If you have kids in school, the start of mandatory testing season next month is likely causing you a fair amount of stress. As a professor at New York University, I have seen my share of students botching exams. Students run out of time, ignore the pens-down signal, hand in blank sheets, and exit the exam room looking miserable. Days later, their worst fears are confirmed when they open their grade reports.
The truth is that most of these students work hard, and I know they can do better on their exams. The problem is that they’ve never been properly taught how to take an exam. It’s really that simple. The U.S. education system fails at this—I know this both because I have marked a lot of exams and because I learned exam-taking skills elsewhere.
Putting aside modesty, I admit to being a master exam-taker. Growing up in Hong Kong, I learned to excel within the British-run education system, which was marked by incessant assessment. The most important exam of the lot was the Certificate of Education (HKCE), which has the status of the SAT or ACT in the United States and is used by universities as a standard for admission. So, at 17, I sat for 20 HKCE exams in nine subjects over the course of a month, ranging from language to math, from physics to world history. These exams were hyper-competitive, as there were only two universities in Hong Kong at the time.
These experiences lead to a reality: exams are not only about how much you know in your head, but also about how you demonstrate that knowledge before the hourglass runs out. Think about a gymnastics competition at the Olympics. The gold medal goes to the gymnast who performs the best routine in front of the judges, not the one who does unbelievable tricks when no one is watching.
Whether you’re a student or the parent of one, rest assured I’m not prescribing more studying, but instead offering practical, tactical tips.
1. Do nothing in the first minutes.
When I say “GO!” at the start of an exam, my students usually start typing away noisily within seconds. But an exam is not a freestyle sprint that separates swimmers by a tenth of a second. Starting on your answers right away is like starting your rental car without first figuring out where you’re going. Not recommended.
Instead, don’t answer anything for the first few minutes. When I was the one taking exams, I would spend this time surveying the landscape. Leaf through the exam from the first page to the last, noting the number of questions and how the points are spread out among them. Mark those that carry lots of points, and recognize ones that may cause trouble or consume time.
Now that you have that data, you can draw up a plan of attack. It’s helpful to do so from the standpoint of your own strengths and weaknesses. No one person can be equally well-prepared for everything taught in a course, so you want to be able to identify which questions are more challenging given your readiness for different topics.
2. Follow the points.
There’s nothing more dispiriting for me to grade than an exam in which a student has spent lots of time and half a page answering a question that needs only a short answer, but also spent hardly any time on a much more important question that carries more points. Typically, the student has already earned the one available point with his or her first sentence, so what do I find in the other five lines? Answers that spiral away from the target. Hints that the student isn’t sure about the first answer. Bad ideas that tempt me to take away the point. Words that contradict the first line.
This last category always works me up. It’s as if the roles have been switched, and the student has assigned the teacher a multiple-choice question: here are four possible answers, professor; pick the one you like. This puts the professor in a sour mood. Besides, even if those extra words were golden, they wouldn’t earn any extra points. The time is better spent elsewhere.
Time management is the name of the game. The trick is to tailor one’s answer to the number of points. Students in Hong Kong are trained to offer three key phrases in the answer if the question is worth three points. No more, no less. It’s really that simple.
3. Work out of sequence.
During the midterm fiasco, many students did not finish the test; in almost every case, they left the last page or half blank. This is the end state of 90 percent of incomplete exams I have marked. If only the student realized that questions on the last page of an exam are typically worth more points than those in the front!
What if she had submitted a partial answer to the 10-point question on the last page, and skipped three one-pointers on earlier pages? She might have earned six points for the partial answer while losing three for the skipped questions—for a net gain of three points. If, in fact, she knew how to do the last problem well enough to get the whole 10 points, the tradeoff would have been even more in her favor.
On exam after exam, students leave points on the table because of their order-following habits. Instead, a smart test-taker navigates the exam out of sequence. For example, the questions in my business analytics exam are arranged so that multiple-choice questions come first, short essays next, and analysis of a dataset last. If I were sitting for this exam, I’d work in this order: short essays, data analysis, and multiple-choice. My strategy, honed over many years of test-taking, is to grab the easy points first, tackle the hardest questions next, and then deal with questions that are time-consuming but straightforward.
4. Know when to dig out.
One of the worst feelings a student can experience in an exam is time expiring while she is battling a hard problem. It feels as if a bit of life has been wrested out of her. She is lost in time. She realizes that she will lose a bunch of points on low-value questions that are unanswered.
This happened to me a few times, and it was infuriating. The solution is simply to keep track of time. Jump to the easier questions before it is too late. Executing that plan is the tough part. The more time invested in a particular question, the harder it is to pull back and dig out. It’s a matter of sunk costs—the same tendency that causes some financial investors to ride bad stocks all the way to the bottom. You are smarter than that.
5. Do the sample exam.
Coming from an exam-crazy culture, I am amazed I need to offer this tip, but it’s true that every time I have handed out a sample exam before the actual exam, a majority of the class hasn’t recognized its importance. Their submitted work shows little evidence of having mastered the sample.
In Hong Kong, there is a cottage industry that has grown up around past exams. Students procure exams, analyze the structure of past exams, and use those exams as “mock” exams. Then they compare answers with each other.
By practicing with the sample exam, I don’t mean giving it a 10-minute look-over. You must set aside time and make a real attempt to write down the answers. Answers that feel right in the head often turn out badly on paper.
The night before an exam, if you are choosing between hitting the books and doing the sample exam, the choice should be a no-brainer.
Exams are an imperfect tool, but they are still our best way to assess knowledge. The problem is that scores sometimes fail to reflect the test-taker’s true ability. In many cases, this lack of alignment is due to poor exam-taking skills. But this deficiency is fixable. The students don’t need to study more; they just need to learn how to take tests.
This article was originally published on