Test Prep Tips That Won’t Fail You

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

A Google search for the subject “dream about not being prepared for a test” auto-filled the search field with the whole term once this was typed: “Dream about no….” So yes, the I’m-not-prepared dream is a thing. It’s enough of a thing, in fact, to generate lots of newspaper and magazine articles every year. To avoid the nightmare of not being prepared for that important exam, be it a calculus test or the SAT, check out these test prep tips that won’t fail you.

Three high school students with their heads down taking a test in class

Pop Quiz: Do You Know What It Takes to Learn?

Beyond desire and some level of aptitude/skills, learning is about the tools you apply to the task. The most important tool, school, is so obvious that it’s easy to overlook. Spend your school days learning, and you’ll have the foundation for passing tests – acing them if you do the final prep work.


Here’s a list of study skills loosely based on what a company in the business of learning, Sylvan Learning, says “are the secret to the A”:


Time management: Making realistic schedules and sticking to them are the focus here. Schedules make it possible to make smart choices about time and tasks, and staying ahead of your schedules is the goal.


Organization: It’s hard to meet schedules if you’re disorganized. College Vine offers eight tips for high school students on being organized:

  • Use a planner, and keep it updated.
  • Make a to-do list every night.
  • Reward yourself for getting things done or hitting milestones on long-term goals.
  • Take work with you so you can stay busy during downtime.
  • Set aside time for high-priority tasks.
  • Take social media apps off your cellphone.
  • Get plenty of rest and sleep.
  • Prioritize tasks and goals.


Reading: ThoughtCo offers tactics for a good plan on boosting reading skills:

  • Take the time to contemplate the text and form questions.
  • Engage with teachers and other students in discussions of what you read.
  • Use headings, subheads, and graphic elements to help bring clarity to content.
  • Take notes as you read, and use a highlighter.
  • Make full use of context to understand difficult passages, points, words.
  • Use graphic organizers such as maps or diagrams to enhance comprehension.
  • Make reading a six-step process called PQ4R: Preview, question, read, reflect, recite, review.
  • Summarize: Stop occasionally and mentally organize what you have read.


Active listening: This is about interacting with instructors and other students, participating in a way that tests/cements what you are hearing – or think you are hearing.


Note taking: Taking notes is a learning process that helps you lock in content and gives you a road map for studying. There are a variety of methods, the Cornell, outline, mapping, box-and-bullet. You can adapt them or create one of your own.


Research: Effective research skills are the great enabler, and the digital age makes the process much easier. Find a strategy that works for you.


Writing: Pay attention to the fundamentals, from spelling, grammar, and structure to content. It might help to read a New York Times article headlined “Why Kids Can’t Write.”


Critical/analytical thinking: Too complex for high school? Nope. Even elementary school students can use it to process and apply what they learn.


Learning can be exhilarating, even fun. Rarely, though, is learning easy. The point is that there’s a lot of work to be done over a long period to build the foundation for effective studying.


So, what does it take to learn? A lifetime of effort. Let’s assume you’ve been doing your homework since school day one. What’s the best way for you to prepare for a test?


High school students do classwork in the computer lab

4 Tips on Being Prepared for That Killer Test

So, you have a date with a test. What’s it going to be? Math? Science? History? A standardized test? Or just Mr. Varney’s dreaded Calc 1 final? In what format? Multiple choice? Essay? True or false? In what setting? Under what rules? These are among the things you must know to maximize the return on studying.


Here are four tips that can help:

4. No Surprises: School Yourself on Settings, Rules, Formats, Content

If the test is Mr. Varney’s Calc 1 final, you know the teacher, setting, and rules. That leaves one box to check off, content. This where your classroom facetime and after-hours work pay off.


Let’s say you’ve done the classwork and homework, paid attention when Mr. Varney did the test preview, and done your due diligence on note taking. Now it’s all about revisiting the pertinent material, identifying weak spots, sharpening your No. 2 pencils, and putting new batteries in your calculator – if the rules allow a calculator.


