What does it take to succeed in college?
STUDY SKILLS TIPS
What does it take to succeed in college? Many people would answer “intelligence.” They believe that if you are intelligent enough, you will succeed in college, and if you are not intelligent enough, you will fail. Actually, the quality called “intelligence” rarely is a major fact in college success. Much more important are study skills: how you study, what you do in and out of the classroom, and how you manage your time. The good news is that good study skills are something that anybody can learn. Because of this, virtually anybody can succeed in college, with enough hard work, effective time-management, and proper study habits.
General Study Habits
Don’t miss class unless you absolutely have to: Some people, for example, use minor health problems like mild headaches as a reason for missing classes. Don’t fall into this habit! If you are well enough to sit on a couch at home and watch TV, then you are probably well enough to make it to class. At any rate, making it to class will probably help you avoid having bigger headaches later. College classes cover material at a much faster rate than high-school classes do, so missing classes can cause you to fall behind quickly. Why make college difficult on yourself by not attending class? Especially, try to avoid missing math classes, because missing just one can make catching up very difficult.
Be aware than most instructors have specific standards as to how many classes that a student needs to attend in order to pass a class (usually, you need to show up for at least 70% of the sessions of a particular course), and if you wish to get an A or a B, you should have much better attendance than that.
Of course, you will probably sometimes have emergencies that prevent you from attending class from time to time, but if you usually have good attendance, then you should be able to miss class for such situations without hurting yourself too much. If, however, you miss classes for minor reasons, then you may not be able to take class off when you really need to.
All in all, simply making it to class regularly is probably the most important thing that you, the student, can do to ensure your college success.
Arrive on time: Many instructors take lateness seriously, and you may miss important information by arriving late.
Sit in the front of the room: This helps you in a number of ways: It helps you see the board, it helps you hear the teacher, and it helps the teacher notice you and pay attention to any difficulties you might be having.
Try to meet some of your classmates and exchange contact information: This can be a valuable way to clarify things that you don’t understand in class. A classmate who seems to have a good grasp of the material can be a particularly good resource. Also, collaboration with other students is often more effective than studying alone.
Before or after class, introduce yourself personally to the instructor: If you have any special concerns or difficulties, let the instructor know about them. Exchange contact information. Ask what your instructor’s office hours are.
Let the instructor know that you are sincere about doing well: By participating, asking questions, introducing yourself to the instructor, and showing real interest in the subject, you are letting the instructor know that you are a serious student who wants to do well. Teachers will often go out of their way to pay attention to and help such students. Also, if “participation” is part of the class grade, doing these things will almost certainly increase your participation grade.
Read the syllabus carefully and hold on to it: Most college classes will include a syllabus, and this will give you very important information as to what is expected of you. In addition, it will usually give you the instructor’s contact information and office hours. This is invaluable information that you will benefit greatly from knowing.
Set yourself a regular study routine: This will help you manage time, and it will also help you make yourself study. Research shows that when students have a habit of studying at a certain time every day, they are able to learn more efficiently because their brains have become conditioned to studying at that time. They don’t have to spend as much time “getting into the right frame of mind.” For more information about making a study schedule for yourself, see the time management section, below.
Find a good environment to study: Many people have difficulty studying in an effective way simply because they are studying in an inappropriate environment. Try to find the most appropriate part of your house or apartment, and if that doesn’t work, look for another convenient place. Libraries or college learning centers can often be quite good. The place should have good lighting and comfortable chairs, and it should not be too hot or too cold. Things to avoid are places where people often interrupt you or where there are many distractions like phones ringing, people talking, or music playing.
Also, there is an advantage to regularly studying in the same place or places. Like studying at the same time, studying in the same place helps you become conditioned to learning. When you sit down at your regular study place, your brain knows why you are there.
Be honest with yourself about what distracts you: For example, some people actually do study well with music: it may relax them, or drown out other distractions. But, for other people, it may be a distraction in itself. If you find yourself being distracted, remove the object of distraction, and if you can’t, find a place to study which doesn’t have that distraction.
Have the necessary materials: When you find a good place to study, make sure you have the materials you need. Pens, pencils, papers, notebooks, a clock (to keep track of the time), a calculator, erasers, white-out, pencil-sharpeners, rulers—all of these are examples of things you may need.
When you study, give the subject your full attention: Often, more can be accomplished in one hour of studying with complete attention than with a few hours of studying with distractions.
Don’t try to study too long at one time: While college may require hours of studying at one time, studying too long can make you exhausted. At least, you should take short breaks from time to time, in order to not to tire your brain out too much.
