The idea of taking an exam is something that most people dread, and for some, it prevents them from applying to business school altogether. However, if you’ve already been admitted to an MBA program and plan on recruiting for a field where grades matter, such as consulting or investment banking, then test taking is a process you need to become proficient in.
I’ve personally always attributed my business school GPA to my ability to score well on tests. For things like assignments, group projects, and class participation, it’s difficult for professors to produce a distribution of grade performance among students. Therefore, it makes sense that test scores tend to be the primary driver of your overall GPA.
Below are tips that I’ve come up with based on how I take tests. Some points will be Anderson specific, because of how our school conducts its exams, but most of the advice should apply to test taking in general.
For Open Notes Tests, Study Your Notes
After learning that a test is “open notes,” one of the biggest mistakes people make is that they invest all of their time towards just compiling and organizing their notes. The problem with this approach is that most professors design open notes tests so that you don’t have any time to review your notes during the exam. Otherwise, they might as well give you a grade for the notes you bring in.
After you’ve compiled your notes for an open notes exam, spend a significant amount of time reviewing the notes you created so that you know most of the material and if you need to reference something during the test, you’ll be able to find it quickly.
Bring a Highlighter
One of the most common causes of mistakes on exams is reading error. Time pressure encourages you to read through the exam quickly, but reading any question improperly can have severe consequences on your grade. During our core Strategy final, a colleague of mine read the short essay prompt incorrectly, and ended up writing his entire essay response backwards.
I always use a highlighter when I’m trying to focus on reading a case, so it makes sense to do the same thing while reading questions on a test. Doing so reminds me to focus and helps me isolate the important elements, in case I need to re-read any material. Using a highlighter is a simple way to improve your test taking results; just make sure the professor is okay with it beforehand.
Listen to Music
For pretty much all of my tests at Anderson, every professor has been fine with students listening to music during a midterm or final exam. Good music helps you concentrate on the task at hand and encourages you to work faster. This is especially helpful for exams with built in time pressure. Ask your professor if he or she is okay with it first; if so, download a playlist of music that helps you work. For test taking, I prefer listening to music from either Philip Wesley, Gattaca, or Final Fantasy X.
If music isn’t your thing, or the professor simply doesn’t allow it, try going in with earplugs. Sometimes the rustling of papers or fast typing by your fellow students can stress your nerves. It’s best to block it all out so you can focus on your work. Whereas an MP3 player might be banned from a test, most professors will be fine with ear plugs.
Use 5 Hour Energy
The core exams at Anderson, and at most business schools for that matter, are designed to be difficult. Schools that don’t want to promote grade inflation will use a curve, which means not everyone is going to get an A. And to get this distribution, professors will put in really hard questions that only a small percentage of the class will get right. To have a chance at solving these problems, you’ll need to think fast.
Caffeine definitely helps you become more alert and ready to deal with the curveballs being thrown at you, especially after a long night of studying. I personally think that 5 Hour Energy is better than coffee because it doesn’t have much effect on your bladder or digestive system. I’ll usually drink half a 5 Hour Energy right before the exam and the other half during the middle of the exam.
Take a Walk to Help Solve Tough Problems
At Anderson, all exams for the core courses are designed to last three hours long. Therefore, professors are generally okay if you need to take a bathroom break during this period, but with time pressure built into the exam, every break you take is time you could have potentially spent answering questions. My advice is that you definitely should take a bathroom break in the middle of the test, because 3 hours is a very long time to maintain focus. However, I recommend that you wait until you come across a really tough problem before doing so. I’ll usually be thinking about one or two tough questions I couldn’t solve whenever I take a bathroom break. Sometimes all you need is a change of location to come up with either the answer or an approach to proceed with.
Bring a Backup Calculator
During my MBA, I never had a test that required me to use a scientific calculator. Despite this, I still used my old TI-83 Plus that I bought in high school. I’m familiar with all the functions and the large display showing my history of entries helps prevent me from making errors. The risk with this approach comes from the fact that this calculator is powered by batteries. If those batteries die on me in the middle of the test, I could easily be out of luck. Therefore, it’s wise to buy a cheap, solar powered calculator in case your main calculator stops functioning. If you use a battery powered calculator, consider just bringing extra batteries.
Bring a Snack
For morning exams, most people will decide not to eat a heavy breakfast to prevent themselves from getting sleepy. However, if the same exam is really long, it’s likely that you’ll get hungry before it’s over. This is why it makes sense to bring a small snack with you. Some studies have shown that the act of chewing helps your thinking. I’d recommend bringing a granola bar or fruit snacks rather than potato chips; that way you won’t disturb your fellow test takers.