Test Taking Strategies

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Treat exam questions logically

  • The right answer has to be there somewhere!
  • Don’t over think and over analyze
  • However, do think and analyze
  • Take the questions literally, don’t infer
  • Stick to what you know is true!

Exam-taking strategy -- break it down into four steps

Step 1: Read the question closely!

  • You want to read exam questions much differently than you read the newspaper
  • Read critically
  • Look for key words
  • Make a mess of your exam if you’re allowed to -- circle and underline the exam to draw your attention to the key words
  • Try to figure out what topics or concepts the question is actually asking you about

Step 2: Think!

  • Don’t jump to the answers or even look at the answer choices yet
  • Take a few seconds and think about the concept the question is relating to and organize your thoughts about that topic
  • Think about types of answers that you are hoping to see below when you start to read the answers


  • Your job is NOT to be able to have the right answer jump off the page at you the instant that you look at it (sorry, but that happens very rarely on exams!)
  • Your job is to throw out (eliminate) answers that you know are not correct
  • Look for key words that make an answer wrong
  • On every question, you should be trying to get it to no worse than 50/50

Step 4: Pick the best remaining answer

  • And then move on!
  • Don’t dwell!
  • Don’t take too long on any question -- roughly one minute per question for most classes
  • It does you no good spending 5 minutes on any one question when there are many questions unanswered
  • All the questions are usually worth the same amount of points

Some example questions

Question 1

What is the difference between covalent bonds and ionic bonds?

  1. Covalent bonds involve the sharing of protons between atoms, and ionic bonds involve the sharing of electrons between atoms.
  2. Covalent bonds involve the sharing of electrons between atoms, and ionic bonds involve the electrical attraction between ions.

Strategy discussion

Looking for key words. Both questions begin with “Covalent bonds involve the sharing of ____”. Because different things are shared in each answer, both answers cannot be true. You don’t have to read any more, you just have to decide between protons and electrons. What is shared in a covalent bond?

Question 2

Hydrophobic substances such as vegetable oil are...

  1. charged molecules that hydrogen bond with water.
  2. polar substances that have an affinity for water.
  3. nonpolar substances that can't hydrogen bond with water.

Strategy discussion

One of these things is not like the other. Does “bond with water” sound a little like “affinity for water”? You have to know the definition of hydrophobic here.

Question 3

In eukaryotic cells, DNA has the appearance of a(n)...

  1. double helix.
  2. triple helix.
  3. letter “U”.
  4. circle.
  5. single strand.

Strategy discussion

Eliminate! Many times, there are at least a couple of “outer space” answers. It’s often hard to come up with plausibly wrong answers. So, some wrong answers are really far out. Eliminate those first.

Question 4

Which of the following solutions has the greatest concentration of hydrogen (H+) ions?

  1. Gastric juice at pH 2.
  2. Tomato juice at pH 4.
  3. Black coffee at pH 5
  4. Household bleach at pH 12

Strategy discussion

When asked for the “most” or “least” of something, eliminate the middle range of answers.

Question 5

The main difference(s) between facilitated diffusion and active transport is (are)...

  1. Facilitated diffusion does not rely on cellular energy and active transport does.
  2. Facilitated diffusion uses channel or carrier proteins and active transport does not.
  3. Both of the above are correct.

Strategy discussion

This one is a pretty tough question. The question asks you for a difference between two processes. Evaluate each statement independently and decide on it’s merits. Answer #1 is true: active transport needs energy, but diffusion does not. Answer #2 is not true, they BOTH utilize channel or carrier proteins. That also makes answer #3 impossible. Therefore, the first answer is the best answer.

Questions 6

Which of the following are types of “work” that a cell can perform by using ATP energy?

  1. Muscle contraction.
  2. Active transport.
  3. Moving a protein along cytoskeletal elements.
  4. All of the above are types of cellular work that require ATP.

Strategy discussion

Evaluate one statement at a time again. Evaluate (T/F) one by one. There is an “all of the above” possibility also. What do you do if you are absolutely positive about 2 of the 3?

Question 7

A proto-oncogene operates normally to produce __________ that act on the cell cycle to __________.

  1. proteins, slow it down
  2. proteins, speed it up
  3. nucleic acids, slow it down
  4. nucleic acids, speed it up

Strategy discussion

In the double blank questions, one answer must make all statements true. Begin with either blank. Narrow your answer options and decide between no more than two answers.

This tutorial was developed by Dr. Steven Smith in the School of Biological Sciences.