Study difficult or boring subjects first: If you have to study more than one subject in one session, study the difficult or boring subjects first, so that when you get tired, you can go on to something which is easier or more interesting. If you do it the other way around, you may find yourself unable to face the more difficult subjects later in the study session when you are more tired. Think of it this way: it is often easier to go uphill first and then go downhill than it is to go downhill first and then go uphill.
When reading an assignment, first read the material quickly to get a general idea of the scope of the assignment. Then, read it over again for detail: This will enhance your understanding, and may actually be more time-efficient than trying to get all the details the first time.
Make sure that you are clear about your instructor’s expectations: Different instructors have different standards about doing assignments. For example, they may require a certain style of bibliography for papers. Some instructors are strict about the length of assignments; others are not. Knowing these things will help you get the best possible grades. As mentioned above, reading the syllabus can be invaluable for understanding your instructor’s expectations.
Give yourself plenty of time; do not procrastinate: Assignments will often take longer than you anticipate.
Do things in stages: Often, the best results can be achieved by working on an assignment in stages. When you go back to the same assignment repeatedly, you will be able to look at the quality of your work in a more objective way, and this will help you keep your standards high. This is another reason why it is a good idea to give yourself plenty of time because if you do things at the last minute, you won’t have time to do assignments in stages.
If you get frustrated, take a break and go back to it later: When you become frustrated, the quality of your work will usually diminish, and you will not use time efficiently, either. Taking a break may well be more time-efficient than forcing yourself to continue working on an assignment that you are stuck on. Of course, you will be able to do this only if you give yourself plenty of time to complete the assignment.
Avoid plagiarism at all costs: Plagiarism is a particular problem when doing papers because now papers on most subjects can be easily downloaded and bought on the Internet. Doing this not only deprives yourself of the valuable learning experience of writing a paper, but it also puts you in grave danger of being caught. Be aware that software exists that allows an instructor to easily find whether a paper is available online, simply by typing in a few sentences from that paper, in other words, while downloading a paper on the Internet is very easy, catching a student who does so can be even easier. The consequences of being caught committing any kind of plagiarism generally range from failing the entire course to expulsion from the institution.
Also, keep in mind that instructors get to know their students’ work, which makes it relatively easy for them to spot plagiarism. If you generally write in a certain style and produce average work, then the instructor will most likely notice it if you suddenly turn in a flawless paper written in a very different style from that you usually use.
Plagiarism is wrong, it cheats yourself out of your own learning experience, and it endangers your academic career. The best advice is simply “just don’t do it.”
Keep a good attitude towards your instructors: Of course, you will find that you like some instructors more than others. Sometimes, you may find that you don’t like an instructor’s teaching style or personality. However, unless you feel that the teacher is genuinely incompetent or negligent, you should try to keep a good attitude towards him or her. The important question is not “Do I like this teacher?” but “What can I learn from this teacher?” In fact, many students find that they ended up learning a great deal from teachers whom they initially disliked, found difficult, or disagreed with. Even if you feel that the teacher isn’t very good, remember that a good student can usually learn from a bad teacher, but a student with a bad attitude may not learn from even the best teacher. At any rate, keeping a positive attitude towards your instructors will help you maximize your learning.
Take advantage of all campus learning resources: Luna has a free tutoring center and learning resource center. Instructors are required to keep office hours in which they can help their students. The Destinations program is available for students who wish to improve their ability in certain subjects. These resources are there for you, don’t hesitate to use them.
Become involved in your college: Becoming involved with college life has become more difficult for many students because more and more college students have families and/or jobs in addition to their schoolwork. Still, the college experience is not solely an academic one, and becoming involved in activities can both give you a more well-rounded education and make the whole experience more enjoyable. The enjoyment that they give you can also make you a more enthusiastic, committed student, which will probably help you excel in your studies as well. At the very least, activities will help you get to know other students, who can, in turn, give you academic and social support. Luna has an active and expanding student government, so that is one way that you can become more involved in college life.
Time Management for College Students
There is no mystery about managing time. Everyone has 24 hours each day and 168 hours each week to eat, sleep, work, relax, exercise, attend class, and study. There is nothing magical about getting the most from these hours; it just takes planning. For college students, however, who have an unusual amount of choice in terms of how they use their time, time management is especially crucial; perhaps even more than “intelligence” your ability to manage your time will determine whether you succeed or fail in college.
Techniques for Time Management
Use the “two for one” rule: The rule-of-thumb in college is to spend two hours each week studying for every one hour in class. For example, if a class meets three hours a week, plan to spend six hours studying that subject each week. If a student has 12 hours of class each week, he or she should spend at least 24 hours studying per week. All in all, going to college can take up as much or more time as a full-time job.
