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What to do if you're a bad test taker

As a test prep tutor, I’ve worked with scores of students who describe themselves as bad test takers.  The other tutors I collaborate with have had the same experience, and we started to wonder, what does it even mean to be a bad test taker?  We listed the patterns that we saw in our struggling students and came to a surprising conclusion.  Being a bad test taker isn’t something you are – it’s something you do.


Actually, it might be several somethings that you do.  Here is the list of habits and mindsets we put together that can lead to you believing you’re a bad test taker.  Do any of these things sound like you?


Habits that make you a bad test taker

  • Working too quickly and making careless errors
  • Working too slowly and running out of time
  • Spending multiple minutes on a single question
  • Wasting time on questions about topics you haven’t learned yet
  • Not using extra time to check your answers
  • Not using extended time or other accommodations you may qualify for
  • Not filling in your best guess just because you’re not completely sure
  • Leaving any question blank
  • Guessing, even when you could have worked through the steps or the logic of the question
  • Answering questions according to your opinions or gut feelings
  • Believing that some answers are “better or worse” instead of “correct or incorrect”
  • Not reading the full passage, paragraph, or even sentence according to the strategy for each section
  • Not showing your work on the math problems
  • Not marking up the passages on the Reading and English sections
  • Not having a go-to strategy for managing test anxiety
  • Not having a game plan for each section
  • Overestimating what your test results can do for you
  • Undervaluing what your test results can do for you
  • Basing your expectations on how your friends or siblings did on their tests
  • Setting your goal unreasonably high
  • Not setting a goal at all
  • Believing that once you understand a topic, you don’t have to practice it anymore
  • Depending on re-reading rather than practicing
  • Practicing only the easiest questions
  • Allowing distractions to disrupt your study sessions
  • Not practicing under test-like conditions


If you saw yourself in any of the bad habits above, there is good news!  You are no longer fated to be a bad test taker forever because each of these things can be changed.  Certainly, it will take work and time to make the changes, but with practice and support, you can make a big difference in your test-taking ability.


Addressing the issue

Here’s a good way to start: pick out one habit you need to change, and write it down at the top of a practice test.  Then take that test trying to do the opposite – think of it as a scientific experiment!  For instance, if you tend to not show your work on math problems, try showing work for every question no matter what.  If you tend to spend too much time on difficult questions, tell yourself you will skip 5 questions on this test.  Hold yourself to that requirement and spend any extra time double checking the other questions.  At the end of the test, analyze the results.  Did you run out of time because of this new strategy?  Did you catch and correct any preventable errors?  Did you get a higher score than on your last practice test?  Were there any specific questions where this strategy made an important difference?  How can you modify the strategy to maximize its benefits while minimizing any drawbacks?  Write down this plan somewhere you will be able to see it at the start of your next study session and make sure to keep practicing it.


You got this!

One thing I’ve learned as a test prep tutor is that everyone can improve.  This includes students with learning disabilities, attention issues, and test anxiety.  I have tutored students with each of these challenges and have seen them make impressive improvements.  (If you’re in one of these categories, not taking advantage of available testing accommodations would indeed make you a bad test taker.)  The problem with the term bad test taker is that it tricks you into complacency.  Rather than accepting it as fate, try to pinpoint the reasons for your disappointing scores and make a plan to address them.  Not only will you have better test scores, you’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing you overcame a challenge.



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