy with a solid execution can make that crucial difference between successful and also-rans.

But a strategy won’t work in the exam just by reading this post. You need to work it multiple times in the preparation phase, before you can confidently use it in real conditions.

Question: What exam strategies have yielded results for you?