Test Taking

You'll take a lot of tests in medical school. Quizzes, exams, and practicals are how you show what you know. Planning is always good, but with tests, you'll need to constantly and strategically hone your testing strategies to be successful.

On this page:

  • Preparation Strategies

  • Day of and During the Test

  • After the Test

  • Test Anxiety

  • References and Further Reading

Preparation Strategies

The best preparation strategy is to continually practice and self-test, and of course to study regularly. These strategies all revolve around helping prepare more efficiently, being intentional about your habits, and avoiding costly mistakes.

Know the Test, Self-Test Often

Find out as much as you can about the structure of the test. Is it multiple choice? Case based? Practicals? Short answer/ open ended questions? A mix of practicals and case studies? Ask your instructors and advisors for information about how you’ll be expected to demonstrate your knowledge.

Then, test yourself in the same way. For example, if your test will feature mostly open ended, short answer questions, practice quizzing yourself with these types of questions so you know what to expect.

You'll also need to test yourself in other formats to get practice applying information in different ways. For example, start with paraphrasing the material right after class. Later, make flashcards, and before the test, quiz yourself in the same style as the test. See Retrieval Practice under the Advanced Study Skills tab for more information.

Research shows that frequent, low-stakes, self-testing can boost your test performance by as much as 11% in one week (Brown, McDaniel, & Roediger, 2014, p. 31).

5 Day Plan

Major exams require major preparation. Plan on starting your test review at least a week in advance. This prep week should include at least five days in which you have planned study time dedicated to content review.

Cornell offers specific advice for preparation: Cornell's Five Day Study Plan

*Note that Medical students will probably need more than the two hours of study per day, per exam that Cornell recommends. However, be sure to take a break at least every two hours, if not sooner.

During your five day plan, utilize specific study strategies, like Distributed Practice, Interleaving, and Retrieval Practice. See all study skills under the Advanced Study Skills tab.

Know Yourself

Develop your understanding of study techniques and skills:

  • Try different study skill strategies and find what works best for you.

  • Reflect on your performance in school. Strive to constantly improve yourself as a student.

Be honest with yourself. You know if you’re easily distracted by video games or Netflix. You know if you’re a binge worker or like to work every night after it gets dark. You know if you learn data quickly. You know what you do well, and you know what you struggle with.

Use this knowledge to your advantage. Schedule your study sessions for when you know you’ll be at your best. Move your games to the garage. Schedule in a time to watch Netflix that won’t interfere with your studying. Capitalize on your strengths and brainstorm ways to mitigate your challenges.

Day of & During the Test

As much as possible, focus on the actual procedures of taking the test. If you have studied well, the knowledge will be available when you need it. Follow these tips for a successful test experience:

  • Keep your same routines, including sleeping and meals. It is important to feel like your usual self. Don’t do anything to stress yourself out.

  • Be on time. Not only is it less stressful for you, there’s a chance you could get locked out and miss the test.

  • Eat some protein for breakfast. Protein helps stabilize your blood sugar.

  • Eat some fruit before the test. This will give you a slight energy boost and keep you sharp.

  • Drink your usual caffeine dose. Again, keep your usual routine.

  • Read all directions carefully. Don’t lose points for simple mistakes.

  • Create a memory dump, if possible. If you have concepts you struggle with, but know you’ll need during the test, take scratch paper or open a digital note. As soon as the test begins, write out all of those difficult concepts--dump them on paper or in a digital note. Then, you don’t have to stress about remembering them for the rest of the test.

  • Read the last sentence of the question first. The last sentence is generally where you’ll find out what to do with all of the information in a question. So, by reading it first, you’ll know what to look for as you go back and read the question from the beginning.

  • If possible, answer easy questions first. Skip harder ones and go back later to finish.

  • Don’t guess or ‘go with your gut.’ For multiple choice questions: Evaluate carefully, and choose the best answer. If you truly have no idea, try to eliminate the most unlikely answers. Whichever answer you choose, be sure you have a reason.

  • Review if you have time. Go back over the test and make sure you didn't make any simple mistakes.

  • Take deep breaths and relax. Be intentional about your posture, you breathing, and your attitude. Talk yourself through negative thoughts, and take deep breaths to make sure you're getting enough oxygen.

After the Test

Review the Test Material

Review everything that was covered on the test. It’s important to spend time acknowledging what you got right as well as what you missed.

By confirming your correct knowledge, you’ll be reinforcing that information. And, it's a chance to congratulate yourself for what you did well.

Make a plan to review the material you struggled with. Be sure to think through how that information connects with new knowledge you’re learning as you move forward. What gaps exist in your knowledge? How will you close those gaps?

Review Your Performance

Spend time self-evaluating both your prep time and your actual test performance. What did you do well with? What do you need to work on? Are there specific study skills you need to practice? Do you need to go see the Learning Specialist for study skills training? Be intentional about improving your test-taking skills. You’ve got a lot of tests to take in Med School.

Test Anxiety

We've all had moments of panic under stress. Testing is high stakes, and poor performance can have big consequences. There are ways to alleviate test anxiety. Like everything else, being proactive about dealing with stress and anxiety can help more in the long run. However, there are also strategies for dealing with panic attacks and anxiety during a test. 

Ways to deal with test anxiety:

  • Be prepared. If you know the material and have adequately prepared, you'll be able to focus more on your performance.

  • Practice active stress management in your daily life. Stress builds up, and your body keeps score. Irrational panic attacks are often the result of too much stress.

  • Practice deep breathing. Learn to calm yourself down so you can do it when necessary.

  • Don't be afraid to pause during a test. Don't just power through anxiety and panic. Pause, take a breath, and count to ten (or 100 if needed) to re-engage your higher brain function.

Getting Help with Anxiety

  • See the Stress Management page for strategies, including writing therapy, deep breathing, and positive self-talk.

  • If it starts to affect your life, you might want to talk to someone about it. Talk to a friend, family, or come see Student Services for help. People care.


Brown, P. C., McDaniel, M. A., & Roediger, H. L. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

Further Reading

Bauer, D., Kopp, V., & Fischer, M. (2007). Answer changing in multiple choice assessment change that answer when in doubt – and spread the word! BMC Medical Education, 28(7). Retrieved from: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6920/7/28  

Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S.L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science 331. Retrieved from:  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/211

Vora, A., Maltezos, N., Alfonzo, L., Hernandez, N., Calix, E., & Fernandez, M.I. (2013). Predictors of scoring at least 600 on COMLEX-USA level 1: Successful preparation strategies. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 113(2), Retrieved from: http://jaoa.org/article.aspx?articleid=2094455

Yamazaki, G. T., Packard, G., Lindsay, D., Edmond- son, E., Gibb, R., Sanders, J., … Katayama, A. D. (2014). Debunking the myths commonly believed to affect test performance among college students. The Learning Assistance Review, 19(2), 9-18. Retrieved from: https://www.nclca.org/resources/Documents/Publications/TLAR/Issues/19_2.pdf#page=11