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Simple but Powerful Test Taking Strategies: Part 2

academic-strategies.jpgIn part one of our “Common Test Taking Strategies” series, we noted that strategy is an intrinsic part of preparing for standardized tests, and that without the proper strategies even the most advanced students find themselves performing below their full potential.  We discussed several proven test taking strategies, including using official test prep materials produced by the same company administering the exam (i.e., the Real ACT Prep Guide if you’re taking the ACT), focusing on what the question is actually asking, scanning all potential answers before choosing one, assuming nothing when deciding which answer is best, and making abstractions concrete.

In part two, we’ll cover five additional test taking strategies:

  • Reading and retention “pauses” for long reading comprehension passages
  • Answering easy questions first
  • Time management
  • Providing overly structured responses
  • Test “mentality”
Reading & Retention

During reading comprehension sections, when you encounter a particularly long passage, pause after each section to quickly summarize the preceding paragraph in a single sentence. This will help you to internalize the main ideas as your progress through the reading, rather than reaching the end only to realize you retained very little of what you’ve just read

Answer the Easy Questions First

As tests are timed, rather than spending a lot of time struggling with a hard question, skip it and use this time to answer many easier questions, coming back to it if you have time. This simply allows you to answer more questions correctly, which will boost your score. Note, however, that not all tests allow you to use this strategy. For example, the GMAT is “computer adaptive” and only lets you move on once you answer a given question.

To help you visualize this scenario; if you were picking apples and you only had 5 minutes to pick as many apples of possible, would you waste time climbing a ladder in an attempt to reach fruit on the tallest branches or would you remain firmly on the ground where apples are in plain sight and reach?

Managing Your Time

Standardized tests produce time pressure, and the need to answer questions both quickly and correctly can be quite anxiety inducing. Utilizing a time tool to pace yourself on these exams has been shown to improve time management while simultaneously lowering anxiety. Time management used in tandem with previous tips on answering easy questions first or reading the questions first in reading comprehension can prove beneficial.

However, a relentless need to check your watch should not create another layer of anxiety. Don’t get bogged down in keeping a specific pace-per-question and looking to the clock incessantly, time management is most beneficial once you learn the art of balance.  Don’t consult your time tool too often or infrequently. It is most constructive to recognize if you are ahead, on time, or behind schedule and to modify your pace accordingly. If you get accustomed to working at an almost uncomfortably swift pace, once you encounter tougher questions you have padded your time a bit by working quickly and can spend a little more time on the most challenging questions.

Give a Structured Response

The Writing section can trip-up even the best, most well equipped writers. Contrary to what you may believe, this not the time for complex writing. It is more beneficial for you to write succinctly and in a highly structured fashion. This accomplishes a couple of things; structure helps you organize your thoughts, ensuring you write clearly and concisely. Giving a structured response also helps your grader follow your train of thought/argumentation, ultimately leading to a higher score. If you attempt to write a complex essay under the time constraints of the test, you may simply not have enough time to flesh-out your point and provide adequate examples. Similarly, graders only spend a few minutes on each test, without structure, an essay is hard to follow and this lack of clarity will assuredly kill your score.

Keep it simple; be sure to provide a clear thesis (this is the most important - what are you arguing?), introduce your idea/stance, explain why, provide examples and conclude.


It’s pretty simple: the better you feel, the better you perform. Be sure that you are your best-self on test day. You should be: well rested and nourished and both physically and mentally, present and poised. Pay attention to your posture and breathing, don’t let nerves get the best of you. Confidence is key, this does not begin on test day, but in the days, weeks and even months leading up to it.

In order to get your mind right, you must feel confident in your prep. Give yourself adequate time to prepare; don’t cram, as this only increases anxiety. Your preparation will bolster your confidence come test day. Recognize as you prepare, that there will be times where you feel stressed and possibly overwhelmed. You have to learn to accept these feelings and work to move beyond them, learn from your mistakes and adjust your methods accordingly, putting your full energy into prep. Visualize yourself performing well on the test and the future opportunities that it will bring you.


Lisa Alvarado is a Managing Tutor with MyGuru. She is a graduate of the University of Texas (B.A.) Purdue University (M.A.) and is currently obtaining her Ph.D in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has worked professionally with university athletics departments tutoring college athletes. Her particular strengths are History, English, Government, Essay Writing, and Public Speaking.