I have taken a lot of tests. A lot. After going through 19 years of school, I could be a professional test-taker. If that was a real job. While it’s a process I [typically] excel at now, it wasn’t always this way. Unfortunately. I know I wouldn’t have ever become a physical therapist had I not whipped my exam skills into shape with these test taking tips. And even though I am out of school, I still have testing in my future.
I work with a lot of prospective and/or current undergrad and graduate students. I hear [all.the.time] …“I am so bad at taking tests”.
I hear ya.
You may have the knowledge. You did your studying. You sit down for the exam and your results show less that what you know. If there’s one thing I have learned from going through as much school as I have it’s…No one cares if you are bad at taking tests. No one. Tests are still going to be there. Whether you’re a current student or a professional working towards advanced credentials, there has to be some objective way to measure knowledge or skills.
Something important to realize about test-taking….it’s a skill. Having the necessary knowledge that the test is on may not be enough. More so, saying “I am just a bad test-taker” without working on improving is a cop-out for bad test scores.
Of course there will be that wacky teacher that asks the impossible questions or the teacher that words relatively easy questions in a way that would be “2+2” seem hard. That will happen. Fortunately, in these situations, it’s likely that the class or group as a whole will do poorly. But there may be a curve.
What about standardize testing?
When I hear “I’m a bad test-taker”…most students are usually referring to standardized tests. Standardized tests, as the name implies, are tests used for entrance, admissions, status, or licensure. Typically, the questions have been previously tested on prior exams as “test questions”. These questions go through scrupulous research to make sure that they are “good questions”. So when I’ve done not-so-hot on standardized exams, I never thought it was the test…I figured it had to be me. With admission tests as gate keepers to many professional careers, it’s imperative to be able to take an exam well.
How I improved my test taking ability really came down to 5 steps that shaped the way I studied, prepared and took the exam. By implementing these steps I went from being an “average” test-scorer to being able to achieve 90+ percentile scores on the GRE and the NPTE (National Physical Therapy Exam). And I would also like to qualify…I don’t consider myself a genius. Not even close. Not even on my best days.
***Note: I used a lot of physical therapy examples. This is my experience but try to compare them to your situation!
Test Taking Tips to Dominate Your Next Exam
- Determine the purpose of the exam. For the NPTE, the purpose is to license physical therapists in the United States. You might quickly assume that the NPTE’s sole purpose is to determine a candidate’s physical therapy knowledge. And to some extent, that’s true. More importantly, the test is a benchmark for safety, so that the board can assure someone’s ability to SAFELY administer physical therapy services to the public. The board would much rather I be a safe physical therapist and couldn’t care less that I was brilliant PT. Why this is important? The angle at which the question writer is posing the question may determine the answer. EXAMPLE: In physical therapy, sometimes (more often than not) aggressive treatments can provide better and quicker results. These treatments may also not be as safe as more conservative treatments. So for questions on the NPTE regarding the most appropriate intervention? I might go with the more conservative answer.
- Do not make assumptions. Read the question for what it is. Don’t add in details that could change the question. Don’t think of real-life examples that are similar. They likely will skew your thinking. Your real-life example is probably the anomaly, not the norm. The ONLY time I would recommend using a real-life example is if you have no clue. Then your best guest is as good as any.
- Practice. This is a skill, after-all. So when it comes to big tests, (like the SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, NPTE…) you have to practice! I was recommended 3-5 practice exams for the NPTE. I thought that number was sufficient for a pass/fail exam. For tests where the score matters (such in admissions tests) practicing more will likely help you more. I took 8-10 practice GREs. For more rigorous entrance exams, like the MCAT, more 10+ practice exams might be a good idea.
- Determine WHY you are missing the questions. Take a practice exam. Go through and score your exam and categorize each wrong answer into THREE categories. This tip has transformed test-taking for me and is what elevated my scores into the 90+ percentiles!
- Academic error. You lacked the necessary knowledge to answer the question. EXAMPLE: They asked you what the dermatome level of the lateral thumb was and you had no idea. [Note to self: review dermatomes]. By the end of categorizing your practice exam results, it may become very clear that you are lacking knowledge in a certain area. This will help you clarify where your weaknesses are. Spend the most amount of studying time in these areas. Stop studying “everything” and focus where you need it.
- Decision-Making Error. You narrowed the answers down to two and you chose the wrong one. Determine what is the purpose of the question? Did it explain a high risk situation or patient and then ask for what the most appropriate response would be?? Likely a conservative intervention. Did they describe a typical situation or patient and then ask for the most effective intervention? Then the more aggressive answer will likely be your bet. Read the questions carefully and imagine the questions through the eyes of the exam writer providing the test. Practice Practice Practice!
- Test-taking error. This is all those questions you totally would have got right had you read them correctly. Whoops. They are the worse questions to miss. You won’t know everything, so academic missed questions are inevitable. Decisions making questions misses are inevitable too. Tests are stressful. You likely will make a wrong judgment. But test-taking errors should be kept to a minimum! If you review your practice exam and have a lot of misses in this category, you need to re-evaluate how you are taking your exam. Perhaps you are going to fast? Should you take notes as you read? Or not take notes? Determine what helps you clearly and succinctly read the questions and answers better. Try out new strategies until you eliminate test-taking errors.
- Finally, determine which of the three categories from above that your “misses” are from. Focus on improving in that category (or categories). Retake another practice exam and repeat. Keep taking exams until you are happy with where your scores are at and feel confident to take the exam. You can do this!!
These tips have changed the way I take exams. I used to fear exams and now I embrace them. I go into them confidently knowing I did all that I could. I am currently working toward board certification as an orthopedic specialist (musculoskeletal and neuromuscular disorders) and will be testing in early 2015. Here’s to another successful test-taking adventure!
Anyone else have an exam in their future!?