Actually, if you find that a class is quite easy for you, you may find that you can get away with studying only one hour per hour spent in class, but, conversely, if you find that the class is difficult, you may need to spend more than two hours per hour spent in class.
At any rate, the “two for one” guideline is a good way to begin to approach time management for college—it will at least give you a rough idea of how much time you need to set aside to study. In the first few sessions of your class, you can also ask the teacher about how much time he or she thinks will be needed for out-of-class study.
Stay at least one day ahead: Unlike high-schools teachers, most college instructors will provide you with a syllabus telling you what your readings and assignments are going to be in advance. This gives you the opportunity to always stay at least one day ahead of your schoolwork. This not only helps manage time, but it also makes it much easier to understand and gain from lectures, because you will have more familiarity with the subjects being discussed before you go into the classroom.
Also, you will have experiences in which assignments turn out to take more time than you expected, so if you are already ahead, you will be prepared when this happens.
Don’t let yourself get behind: As noted above, sometimes things will take longer than you expected. You will probably “get behind” sometimes, but don’t let it get out of hand. The problem is that if you get behind in a certain class, you may find yourself having too much to do, and in trying to get caught up in one class, you may actually get behind in other classes as a result. To avoid getting caught in this kind of negative cycle, do your best to avoid getting behind, and if you do get behind, do your best to set aside some time to get caught up or (better yet) ahead. Studies show that students who fail most often cite “getting behind” as the biggest factor in their failure, so it is crucial to avoid falling into this trap.
Plan ahead for major papers and exams: Some parts of the semester will take more time than others. Especially, major exams and papers will take more of your time than you usually have to spend. It’s a good idea to set aside more time for these things. Also, you should set yourself a date for completing each task, so that you can get the entire job completed on time.
Prioritize: In addition to school, a college student may have work, family, boyfriends or girlfriends, social life, housework, hobbies, entertainment, and activities. Obviously, some of these things cannot be ignored, but you do have to remember why you started going to college in the first place: to get an education. It is quite possible that with good time management, you will be able to fit everything in, but you may well have to prioritize. If, for example, watching two hours of TV every night makes you unable to work and keep up with your homework, then you may have to decide that TV, being non-essential, will have to be cut back so that you will have time to get caught up.
Make a schedule: As mentioned above, you have 168 hours a week. This gives you time to do a lot of things, but only if you use your time efficiently. Making a schedule can really help you prioritize and give yourself enough time to do your schoolwork. If you schedule yourself enough time to do the more essential things like sleep, eating, studying, and taking care of important errands, you may find that you still have plenty of time for entertainment and friends.
Don’t overdo your scheduling: You have to be realistic about your time planning; if you make impossible demands on yourself, or if you don’t give yourself enough time to get proper sleep or nutrition, you may do more harm than good. It is better to schedule more time for a particular task and actually follow through than it is to over-schedule yourself.
Get a calendar and/or a personal organizer, and use it: This is a technique that many people find useful because it allows you to organize your time clearly. If you’ve written down that you have to do a certain thing at a certain time, even if this is not something you absolutely have to do, having it written down can make it easier for you to enforce your own schedule on yourself.
Stick to your schedule: Having a schedule does not mean anything unless you can enforce it on yourself. You have to learn to develop a certain amount of willpower so that you will be able to make your schedule stick.
Be prepared to be flexible: You must also be prepared to be flexible because things will come up which will force you to deviate from your plan. Leaving some extra “free” time on your schedule can help you make up for lost time if something else comes up.
Use your “best time”: Different people perform better at different times of the day. Many people perform well in the morning, but others don’t. Some people are tired and distracted in the evening, but others are most awake and capable of efficient studying at night. If you understand what your “best time” is, you may be able to schedule your studying during times when your brain is working at its best.
Learn to say “no”: One of the good things about college is that it offers a lot of opportunities for social interaction with other people. However, you do have to watch your time; if you cannot say no to invitations, you may find yourself not having enough to study. If your friends care about you, they should understand if you say “Sorry, I can’t go out tonight because I’ve got to finish my paper.” Hanging a “do not disturb” sign outside your door may also be effective.
Reward yourself after studying instead of getting caught in avoidance behaviors: Putting off studying for leisure activities can make you feel guilty and make those activities harder to enjoy. It can also result in you not having enough time to get everything done. When you have a choice between studying first or relaxing first, it is usually a better idea to get your studying out of the way. Doing that will make you feel responsible for yourself, and will allow you to enjoy your relaxation, knowing that you are caught up with your studies.
