Types of exams

Types of Exams

Different types of test questions require different approaches. Knowing whether you’ll have to answer multiple-choice, short answer, or essay questions on your exam will help you be more strategic in your approach.

If you have to write an essay on your next exam, keep in mind that the process for tackling this type of question is similar to the process for short answer exams. Use these steps as a guide: 

Choose the questions you know the most about (if you are given more than one to choose from). 

Look for and underline key words that tell you what to write about. For instance, you may be asked to analyze or compare two ideas. Sometimes you’ll be asked to explain or summarize a topic. Underline these key words, because they give important directions regarding what you need to write about. 

If permitted, use a dictionary or thesaurus to look up words you’re uncertain about. Rewrite the question into words that are more familiar to you. 

Do some prewriting. Take a few minutes to brainstorm ideas about your audience, purpose, tone, format, main ideas and thesis statement. Try to make a quick outline to keep your writing organized. This preparation will help you to write a better essay. If you’re concerned that you may spend too much time on the prewriting stage, set an appropriate time limit — perhaps 10 minutes. It’s a good idea to have your own watch with you when you write an exam so you can check the time often. 

Write your essay. Keep the following points in mind: 

  • Double-space as you write in case you need to add or clarify ideas later. 
  • Your essay must have a basic structure: introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. 
  • Be sure to clearly state your thesis in your introduction. 
  • Start with your most important points and work down to your least important points, just in case you run short of time. 
  • If appropriate, use specific course terminology as you explain your ideas to show that you have a good understanding of the course material. 
  • If possible, add examples that help develop your ideas. 
  • In your conclusion, restate your thesis and sum up your main points. 

If time permits, edit and proofread your essay. 

  • Make sure your ideas are clear and well-supported 
  • If your answer is handwritten, check that your writing is legible   
  • Check for grammar, mechanics, and spelling errors 

Sometimes multiple-choice questions can be more complex than they appear. Use the CRAM strategy to help you tackle tough multiple-choice questions with confidence. 

Cover the answer options before you read the question

  • Multiple-choice questions can feel overwhelming, so covering the options can help reduce your anxiety and focus your attention on the question. This will help you to recall the right answer and also reduce the chance that you’ll be distracted by the wrong answer. 

Read and process the question

  • Read the whole question first.
  • Then, reread the question and highlight or underline key words to focus your attention on the requirements of the question. If you are writing the exam online, write down key words on a scrap sheet of paper (if this is allowed). 
  • Try to rephrase the question in your own words to clarify its meaning. 

Answer the question before looking at the options 

  • Jot down what you know about the topic and predict an answer.
  • This will confirm what you already know before you look at the options. Sometimes you may know the right answer immediately, but then second-guess yourself later. Writing down what you know in advance will help you to avoid this tendency. Your first instinct is most often correct! 

Match your prediction to the closest option 

  • Cross off answers you know are wrong.
  • This reduces the number of options you have to choose from. You can usually narrow down your choices to two possible answers.

Evaluate each option individually

  • Treat each option as if it were a true or false question, and indicate this (T, F, T?, F?) at the end of each option or on a piece of paper.

Evaluate the remaining options

  • Look for similarities and differences between options. Similarities won’t usually help you eliminate options. Differences between options can help you decide which option is best.
  • Check if any words would make one answer wrong. For example, if the option says, “Winters are always cold in Canada,” eliminate this option because the word “always” doesn’t allow for an exception.

Make a choice based on your careful evaluation but, when in doubt, guess

  • Be sure to answer all questions, even if some answers are just good guesses. Keep in mind your first instincts and don’t let nerves cause you to change your mind! 


This interactive activity walks you through the CRAM process: 

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