Minimizing the unknowns is more of a chore if you’re a high-schooler facing the PSAT, SAT, or ACT, or an undergraduate or working professional gearing up for the GMAT, GRE, or LSAT.


A blog titled “What to Expect on SAT Test Day” is a good prep tool if Mr. Varney isn’t going to be the administrator on test day. It arms you with the test-related questions you need to answer beforehand:


  • What are the rules for electronic devices and supplies related to the testing? What is and isn’t allowed?
  • What are the test security rules?
  • What is the format of the test? Multiple choice? Essay? A mix? How many sections? What’s the timeline (including time allowed for each section, if applicable)?
  • Will there be bathroom breaks or time for snacks or lunch? Will food/beverages be available, or should you brown-bag?
  • For the sake of comfort and appearances, how should you dress?
  • How about the setting? Classroom? Auditorium? Will it be something or somewhere familiar? If not, get details.

It’s all about blind spots. Eliminate them.


3. Be Physically Prepared

In two ways, being physically prepared for a test is akin to arming yourself with the academic skills and tools necessary to facilitate studying. Both are long-term processes, and being physically prepared for a test depends on how you tend to the elements of being healthy over time and in the moment.


Show up rested, nourished, and hydrated; comfortably dressed; and, particularly if it will be a day of interacting with strangers in an unfamiliar setting, ready to deal with all physical needs, from food and drink to medications.


Again, know what’s allowed, and don’t be caught off guard.


2. Be Mentally Prepared

This isn’t about knowing how to outsmart a multiple-choice test, finding that list of fail-safe test-taking tips, or cracking the secret code on a true-or-false test.


It’s no secret that having a positive attitude and being comfortable with what you know and can accomplish will give you an edge. So, how do you avoid showing up stressed and oozing anxiety? Here are a few suggestions:


  • Come prepared. That means you’ve done what it takes to be comfortable with what you know and how to handle the test and the stress.
  • Don’t let a lack of sleep or other largely avoidable problems hurt your mood and mindset.
  • Visualize success, and stay calm. It’s hard to achieve what you can’t conceive, and staying calm means your memory won’t be impaired by stress.


1. Most of All – Do the Work

A lot of the test preparation is common-sense stuff that boils down to process:


  • Show up early.
  • Listen carefully to the test administrator/teacher, and read the instructions carefully.
  • Have a timeline in mind, a sense of how much time you will spend on each section.
  • Don’t spend too much time on questions you aren’t sure about or don’t know.
  • Leave time for a final review – and to revisit those unanswered questions.
  • Try to answer every question, even if you have to guess.
  • Trust those first impressions.


The most important tip: Study. Find the methods that work best for you, and give yourself plenty of time to cover all the material – repeatedly. Also:


  • Find a study space where you can control distractions.
  • Don’t procrastinate. Schedule study time, and spread it out. No cramming.
  • Take practice tests provided by the program/administrator/teacher, or make your own. You can even ask a friend or study partner to prep one.
  • Use study aids such as flashcards or apps, graphics, illustrations, maps, or diagrams.
  • Join a study group, or form your own.
  • Get after-class help from the teacher/professor, and don’t let any of your questions go unasked.
  • Don’t simply reread textbooks. Rely on your notes, and support them with class materials/textbooks.


How long should you study for a test? There are countless answers and theories. Go with this one: Until you are comfortable with the subject matter or out of time.


Let USF Help You Prepare for Exam Day

In high school, you can turn to teachers or tutors for help with test prep. In college, there are study centers, tutors, and instructors who will carve out time for you. You don’t have to go it alone.


  • Are you a high school student preparing for the ACT or SAT?
  • Are you an undergraduate or a working professional prepping for the LSAT, GRE, or GMAT?
  • Maybe you need some help getting ready for a teacher certification test?


Let us help you prepare for exam day.