Note-taking and Listening
You may feel that you are not good at taking notes and listening in class. Here’s some good news: listening and note-taking are skills that can be practiced and improved. Since you will have to do a lot of listening and note-taking in college, it is very worthwhile to try to improve these skills.
Mechanical tips on taking notes:
- Keep all your notes for various classes clearly organized, in a separate notebook or section of a notebook: Doing this will help keep your notes well-organized and easy to find.
- Always write the name and date of the class when you are taking notes: This is another way to keep your notes organized.
- Always use standard-size (8.5 by 11 inch) paper for your notes: Using smaller paper may force you to cram too much information later, making it harder to read your notes later.
- Enter your notes clearly: Even if writing clearly takes more time than scrawling, it will save time later, and it will also ensure that you are able to read your notes.
- Use abbreviations: All subjects have standard abbreviations for special terms. Using these abbreviations will save you time when taking notes.
- Box or circle all assignments: This will make them easier to find later.
- Use a special symbol (for example, an arrow) to mark ideas that the lecturer emphasizes: Doing this will help you identify the important points when you review your notes later.
- Write down charts and pictures that the lecturer writes on the board: These can be helping learning tools, and a useful addition to written notes.
- Write down examples, and indicate them with EX: Clearly noted examples can also be very helpful when reviewing your notes.
Some good strategies for listening and taking notes:
Listening and note-taking are not just activities that you do during class. Preparation for effective listening and note-taking should start before a class session begins, and the note-taking process should continue after the class session is over.
Before the lecture
Check the course syllabus to see if the instructor has specified the lecture topic for that particular day: If you know what the topic is in advance, you will be more ready for it, and you will be able to get some understanding of it before listening to the lecture.
Get caught up on all reading and assignments for that day: Doing this in advance will also give you the chance to get familiar with the topic before listening to the lecture, which will help you understand.
Prepare some questions to ask the instructor: When looking at the topic or reading the material related to it, you may find that there are some points that you are not clear about. It’s a good idea to write these questions down so that you can remember them during the lecture.
During the lecture
In the first few class sessions, pay attention to how the teacher lectures: Some teachers only repeat information from the text. Others elaborate on or explain information from the text. Some will use the lectures to introduce new material. By paying attention to how the teacher lectures during the first few class sessions, you will get important information about how to effectively take notes for that lecturer.
Listen carefully to the introduction (if there is one): This will help you get mentally prepared for the topic and anticipate which points will be important.
Don’t try to write down everything: It will be impossible to write down everything, so you need to learn how to efficiently summarize as you write.
Summarize in your own words, not the speaker’s: Using your own words is usually easier and more efficient than trying to use the lecturer’s words. Also, paraphrasing can help you to actually understand the topic, rather than just repeating what you are hearing.
Learn to listen for main points: Remember, your goal of note taking is to help you understand and remember, not to record all information. You have to learn to identify the main points so that you will be able to efficiently summarize.
Listen for “signal words”: Instructors often give you clues to the main points by using “signal words,” like “the most important…” “the three main…” Learn to listen for these signal words, and use them to determine what the instructor thinks is important. Listing or numbering is another good indication that important information is being given.
Listen for a change in voice or rate of speech: Lecturers’ voices or rate of speech may change as they discuss important topics. When the speaker’s voice gets louder or softer, or higher or lower, it is usually an indication that he or she considers the point being made to be important. Speaking very slowly, as if the speaker is dictating, is another good indication that an important point is being discussed.
Watch for nonverbal clues: When a speaker walks towards the audiences, paces, uses hand or finger gestures, or strikes the podium, it usually shows that he or she is making an important point.
Remember that the instructor will tend to talk about the parts of the text that he/she thinks is important and that those things will likely be on the tests: Usually, the instructor cannot cover everything in the text in his or her lectures, so he/she will cover the more important points. He or she is giving you clues to what you should study for the tests.
If the instructor talks about subjects that are not covered in the text, write them down, because those subjects may be on the test, and the lectures may be the only source of information about them: Some instructors only summarize, expand on, or clarify points from the text in their lectures. However, others will use lectures to introduce new subjects, and this may be your only source of information about those subjects.
Focus on the speaker: Obviously, being distracted can seriously impair your ability to follow what the speaker is saying.
Avoid “Mentally Arguing”: You may find points that you don’t agree with or understand. However, dwelling on these points will break your concentration. It is better to write them down so that you can talk about them with the teacher later.
