This is a guest post by Ryan from PracticalPremed.com, if you would like to contribute a guest post as well, please visit the contact page.

Is outstanding exam-preparation enough to ensure great grades on tests? Sadly, this is not the case. For students who spend countless hours studying yet continue to receive sub-par test scores, the common response to receiving such scores is to spend even more time studying for the next test. This myth is deeply ingrained in students, especially those committed to grinding away during college years. The problem, however, often lies in the student’s test-taking skills rather than test-preparation. Studying , no matter how excellent, provides only the maximum possible score you can obtain on a test. The ability to take tests often determines the actual score received. A student who spends X hours studying for a midterm will thus have the possibility of obtaining a maximum of 95% on a test. However, if this student has poor test taking skills he or she will receive an actual score of only 80%. Have you ever found yourself looking over tests when you get them back and thinking how many things you would have differently? Sure, given unlimited time and a more relaxed setting, this student could have scored a 95%, but thats not how tests work. There is a limited time frame and test rooms are pressure cookers. So where did those 15% go then?

This disparity of points can often be attributed to three reasons:

1) Weak or Non-Existent Time Management. Failure to mentally budget time can result in a staggering imbalance of time spent on various questions. I’ve been guilty of stubbornly sticking with hard questions I couldn’t figure out and missing out on easy points in the process. Identify what is costing you chunks of time and ruthlessly cut out any time spent not answering questions from your prime test time (from the beginning to 75% of the time allocated).

  • Look over the entire test before answering any questions. The natural tendency is going to be to fill out questions as they come, but it is much more important to get a feel of the test as a whole. It keeps time allocated to questions in perspective so as not to go overboard when stuck on a question.
  • Identify easy questions and quickly answer them. When going through a test I answer any questions that I immediately know first. The goal is to maximize points and answering all the easy questions first is the best way to build up confidence knowing you have a good chunk of points in the bag. If an answer doesn’t come to mind upon reading the question, I immediately move on. As much as it may pain you to not move through questions in a linear manner, move on. Conquer what you are comfortable with and the other test questions will be shivering in fear of your mighty question answering ability.
  • Create a mental time budget of however much time you have left. It’s easy to get carried away when stuck on a question, so be sure to set limits on allocation of time. If you ever feel stuck on a question and find yourself searching the ceilings for answers, STOP and move on. There are other points to be had, and those patterns in the ceiling have yet to arrange themselves into an answer (despite thousands of students intensely staring at them).

2) Freaking Out or Mentally Lapsing During Tests. Tests are often high-pressure situations and can bring out the worst in your nervous system. The combination of stress and sleep-deprivation that often comes around test time can lead to two extremes: freaking out by over-thinking or mental lapses of blank thoughts. The days leading up to a test are crucial to your mental state on test day and can be managed by the following steps:

  • Come as physically fresh to a test as possible. Cut out your all-nighters and exercise in the days leading up to a test. You want the oxygen flowing to your brain, and the last I checked mindless zombies tend to make pretty bad students.
  • Practice answering questions about the material both out loud and by writing them out. Figure out the test format (multiple choice, short answer, problem solving) and get comfortable working with the format. People fear what they don’t understand and you can eliminate a whole lot of anxiety by becoming comfortable with the question style.
  • Eliminate any distractions when practicing answering questions . Again, this is to stimulate test conditions as closely as possible. Turn off your phone, shut off your computer, and put away the headphones. A lot of students advocate listening to music when studying, but I try to stay away from as many distractions as possible. On test day its just you, your pen/pencil, and the test waiting for you to dominate it. Become comfortable with the simulated questions and you’ll be (relatively) more composed come test day.

3) Over-compulsive Answering and Detailing. Have you ever spent an extra 5 minutes filling in extra details for answers even after you hit all the main points? These extra details may net you a point or two, but will cost you crucial time in the process. What good is adding more detail to get those extra two points when you lose time to answer the next twenty point question? Sadly, I’ve found that the a good number of grading styles (i.e. those of stressed out grad students) favor keywords which encourages students to spam the answer box. Resist this temptation and remember that simple is beautiful and efficient.

  • It goes against the impulses of most students, but when answering questions strive for “just good enough.” Hit all the main points and include details if they directly support these main ideas. Think, what is the bare minimum to answer this question effectively in a manner in the same manner as the test-maker. I’m often surprised by how little detail the answer key goes into when compared to my answers. Focus on essentials, details can come later.
  • When you answer questions as effectively and briefly as possible I guarantee you will find a lot more time to get through every question. Once you’ve hit the main points of all the questions, then you can go in and fill out extra details. I understand the need to add extra detail is too tempting to resist as I often am pretty guilty of it myself. Save this impulse for after working through the main idea of a test to prevent getting carried away.

Are you maximizing your test-scores with your test performance? Test are culminations of months of material and the pressure can be overwhelming at times, but the right preparation and delivery can significantly reduce the mental anxiety. If you feel you have great studying techniques but ultimately don’t get the scores you want, consider refining your test-taking skills as opposed to spending more time studying. Outstanding preparation demands outstanding delivery. Use some of these tips on your next test and let me know how you dominated. Also, if you can have test-taking strategies of your own I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

This guest post was written by Ryan Nguyen from PracticalPremed. He writes about unconventional strategies and systems to maximize academic results and despises traditional study habits.

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