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Ten Tips for Tackling Tests – It’s More Than Preparation


Here are ten tips to help students do better with tests. Ten simple steps to help you make the most of your efforts and prove your hard work has paid off!

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; we know there are things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Though Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State under President George Bush, delivered the above remarks regarding statecraft and diplomacy, students often feel the same way about tests and examinations.

They know what they know, and they may know what they don’t know, but what most terrifies many students about tests are the unknown unknowns — somehow, they may not even know what they are supposed to know.

Tests bring anxiety, stress, and fear. Many students approach a test like a dancer or singer on stage for the first time, muscles tight, nerves jangling, stomach in knots. But as a boxing coach told me long ago, “You get into shape, you spar, and you mentally prepare. And yes, you’ll feel nervous as a cat getting into that ring. But then that other guy throws a punch, the jitters disappear, and you focus on the fight.”

You students can do the same thing with tests. You prepare, you practice, you step into the ring or onto the stage, and you soon realize all your hard work has paid off.

Here are ten tips to help you win your next bout.

1. Be physically ready for the test

Get plenty of sleep. Eat but not large portions: overindulgence will make you sleepy and will slow your thinking. Keep some gum or hard candy available during the test if you need a burst of energy. If possible, avoid taking a test when ill.

2. Find an environment conducive to concentration

Many of you enrolled in Seton Home Study School have younger siblings who can, within seconds, turn your home into Bedlam. If you can’t find a quiet room for your studies and test taking, consider donning a pair of earphones and listening to nonintrusive music or to recordings from nature. Another suggestion: schedule and take your tests in tandem with a trip to the public library.

3. Prepare, prepare, prepare

Some teachers and curricula take a broad approach to the subject matter and tests. Others teach to the test. Both approaches complement each other. Let’s say you are enrolled in Seton’s Latin I program. You are about to take Test 27. As directed by the lesson plan, you study the material on pages 246-266 of Henle Latin, knowing the test will focus on this material. But you don’t stop there.

You review what you have already learned. You go over what you have missed on previous tests. You select exercises from the text and do them again, this time without the help of the grammar book. Semper Paratus—Always Prepared—is the motto of the US Coast Guard. Make that motto your own when taking tests.

4. Pray

It’s test time. You’re sitting at a desk with the test in front of you, pencils and pens at the ready. Take a moment for prayer. Ask Our Lord to be in your corner, to give you strength and knowledge. Besides lifting our hearts and minds to God, prayer tells us it is time to turn from other diversions and focus our attention on the subject at hand. Prayer will diminish your anxiety and allow you to center your thoughts on the test.

5. Read

Carefully read the instructions on the test. Carefully read each question. If taking a multiple-choice test, read each possible selection before choosing the one you think is correct. Watch for nuance as you read.

In my teaching days and as a grader for Seton, I have come across students who have misread directions, who answer, for example, Latin questions in English when the directions state to write the answers in Latin. Follow the directions.

6. Answer all the questions

Don’t leave blanks on a test. An unanswered question, whether it is on a fill-in-the-blank test or a test where you are asked to write a short answer in two or three sentences, is automatically wrong. Always, always, always take a stab at the question.

You have more information than you can dream of rattling around in your cranium. Give it a shot. Are you guessing? Sure. But if you have prepared, if you have studied the material, yours is an educated guess.

7. Go with your gut

This axiom particularly applies to multiple-choice tests. You select an answer. Eventually, you come back to the question and change your answer. Stop right there.

Ask yourself, why you are changing the answer. Do you really have a good reason? Or are you changing the answer because you have already marked four “B” answers in a row and just can’t believe “B” will again be the answer? Your “gut” answer is often correct. Before you change your first answer, know exactly why you are doing so.

8. Review the test

Go back through the test when you have finished. Check to see you have completed all the sections of the test. Often, I have graded tests in which students failed to go back over their answers a final time. In “matching tests,” for example, students often match the same letter to two or three numbers. (Some simply gamble that one of the answers will be correct).

Occasionally, entire sections of a test are left unanswered, indicating the student had skipped that section, intended to return to it, and had then forgotten to do so. Always review the test. Fight for every correct answer.

9. Watch the watch

Many of you, particularly high school students, will take various tests this year: the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, AP tests, and other examinations. When taking these tests, follow the same practices advocated above, but let me add one more injunction: KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TIME.

Write down your starting time at the top of the test. Pace yourself. Be aware if and when you are running out of time. Once a student of mine, one of the brightest in class, inexplicably copied the answers to his National Latin Exam onto a sheet of blank notebook paper and was transferring them to the test’s answer sheet when the monitor called time. Always keep an eye on the clock during a timed test.

10. Never give up

You take a test in chemistry, submit it for grading, and receive a 78 for your work. You feel beaten down and discouraged. Just remember who you are. You are not a test grade. Your life is not a failure because of a test grade. You are a human being loved by Jesus Christ.

Dump the anger and regret. Instead, turn back to the books, dig out where you went wrong, and start learning again. When you take this approach, not only are you learning the subject, but you are also building your character. We all fall down. What counts is whether we get back up again.

In 1941, Winston Churchill made the following remarks: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Churchill wasn’t addressing the House of Commons or delivering a radio address to the British people. He was speaking at Harrow School, his alma mater, to students as young or younger than many of you.

In your pre-school days, many of your parents read to you The Little Engine That Could, the story of the little engine pulling a long train of children’s gifts over a high mountain, all the while chanting to itself, “I think I can, I think I can.”

Here, at Seton, we think you can. We think you can climb the mountain. We think you can succeed on your examinations. We believe in your abilities to learn, to grow, to step out of the ring a winner.

Now, good students, all that remains is for you to believe the same thing. Make up your minds to do the work and then get to it.

About Jeffrey Minick

Jeffrey Minick
Jeff Minick is the Latin Counselor at Seton Home Study School. He has spent the last twenty-five years teaching Henle Latin to his children and hundreds of home-educated students, guiding many through their preparation for the Advanced Placement Latin examination. Jeff is the father of four children, all of whom were homeschooled, and grandfather to twenty-one grandchildren, three of whom he homeschools.

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