Prepare questions to ask after the lecture: Some of the things you didn’t understand before the lecture will hopefully be clarified during the lecture. However, if anything is still unclear, or if new questions come up in your mind during the lecture, write them down, and be prepared to ask the teacher before the end of the lecture.
If there is a summary at the end of the lecture, pay close attention to it: Like introductions, summaries tend to be a list of the most important points. You can use them to check the organization of your notes. Should your notes seem disorganized, copy down the main points mentioned in the summary. It will help in revising your notes later.
After the lecture
Review notes after studying: Notes should be reviewed as soon as possible after studying, while they are still fresh in your mind.
Expand on your notes when you review: If you review your notes after the class, you will often be able to remember other details and ideas that relate to the notes you took. Writing those details down will make your notes even more useful.
Compare notes with other students: During a lecture, different people will write down different things. Comparing notes with a classmate can help you remember points that you missed.
Review your lecture notes at least once a week: Also, review the lecture notes before the next lecture. Doing so will help you remember the material, and make studying for tests much easier.
Reading Strategies for College Students
Most college work involves reading! For many subjects or majors, you may spend more time reading than in class, and the higher you climb the educational ladder, the more reading you will do. Obviously, learning to become an effective reader is one of the most important factors in whether you will succeed or fail in college.
First, look at the chapter or book title: What does it tell you concerning what the reading material is about? What do you already know about this subject? What can you expect the chapter to say about it? Thinking about these things will activate your previous knowledge, and make you more mentally prepared to understand the material.
Look at the author’s name: If you know the writer, reflect on what you know about him or her. Knowing, for example, what his/her credentials or affiliations are can help you get some perspective on the material. You may be aware of the writer’s usual point of view on a particular subject, and that may give you valuable information as well. Knowing these things will help you anticipate what you are going to read, and to be prepared for the author’s biases as well.
Look at when the material was written: This too can give you useful perspective. Material written more recently will tend to be more up-to-date. Material written at a particular time may reflect biases or points of view that were popular during that time. Of course, it is also important to remember that new material may be similarly affected by current trends and tastes.
Scan the chapter: See how the material is organized. Look for chapters, sub-chapters, titles, and topic sentences. This is another way of getting an idea of what the material is about before you start to read.
If there is a summary at the end of the chapter, read it first: Summaries often will give you a condensed version of what the chapter was about. Reading them first can often greatly facilitate your understanding.
First, read a section of the textbook chapter: It is a good idea to start with just getting a general idea of what the material is about. At this point, you do not need to take notes or look up words; the most important thing is just getting a better idea as to what the material is about. Once you understand this, you can start reading the chapter from the beginning again.
First read for what you DO understand: You can mark points that you don’t understand and come back to them later.
Read the first sentence of each paragraph carefully: This should inform you what the paragraph is about, and will help you understand.
Pay close attention all the underlined, italicized, bold printed words or phrases: These are highlighted because they are important.
Read more slowly when you come to difficult passages: Doing so will help you keep your comprehension of the material. Remember, different kinds of reading require different speeds; you can’t read everything at the same speed.
If a part isn’t clear, stop and re-read it: Very often, it will become more clear after reading it two or three times.
Underline and highlight main ideas: This will both help you remember and help you find these ideas when you read again.
Underline and highlight examples of the supporting ideas that help you understand the main ideas: When you re-read, this will help you find to these sections. Highlight only what helps you understand the main ideas.
Underline and highlight unfamiliar vocabulary and definitions: This will help you keep track of these words later if you want to look them up or ask the teacher about them.
Look up words you don’t understand, but don’t overdo it: Some words you may be able to guess from context, but others will be more crucial to understanding the material. Look up the words that you feel you need to look up, but also try to guess words from context. If you spend too much time looking up words, it may be very time consuming and/or distract you from the overall meaning of the text. Consider looking up unfamiliar words AFTER you have read through the material once, and then reading it again.
Write down the main ideas as notes: This is something you can do either while you read the first time, while you read the second time, or after you read. If you don’t understand the material well the first time you read, it may be better to take notes later, because taking down notes without understanding is not helpful. Write down only the main ideas, not the details, because doing this will help you identify the main ideas, and also, trying to write down everything will just waste your time. Write down only the details that help you understand the main ideas.
When taking notes from reading material, always paraphrase instead of writing directly from the book: Paraphrasing, which means “repeating in your own words,” forces you to understand the material, rather than just repeating what you’ve read.
When you are reading, practice the “look away” method: From time to time, look away from the text and ask a question relating to what you read. Doing this will help you think about the material you have gone over and learn actively.
