Great Exam-Taking Techniques


If you haven’t already done so, I recommend reading the “Pass Any Certification Exam” article first. Then move on to this article.

Have you ever sweated bullets sitting a computerized certification exam? Or are you someone who hasn’t taking any exams yet and is fearful of what you might find? Have no fear! This article is designed to help you take exams confidently. The techniques listed herein have helped thousands of my readers and students. Apply them!

I’ve taken many a certification exam over the years. If you are preparing for an exam currently, I know what you are going through. To make exams a bit easier on my students and readers, I developed some exam-taking techniques. These techniques are things I have learned over the years either from taking the exams myself, or by trying to come up with some helpful solutions for students. Keep in mind that this list deals more with computer certifications. But most of the techniques should be helpful for many of the different types of exams you might encounter in the future.

First, let’s talk about some good general practices for taking exams:

Pick a good time for the exam: It would appear that the least amount of people are at test centers on Monday and Friday mornings. Consider scheduling during these times. Otherwise, schedule a time that works well for you, when you don’t have to worry about anything else. Keep in mind that Saturdays can be quite busy. Oh, and don’t schedule the exam until you are ready. I understand that sometimes deadlines have to be set, but in general, don’t register for the exam until you feel confident you can pass. Things come up in life which can sometimes get in the way of your study time. Keep in mind that most exams can be cancelled as long as you give 24 hours notice (check that time frame when registering to be sure.)

Don’t over-study the day before the exam: Some people like to study hard the day before; some don’t. My recommendations are to study off of the cheat sheet you created, but in general, don’t overdo it. It’s not a good idea to go into overload the day before the exam.

Get a good night’s rest: A good night’s sleep (7 hours to 9 hours) before the day of the exam is probably the best way to get your mind ready for an exam.

Eat a decent breakfast: Eating is good! Breakfast is number two when it comes to getting your mind ready for an exam, especially if it is a morning exam. Just watch out for the coffee and tea. Too much caffeine for a person who is not used to it can be detrimental to the thinking process.

Show up early: Both testing agencies recommend that you show up 30 minutes prior to your scheduled exam time. This is important; give yourself plenty of time, and make sure you know where you are going. You don’t want to have to worry about getting lost or being late. Stress and fear are the mind killers. Work on reducing any types of stress the day of and the day before the exam. By the way, you really do need extra time because when you get to the testing center, you need to show ID, sign forms, get your personal belongings situated, and be escorted to the your seat. Have two forms of ID (signed, one with photo) ready for the administrator of the test center. Turn your cell phone or smartphone off when you get to the test center; they’ll check that, too.

Bring ear plugs: You never know when you will get a loud testing center – or worse yet, a loud test taker next to you. Ear plugs help to block out any unwanted noise that might show up. Just be ready to show your ear plugs to the test administrator.

Brainstorm before starting the exam: Write down as much as you can remember from the cheat sheet before starting the exam. For most exams, the testing center is obligated to give you something to write on; make use of it! By getting all the memorization out of your head and on “paper” first, it clears the brain somewhat so that it can tackle the questions. I put paper in quotation marks because it might not be paper; it could be a mini dry erase board or something similar.

Take small breaks while taking the exam: Exams can be brutal. Generally, you have to answer one hundred questions while staring at a screen for an hour or more. Sometimes these screens are old and have seen better days; these older flickering monitors can cause a strain on your eyes. For this and other reasons, I recommend small breaks and breathing techniques. For example, after going through every 25 questions or so, close your eyes, and slowly take a few deep breaths, holding each one for 5 seconds or so, and releasing each one slowly. Think about nothing while doing so. Remove the test from your mind during these breaks. It takes only ½ a minute but can really help to get your brain refocused. It’s almost a zen type of thing, but for me, when I have applied this technique properly I have gotten a few perfect scores. It’s really amazing how the mindset can make or break you.

Be confident: You have studied hard, gone through the practice exams, created your cheat sheet – done everything you can to prep. These things alone should build confidence. But really, you just have to be confident for no reason whatsoever. Think of it this way: you are great… I am great… (to quote Dr. Daystrom.) But really, there is no disputing this! That’s the mentality you must have. You are not being pretentious about this if you think it to yourself. Acting that way to others… well that’s another matter. So build that inner confidence and your mindset should be complete.

Now let’s talk about some methods to use when faced with difficult questions. The following methods can be used in the face of all difficult questions.

Use the process of elimination: If you are not sure about an answer, first eliminate any answers that are definitely incorrect. You might be surprised how often this works. This is one of the reasons why it is recommended that you not only know the correct answers to the practice exams’ questions, but also know why the wrong answers are wrong. The testing center should give you something to write on; use it by writing down the letters of the answers that are incorrect in order to keep track. Even if you aren’t sure about the correct answer, if you can logically eliminate anything that is incorrect, then the answer will become apparent. To sum it up, the character Sherlock Holmes said it best: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” There’s more to it of course, but from a scientific standpoint, this method can be invaluable.

Be logical in the face of adversity: The most difficult questions are when two answers appear to be correct, even though the test question only requires you to select only one answer. Real exams do not rely on “trick” questions. Sometimes you need to slow down, think logically, and really compare the two possible correct answers. Also, you must imagine the scenario that the question is a part of. Really think through step-by-step what is happening in the scenario. Write out as much as you can. The more you can visualize the scenario, the better you will be able to figure out which of the two answers is the best one.

Use your gut instinct: Sometimes a person taking a test just doesn’t know the answer; it happens to everyone. If you have read through the question and all the answers and used the process of elimination, sometimes the gut instinct is all you have left. In some scenarios you might read a question and instinctively know the answer, even if you can’t explain why. Tap into this ability. Some test takers write down their gut instinct answer before delving into the question and then compare their thoughtful answer with their gut instinct answer.

Don’t let one question beat you! Don’t let yourself get stuck on one question. Mark it, move on to the next question, and return to it later. When you spend too much time on one question, the brain gets sluggish. The thing is, with these exams you either know it or you don’t. And don’t worry too much about it; chances are you are not going to get a perfect score. Remember that the goal is only to pass the exams; how many answers you get right after that is irrelevant. If you have gone through your training process thoroughly, you should be well prepared, and you should have plenty of time to go through all the exam questions with time to spare to return to the ones you skipped and marked.

If all else fails, guess: Remember that the exams might not be perfect. A question might seem confusing or appear not to make sense. Leave questions like this until the end, and when you have gone through all the other techniques mentioned, make an educated, logical guess. Try to imagine what the test is after, and why they would be bringing up this topic, vague or strange as it might appear.

And when you have finished:

Review all of your answers: Use the time allotted to you to review the answers. Chances are you will have time left over at the end, so use it wisely! Make sure that everything you have marked has a proper answer that makes sense to you. But try not to over think! Give it your best shot and be confident in your answers. You don’t want to second guess yourself!

Hope that helps all of you. If you would like to take this further, I listed a few books that might be of service below. These books are designed for people who are new to IT certification exams, and they should help you to become a better test-taker. Good luck and good skill to you in your certification endeavors!