5 Ways To Break The Test

Spoiler Alert! There is no such thing as “breaking the test”. No simple formula for figuring out the answers to any exam. The “select all Cs” method will not get you a passing grade on the SAT, ACT, or any other measure. There are, however, tips and tricks for approaching and understanding exam formats and questions– ways to break down the test, if you will– which can help improve your performance. Before we discuss these, let’s quickly cover testing best practices…


The best thing you can do on test day is to arrive prepared. That means you arrive early, clear-headed, well rested and nourished, and you have the confidence to know you can do well and the competence to back it up. The second best thing you can do on test day is to take a moment just before you take the exam to relax. Listen to your favorite song or look up funny cat memes online– whatever helps you relax. Our final testing best practice is to make sure you listen to and read all instructions carefully. As an educator, the first test my students took every year included an extensive list of directives, with instructions at the top telling them to ignore all directives and simply write their name on the paper and wait for further instructions while they watched their classmates complete a series of silly tasks. Despite enjoying themselves doing it, nearly all my students failed this exam. (Which simply counted as extra credit for those who followed instructions!) Instructions are there for a reason: Read them (carefully).


If you arrive to test-day prepared, take a moment to relax beforehand, and listen to and read all instructions carefully, you are already well ahead of the curve. Now, you are ready to break down the test. Here are 5 ways to do that:

  1. Complete a memory dump at the start of the test. Before you begin taking the exam, quickly write down any definitions, formulas, or other material you think you may forget as you take the exam. This will help alleviate stress and you can reference it throughout the exam.
  2. Prioritize your time before each section. As you begin each section, take note of how much time you have and how many questions there are and plan your time accordingly. (For example: If there are 40 multiple choice questions and I have 20 minutes, I know I have about 30 seconds per question.) Plan more time for challenging sections and short answer questions versus multiple choice.
  3. Break down the question format. This one is a bit more tricky. There are different best practices for approaching different types of question formats, so the first step is to identify the question format. Here, we will focus on tips and tricks for approaching multiple choice exam questions. First rule of thumb for multiple choice questions: bubble as you go, to decrease room for error. Also…
    • consider eliminating answer choices that: don’t match grammatically with the stem (question or statement), are short and nonspecific, include absolutes (always, definitely), are off topic or entirely unfamiliar, are double negatives, or have the exact same meaning as another answer-choice for single-answer questions (if you can only select one, then there cannot be two answers that are identical and also both true).
    • consider choosing answer choices that: match grammatically with the stem (question or statement), are long and detailed, contain qualifiers (sometimes, most likely), directly contradict another answer choice (there is a good chance one of them is correct!).
  4. If you do not know the answer to a question, consider using cues from other questions. Use cues from questions you know to answer questions you do not. 
  5. Answer every question! This one seems so simple, yet so many exams will be left partially completed. Save yourself one minute at the end of the exam to go through and (as long as there is no penalty for wrong answers!) guess-answer any leftover questions. You’re more likely to get the answer correct if you guess than if you do not answer at all.

Finally, do not discount what you can accomplish after taking the exam. One of the best ways to prepare for an exam is to analyze your performance on a previous exam covering the same material.