Read to the end; don’t give up: Do not stop and give up if a passage seems to be too difficult in the beginning. Usually, the meaning will become clearer as you continue to read.
Look up unfamiliar vocabulary (if you haven’t already): Again, remember that, if you can guess the meaning of the words from context while you are reading, it may be better to look up words you don’t know after reading, rather than while you are reading.
Read your notes, if you have taken them: This will help you remember and further understand what you have read.
If you have not taken notes, write down your understanding of the main ideas, as described above: Whether you do this during or after your reading, it is a very helpful way to consolidate your understanding of the material. Also, the notes will help you review later.
When you write down your understanding of the main ideas, don’t limit yourself to words: Charts, diagrams, and pictures may also help you understand certain subjects.
If you still don’t understand what you have read, get help: You can talk to your teacher, your academic counselor, a tutor, or a reading specialist. Do try your best to get an understanding of your reading material, but if it doesn’t work, don’t hesitate to seek help.
Once you have finished an article or chapter, reflect on:
What you have learned.
How it relates to what you already know.
If you found the argument convincing on its own terms.
Considering what you know about the subject, whether the argument may have been correct even if it was poorly stated.
Considering what you know about the subject, whether the argument may have been misleading even if it was argued well. You have to keep in mind that an effective argument may support a point of fact that is not in fact true.
How the essay relates to previous material that you have read; in other words, how it relates to the historical literature.
Consider taking a speed-reading class: If you find that reading takes too much of your time, a speed-reading class could save time and make you a better reader.
Taking Tests Successfully
You may feel that you are not good at taking tests. This is nothing unusual; many people are not particularly good at taking tests. However, test-taking is a skill that can be developed and improved. It is better to look at it as a skill that can be improved upon, rather than something that you not good at. In college, you will have to take a lot of tests, so if you are not good at taking tests now, why not work on becoming better at it?
Dealing with Test Anxiety:
What is Test Anxiety?
Test anxiety is nervousness, fear or panic that students may feel before or during a test. Test-taking anxiety may cause:
Mental blocks: you can’t think, your mind “goes blank,” you can’t remember material you knew before you started taking the test.
Mental distractions: while studying or taking the test, you cannot concentrate, or you may be easily distracted by outside noise, other people, etc.
Physical symptoms: sweaty palms, fast heartbeat, butterflies in your stomach, sick stomach, and nausea.
A little anxiety is good; it sharpens our minds and prepares us for action. However, more than a little is not good; it can significantly impair our ability to take a test.
How can I minimize Test Anxiety?
Avoid “cramming”; give yourself enough time to absorb the material: You are not likely to absorb and remember material if you only study at the last minute. Also, “cramming” may stress you out and deprive you of sleep, which may hurt your ability to take the test. Several shorter study sessions started well before the test will be much more effective and less stressful than a marathon session the night before the test.
Get as much information about the test as you can: This is not only good for practical reasons but also helps reduce anxiety. Ask the teacher about what will be covered, the format of the test and so on; knowing these things will help avoid worrying about the test. Make sure that you are sure about things like time, place, what materials you need to bring. Again, these things will help you feel relaxed and confident about the test.
Get sleep: Sleep is very important for proper mental functioning, including minimizing anxiety. Giving yourself enough sleep before a test will allow your mind to work clearly, as well as reducing the possibility of anxiety.
Eat properly: Being hungry is not a good idea, because it impairs proper mental functioning, and also tends to lead to anxiety. “Junk food” should be avoided, too, as food with a lot of sugar can make you first overexcited, and then leave you with no physical and mental energy when the effect wears off; both extremes are stressful and work against clear thinking.
Avoid alcohol and other drugs: Alcohol and other drugs will negatively affect both your mind and body, and will certainly increase the likelihood of both test anxiety and general poor performance. Excessive caffeine use should also be avoided.
Arrive a little early: Feeling like you have plenty of time will keep you from worrying about being late, and give you time to collect your mind before the test starts. However, you probably shouldn’t arrive TOO early; a long waiting with nothing to do may also produce anxiety.
Don’t talk to classmates about the exam material just before going into the exam: Other students may be experiencing anxiety, and hearing them worry aloud may make you nervous as well.
Do the easy questions first, then come back to the difficult ones: Getting a number of easy questions taken care of first can really give you confidence, reduce worries about time, and also show you that even if there are some answers you are not sure about, you may still do well on the test.
If you find a question you can’t answer, don’t dwell on it, instead mark it and go back to it later: Getting stuck on a difficult question will likely just increase your anxiety.
