Tips for Test-Taking

Our correspondent claims to have scored a highest-possible 800 on two sections of the GRE and over 700 on the third, without studying. S/he shares tips for doing one’s best while taking a test. Preparing is a separate and more important step.

IFS Guide to Test-Taking


Attitude is key:

  • Your only goal and focus is to maximize your score for each section.

    • Ignore the consequences – it doesn’t help to remind yourself that the test matters little or greatly.
    • Like sports champions, good test-takers learn this: narrow your focus to the task immediately at hand; nothing outside the test exists.
      • You can’t change your preparation or travel to the future to experience the results.
      • Clear your mind of thoughts about how you did on previous sections, too; it’s now irrelevant.
    • Relax! You don’t know how a test will be scored. Will there be a curve? Will everyone miss that question? Is it possible to miss a lot and still get a great grade? You don’t know, so just focus on the question you’re on.
      • For example, I missed a few questions and still got an 800 out of 800 on the GRE Verbal section.
      • Besides, you’ll do better if you continue to feel confident. You won’t get smarter through despair.
    • As ‘background music,’ recall the feeling you had while you achieved something noteworthy, such as a sports victory or a musical performance or a test.
  •  All tests are opportunities and never represent a danger. They are an opportunity to show what you can do.
  • Tests are fun. They’re puzzles to solve. This includes essay tests.

 Some entailments of this attitude:

  • Work the test until you know that you’re done. You must choose fight over flight.

    • Understand the question clearly, even if you feel rushed.
    • Answer every question if you have time.
      • If guessing is not punished, answer randomly if need be.
        • Consider: You have a 20-25% chance of guessing correctly. The odds are better if you can eliminate one or more answers.
      • If guessing is punished, consider the odds: if you’ve narrowed the answer to two or even three possibilities, it’s probably a good bet to guess.
    • Answer the ones that you’re sure about first, then return to the middling areas, and then to the hardest questions.
      • Some of the later questions might give you a clue or at least let you identify patterns in the test.
    • ALWAYS double-check (and triple-check) everything if you have the chance. In an essay, did you say what you mean? Is your writing or bubbling legible? Did you put the answer in the right spot? Did you understand the question?
      • I mark questions that I’m unsure about and return to them. If I’m still unsure, I return again.
      • I also re-check my math on ALL problems, if I have time
  • Trust that the test doesn’t and shouldn’t have any tricks in it.
    • Always choose the best, most obvious answer.
      • If you find yourself trying to determine whether there’s a trick, stop! Sometimes tests have answers that are partially right, but choose the one that’s completely correct.
    • In essays, never make up an answer in the hope that it’s right. It’s better to give greater detail about what you do know is applicable.
  • Learn to work the test.
    • For example: Standardized, fill-in-the-bubble tests almost always have a fairly even distribution of answers. When you’re unsure about an answer, consider whether there’s a shortage of one of your possibilities.
      • I create a tally after answering the questions that I’m sure about, and I update it as I go on after that.
      • Focus on how the essay will be graded. For example, if it’s mostly a test of writing skills, rather than content, spend your time polishing the writing rather than  trying to pile on evidence. (And vice versa.)

These tactics can change from test to test. The key is your attitude: confidently focus on maximizing your score on each section of the test. Enjoy the opportunity to work this puzzle and to show what you can do.


2 responses to “Tips for Test-Taking

  1. I’m printing this puppy out and posting it in my office.


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