How to Tackle Exam Questions

Learn more about how to tackle different kinds of exams and exam questions!

We cover the following topics on exam preparation on this page:

First, Let’s Think About De-Coding Different Types of Exam Questions

It’s helpful to understand the kinds of question that are asked on a exam, because the response you need to come up with depends on the type of question. Knowing about different types of exam questions can help you activate appropriate strategies for formulating answers and reduce exam-taking anxiety.

Exam questions generally fall into one of three categories:1

“Green Light”

green light

  • Go right ahead!
  • These are factual questions, and the answers are straight-forward. You either know the answer or you don’t; it’s right there in your head or it’s not.
  • Some green light questions can be very difficult, and your ability to recall details is often tested with this typeof question.
  • Study for this type of question by using recitation, making flash cards, quizzing yourself or a study partner, etc.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a green light question right away, circle it and move on; often the answer will pop into your head later on during the exam.

“Yellow Light”

yellow light

  • Slow down.
  • These questions are more detailed than green light questions, but are based on the same idea: you either know the answer or you don’t.
  • Often you’ll have to put multiple or “green light” details together.
  • Similar strategies work for yellow and green questions, but with yellow light questions you’ll need to recall many ideas, concepts, formulas, etc., just to answer one question.

“Red Light”
red light

  • Hold on.
  • These questions ask you to make inferences or apply your knowledge to new situations, which is sometimes called “critical thinking”.
  • You need to know the material being covered to answer these questions at the “green light” level, but the exam question is not asking you to simply regurgitate it. You will need to take what you know and use it in ways you have not yet used it.
  • This type of question sometimes flummoxes students, because they are surprised to they are being asked a question that wasn’t exactly covered in class. Remember that with red light questions you are not supposed to already know the answer. You have to come up with the answer yourself, it is not already in your head. (You will need to know the basic information, though, to be able to answer this type of question.)
  • Red light questions are asked more frequently in college than in high school.
  • To study for red light questions, make diagrams or concept maps that link ideas or topics from the course together. Think about how what you’re learning relates to what you’ve learned in other classes. Sit down with friends or classmates and talk about how one might use information from the class in a job setting.

See this link for a pdf of Decoding exam questions.

How to Tackle: Problem-Solving and Quantitative Questions

Study for problem-based exams by practicing (new!) problems

As you work on the problems, remember:

  • DO let yourself be stuck.* (yes, we mean that!)
  • DON’T sneak a peak at the answer if you get stuck. (keep trying!)
  • Check your answer only after you’ve put something–anything–down. Think partial credit, which is better than no credit if you freeze when you get stuck on hard problems on the test.

* You need to get your “stuck” muscles stronger so you know what to do on tests when you feel stuck.

Watch: LSC’s Mike Chen Shares “The Key to Problem-Solving Tests”

Taking problem-based exams

1. Understand the problem: Determine what you are supposed to find, what you need to find it, and what the unknown is (and if there is extra information). Consider whether drawing a sketch will help. Also – note each part of the question. Not answering each part is an easy way to lose points.

2. Determine a way to solve the problem: Write down all that is given or known. Draw a sketch when appropriate to show relations. Write down all relevant formulas.

3. Carry out the procedure you have devised: For numerical problems, try and estimate an answer first. This will help you to check your work later. Neat, careful work keeps you from making mistakes, and allows you to find them when you do make them (show your units!!). Additionally, when the instructor can see your work clearly, he or she may give you partial credit for what you do know, even if your ultimate answer is incorrect.

4. Check your Answers: This requires the same quality of thought originally used to solve the problem. Is your answer what you thought it would be in your original estimate? Is it a quantity that makes sense? Is your answer in the correct units? If your answer does not seem reasonable, rework the problem.

How to Tackle: Multiple Choice Questions

1. Read the stem: First, read the stem and make sure you understand what it is getting at. Look out for double negatives or other twists in wording before you consider the answer.

2. Try to come up with the correct answer: Before you look at the answer choices, try to come up with the correct answer. This will help you to rule out choices that are similar to the correct answer. Now read and consider each option carefully.

3. Look for clues in the stem: Look for clues in the stem that suggest the correct answer or rule out any choices. For example, if the stem indicates that the answer is plural you can rule out any answers that are singular. The basic rule is: the correct answer must make sense grammatically with the stem. Options which fail this exam can be ruled out.

4. Cross off any options you know are incorrect: As you rule out options cross them off with your pencil. This will help you focus on the remaining choices and eliminates the chance of returning to an item and selecting an option you had already eliminated.

5. Come back to items you were unsure of: Put a mark next to any questions you are unsure of. If you complete the entire exam with time to spare, review these questions – you will often get clues (or even answers) from other questions.

Take a look at some additional information on difficult “Multiple Choice Tests” (opens a PDF).

Watch: LSC’s Mike Chen Shares “The Key to Multiple Choice Tests”

How to Tackle: Essay Questions

The best way to prepare for essay tests is to practice writing essays!

  • Anticipate questions: Make outlines of possible essay topics using your course materials so you know you’ve got a good grasp of what might be on the test. Then recreate your outlines from memory (unless it’s an open-notes test).
  • Practice writing at least one full essay; be mindful of the time you spend practicing and think about how much time you will have during the exam. It is also important to think about how you are organizing the information you are including in your essay — for example, if you are asked to compare and contrast two theories as they relate to an issue, you might want to define each of them, describe the issue, and then compare and contrast them.
  • If your exam is closed book, memorize key events, facts, and names that you will need to support your argument. If it is open-notes, then make sure you develop good outlines.

When you are taking essay tests:

  • Manage your time well. As with all exams, if there are multiple essay questions, be sure to look at them all at the beginning (taking note of the points each is worth), and prioritize the order you answer the questions.
  • Read the directions carefully. Ask yourself honestly: are you answering the actual question on the test, or the question you want to be on the test?  (tip: instructors know when you aren’t really answering the exact question, so make sure you are addressing the actual question and don’t just write random information that is unrelated to the question.)
  • Before you write the essay, decide on your argument and quickly list your supporting evidence (it is ok to do a brain dump of all the important information that you want to include so that you have it handy when you begin writing).
  • Make a quick outline of what you are going to write to organize your thoughts and arguments.
  • Write! And, make your point right away– you don’t want to get to the end of a timed essay test with your amazing argument still unmade!
  • If you have time, go back and quickly proof-read your essay for errors.

You might want to take a look at some “Words to Watch for in an Essay” (opens a PDF).


1Taffy E. Raphael, Teaching Question Answer Relationships, Revisited, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Feb., 1986), pp. 516-522.

Ellis, D. (1998). Becoming a Master Student. Houghton Mifflin: Boston