Conversely, ACTIVITY REDUCES ANXIETY, so going on to easier questions is likely to calm you and make you more able to tackle the difficult ones later.
Budget your time: If you can budget your time and not spend too much time on particular sections, you are less likely to think “I’m not going to finish this test in time,” which can lead to panic.
Focus your attention on the test: Don’t waste time and energy worrying, thinking about the consequences of not doing well, or wondering what others are doing. Think about the test items rather than how well you are doing—thinking about the test items will help you to do better, but thinking about how well you are doing will NOT help you!
Relax yourself physically during the test: If you are relaxed physically, you are more likely to be relaxed mentally as well. If you notice that you are not thinking well, pause, lay your test aside, and take several slow, deep breaths. Concentrate on your breathing.
If you find yourself panicking, take a moment and collect your thoughts. People can get caught in a panic and stay there, but often it takes only a moment to get out. Stretch your arms and legs, take some deep breaths, think some positive thoughts (“I can pass this test,” “I will be OK”), and go on to an easier problem. Above all, remember that worrying will only hurt you, as even if the test is difficult, worrying will only make it more difficult; conversely, relaxing will clear your mind and make your performance better.
The best frame of mind for taking tests is a state of relaxed concentration. When you are concentrating on the task at hand, you can focus all of your energy on your work, instead of wasting your time on worry.
General Test-Taking Guidelines
- Arrive early and take a moment to relax and reduce your anxiety: Being early will prevent you from one source of stress: worrying about being late. It will also give you some time to relax, think some positive thoughts, and focus your mind before starting the test.
- Listen carefully to last-minute instructions: Most instructors will give you some useful or essential information about the test before starting.
- Try “memory dumping” (taking some notes from memory) at the beginning of the test: This will help you retain information that you may forget later when your mind is tired. Not all instructors will allow this, so you should ask first.
- Read the directions very carefully, looking for specific instructions on how to proceed: This alone can often greatly improve your test performance; conversely, not following instructions can sometimes result in much lower scores. By reading the directions, you may learn, for example, that more than one answer is possible on multiple-choice sections, or that you need to write only three out of six essay questions given. The time you take to read the test instructions will usually end up paying for itself in spades.
- Plan how you will use the time for the test: It is a good idea to see how many sections there are and get a rough estimate of how much time you will need to finish each test section in order to finish the test on time. Follow your own plan and do not become nervous if other students finish the test before you do.
- Determine which test sections will receive priority: As mentioned above, it is a good idea to find the sections that will be easiest for you and do those sections first. If you start with the more difficult sections first, then you may not leave enough time for questions that would have been sure points. Doing the easier questions first not only helps you to get as many sure points as possible and to feel more confident, but it may also help you answer the more difficult questions because if all the material is related, many questions will contain clues to the answers of other questions.
- Keep working steadily; don’t dwell on difficult questions: Getting stuck on a difficult question can lead to test anxiety and panic. It is a better idea to move on to easier questions. If you still cannot figure out the more difficult questions when you go back to them later, then give them your best guess. Unless you are penalized for wrong answers, then it never hurts to guess.
- Rely on knowledge rather than patterns: If you notice, for example, that your last few answers have been “b,” it does not mean the answers are wrong. Most test-writers deliberately avoid varying answers in predictable ways. Trust your own knowledge to answer the questions, and do not pay attention to patterns.
- Change answers only when you are certain: Of course, if you notice that an earlier answer is clearly wrong, by all means, change it. But, if you are not sure that your original answer is incorrect, it is usually better to leave it as it is because the first answer that comes to mind is most often correct. Be careful of changing answers while reviewing the test with a tired or anxious mind. Randomly changing answers that you are not completely sure about can often do more harm than good. It is indeed a good practice to review your test after completing it, but the best principle is to change answers only when you are fairly sure that they are wrong.
- When you have completed your test, use the remaining time effectively: As long as you follow the principle above of not changing answers unless you are fairly sure that they are wrong, reviewing your test will usually improve your score. Make sure, for example, that you have answered all the questions. If it is an essay test, proofread your essays and check your grammar.
- Make sure that you have completed all sections: It is very common for students to fail tests simply because they do not bother to turn over their test sheets to see if there is another section on the back. Do not let this happen to you!
- Learn from your tests: Many students, understandably, do not want to look at and analyze their returned tests, but the fact is, being aware of where you went right and wrong can be very beneficial for improving your test-taking skills. When tests are returned, go through them and look at each section to identify where you succeeded or failed. You can consider each test to be a practice session, and hopefully, you will learn from every test taken.
