So much of effective test-taking stems from how you prepare for the test. You want to study so that you know the content inside and out, forwards and backwards, etc., and then be able to take what you know and apply it to unfamiliar scenarios/problems/questions. Then, you want to take this learning you've done, and use it to prepare for the type of test you're going to have: you'll prepare and practice the content differently for an essay test than you will for a multiple choice test or a problem-solving test.

Once you've engaged in this multi-level preparation, it can be helpful to have test-taking strategies that are specific to the types of questions you'll be asked. Read on for strategies you can use in multiple choice tests, essay question tests, and problem solving tests, too.


Multiple choice tests can feel tricky sometimes. Because they're designed to make sure you know the information, these tests often include more than just recognition, vocabulary, and knowledge-level questions; they often require you to compute, to apply concepts to new situations, and to think critically about what you've learned in the course. You have to know the course material backwards and forwards, and be able to take what may seem like unfamiliar material on the test and apply what you've learned to that point in order to deduce your answer.

So yes, the way that you practice what you've learned and how you prepare for the test will matter. But there are also techniques and strategies for taking multiple choice tests that can help you in the moment, too:

On your first pass through the test, don't guess on questions. Answer the questions you know, and mark the ones you don't know or are unsure of so that you can revisit them later. If, on a second visit to the question, you’re still unsure of the answer, try out some problem-solving strategies:

  • Critically read the question. Underline key concept words as well as absolute words like "never," "all," and "always."
  • Try to answer the question without looking at the answers. Seeing if you already know or can calculate the answer without seeing choices can help you reduce confusion over similar answers.
  • Read and consider all of the answers. You need to select the BEST answer, even though there may be more than one good answer (Van Blerkom, 2010). Try to select the answer that is more true than the other answers.  
  • Narrow down distracting answers. When you're unsure of an answer, eliminate answers you know are incorrect so that you're choosing from a shorter list of possible answers.
  • Look for clues in other questions. At times, tests include clues or bits of information that jog your memory, and these may show up in other questions or portions. Use these clues to help you answer the question you are unsure of.

If you still have no idea what the answer to the question is, you can try some strategic guessing. Please note: the following guessing strategies aren't meant to be used if you already know the answer, or if you can make an educated guess!

  • Try to spot decoys or distractors. Rule out any answers that don't make sense given common sense or the scope of course content.  
  • Beware of the “all of the above” answer. If one possible answer doesn’t apply, don’t choose “all of the above;" however, if 2 or more answers are correct, chances are that "all of the above" is correct.
  • Consider the length of the answers. Often times the correct choice is the longer one that includes the most information.
  • Beware of two similar answers. Test-makers may use two similar choices to confuse you. If you’re going to guess, pick one of the two.
  • Take a guess. Cross out the answers you know are wrong, then make your best educated guess between the remaining possibilities. Some instructors randomize answer options, so looking for patterns in the answers is a waste of your test time and can lead you astray.
  • Answer every question. Even if you're guessing, be sure to choose an answer. If you've marked questions to return to, get back to them when you've answered the questions you're certain of and choose from the above strategies to select your best answer.


When you know that your test is going to include, or be entirely comprised of, essay questions, it will be important for you to prepare for these types of questions by practicing the essay-writing act. Here are a few ways you might think about preparing/practicing for the test:
  • Spend time writing out answers to questions: What's your process? How long does it take you? Where do you get stuck?
  • Create questions you think might be on the test: Practice your outlining/brainstorming/essay forming, and consider how much time you'll have to work on such a question on test day
  • Consider your supporting content: Know what articles/theories/researchers/writers/etc. that you might use to support your answer. You might want to use content from lecture discussions or online posts. Be sure you know what's expected of you in terms of citations!
  • Practice making connections: How is the course material linked, or how is it building on ideas? How might you create opposing arguments, or write a critical analysis of text you've covered, or... (and again: all in the time that you're allotted for the test)

When you step into the test, think about how you might engage in the following strategies as you work to complete your essay question answers:

During the exam:

  1. Create a schedule for yourself. If six questions are to be answered in sixty minutes, allow yourself seven minutes each (assuming questions are equally weighted). When the time is up, move to the next question. After you've finished all six of the 7-minute sessions, take the time that remains (it's not a lot, but can be used effectively) to finish any answers you weren't able to in the moment. If it comes to it, and you're close to the end of your time, leaving an outline of what you planned to do/compare/critique/conclude can help your instructor have an idea of your next steps, and may provide you with partial credit (something you can ask about before the exam).
  2. Before you start working on the exam, read through all of the questions. Jot down whatever comes to mind when you read the prompts, and dump any dates or names or articles that you don't want to forget. Doing this up front can free up your head to focus completely on the question at hand. And, this strategy can help to reduce anxiety by reminding you how much you know.
  3. Be sure you understand the question. Before you write your answer, be sure you understand what's being asked. If it isn't clear, and/or you're not sure, ask for clarification. Underline key wording of the question (i.e., “name three” or “compare and contrast”) to be sure you’re answering the question completely.
  4. Outline the answer before you begin writing. If your answer is well organized, compact, complete and clear, your instructor will be impressed! And, if for some reason you're unable to finish the answer, having an outline of where you were planning to go with your answer can illustrate to your instructor what your overall essay arc would've been, and demonstrate your thought process.
  5. Include an introduction and conclusion. The introduction may be a rewording of the question into a statement containing your main point. A compact conclusion, highlighting the main points and tying the main ideas into a neat bundle, should follow the body of the answer. Both the introduction and the conclusion should be concise.
  6. Reread the paper before turning it in. When we rush, we tend to
  • misspell words 
  • omit words and parts of sentences
  • omit parts of questions
  • mis-write dates and figures (1353 as 1953; $.50 as $50, etc.)
  1. If you're not sure, offer approximates rather than specifics. Naming a date incorrectly could throw your entire answer off. If you aren't 100% sure, it's a good idea to write something like "During the early years of Impressionism" rather than "In 1864" if you're not entirely sure that it really is in 1864. More often than not, and unless otherwise noted, approximation is perfectly acceptable.

After the exam, once it's been returned to you, make time to go over it! Take note of what you did right, and also note what you missed and why. Reviewing the exam can save you hours of worry before the next test because you're making yourself consciously aware of your knowledge gaps and at the same time reassuring yourself about your strengths. If you don’t understand the score and/or comments that you received, talk to your professor — it’s the fastest way to identify what was missing or misunderstood, and to become more effective, not only in your future exams but in class as you continue to learn the material.


As with each of the above test-types, it will be important for you to practice the types of problems you might be asked to solve on the exam. And not just once but many, many times. This kind of problem-solving practice gets you into test-taking shape because you're engaging in the repeated practice of

  • identifying problem types
  • determining which formula you might use or how you might solve for the answer
  • explaining how you reached this conclusion and what will be happening in each of the steps you're about to take

As you feel more and more comfortable with the content, it's important to practice with problems that are different than the ones you've already seen in the homework or the book. Our information on problem solving tests and the strategies you might use in the test-moment can be found here.

Bottom line:

Try these strategies out. See how they work for you, and if you have any questions or want to make things work even better, come and see us in the ASC: Waldo Hall 125 | Monday through Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM. You don't need an appointment, you can just drop in when it's convenient. We talk about this stuff all the time with students. We know you're coming in with test-taking strategies that have worked in the past, but those strategies might not translate into OSU with as much effectiveness as you'd like. So please, come and see us: this is what we do and we're here to help!