- Make sure every detail is true: Instructors often try to use true-false questions to test your knowledge of detail, so they may include one false detail in an otherwise true statement. Remember that for an answer to be true, every detail must be true.
- Watch for words with absolute meanings: Words like never and always have absolute meanings, and as such, often (but not always!) make a statement false.
- “Qualifiers” often make a statement true: “Qualifiers” are words like sometimes, often, and usually. They tend to make a statement true because they allow for exceptions.
- Be careful of questions with negatives: Questions with negatives (words like not or never) often require more thought to answer. Also, remember that double negatives equal a positive statement, so a statement like “It is not unhealthy” actually means, “It is healthy.” It is often a good idea to underline all negative words to make sure that you do not accidentally miss them
Multiple Choice Questions
- Use the process of elimination: It is difficult to consider a question and four or five answers at once. Using the process of elimination can make your choice easier. If you can rule out a couple of the answers, your job becomes much simpler.
- Look for obviously false answers and eliminate those first: Many test-writers will include one or more obviously false answer. Finding these and getting rid of them first is a useful first step in the process of elimination.
- Treat the question and each individual answer as a separate true/false question: This is a useful way of both eliminating the obviously false answers and finding the true answer.
- Choose only answers which are grammatically correct: Grammar can give you useful clues as to which answers may or may not be right. If one of the possible answers does not fit the sentence grammatically, eliminate it. For example, in the sentence “The issue is ____,” the use of the verb shows that the answer must be singular, so if any of the possible answers are plural, you can assume that they are incorrect.
- Look at both lists first to get a good idea of their relationship: Understanding the two lists before you try to match them will help facilitate the matching process.
- Use one list as a starting point, and go through the second list to find matches: It is generally easier to keep your choices clear and organized if you do it this way.
- Look through the whole list before you select a match: There may be more than one likely match for some items, so if you choose an answer before looking through the whole list, you may miss a better answer for those items.
- Do not guess until you have picked all the matches that you are sure about: If you guess early in the process, you may eliminate answers that you otherwise could have gotten right.
Sentence Completion or Fill-in-the-blank Questions:
- Always pay attention to grammar when you choose your answers: How the sentence is written will give you important clues to the answer. For example, if the blank is preceded by an, then you know that the answer should be a noun beginning with a vowel sound.
- Look at how many spaces there are, and how long the spaces are: This lets you know how many words you need to write, and it gives you useful clues as to how long those words should be.
- If you cannot think of the right words, write a descriptive answer: Many instructors will give you partial or full credit if you can show that you have studied the material and can give a credible answer, even if you don’t know the exact word.
- Read the directions very carefully: Directions on essay questions are often even more important than on other kinds of test questions, since there are many possible ways an essay can be written, and many instructors have specific guidelines as to how they want students to answer the questions. Also, pay attention to things like how much time you have to answer the questions and whether you have to answer all the questions or not. Knowing these things before you start writing will make you much better prepared.
- Pay attention to “keywords”: Test-writers will give you instructions on what they want you to write by using “keywords” such as analyze, evaluate, explain, and summarize. Other common keywords are discussed, compare, and enumerate. Knowing the meaning of these words is essential for answering essay questions properly.
- Organize your thoughts before you begin to write: Just like writing a paper for a class, having your thoughts organized before you start to write an essay question for a test can be very helpful. The time you take to write an outline, for example, can often save you time in the long run, as well as help you write a better, more organized essay.
- In the first paragraph, paraphrase the test question: This is helpful for a few reasons. First, answering the paraphrased question can give your essay a clear thesis statement. Paraphrasing the question can help you to understand it as clearly as possible. Finally, if you understand the question differently from how the test-writer intended you to understand it, paraphrasing it can protect you, the teacher sees how you interpreted the question, you may be more likely to get credit for it anyway.
- Write double-spaced: This will give you room for additions or corrections if needed.
- Write clearly: Obviously, you may not get credit for something that the instructor cannot read. Also, although instructors try to grade essays on content, it is still true that the essay may be judged in part by its appearance. Writing on only one side of a paper, if possible, can help make your writing more clear and attractive.
- Use the principles of good English composition: no matter what subject you are writing about, you will improve your chances of getting a good grade if you follow the principles of English composition. Using good spelling, grammar, and organization helps convey the message of your essay more effectively.
- Use examples in your essay answers: These will help show your understanding of the question and will set your writing apart from that of other students.
Disclaimer: Some of the tips above may appear to be “tricks” that can substitute for commitment and preparation. Be aware that there is nothing that can help you as much as hard studying and knowing the material!