9 Tips for Taking Tests in Exam Centers

by Kendahl Cruver

If you plan to apply for graduate school, a specialized program or to earn a professional qualification such as a medical or real estate certification, you may find that you need to take an exam in a commercial testing and assessment center. These businesses provide the facilities for students and professionals to take a wide array of exams, in conditions that comply with the guidelines of the organizations that will evaluate the results.

Depending on your feelings about tests, taking an exam in one of these facilities can be nerve-wracking to terrifying, especially if your previous experience with exams was with pencil and paper, rather than the computer-based tests that now dominate the industry. If it is the first time you’ve been to a testing center, those feelings can be even more intense.

For several years, I have provided testing assistance to individuals with disabilities in professional testing facilities. I have assisted in a wide array of testing centers, and I’ve learned a great deal about how they work. I’ve also picked up some useful tips about how any kind of test candidate can not only survive, but thrive on exam day.

1. Preview the facility. Check with your testing center if you can tour the test center before your exam day. Some facilities offer special times when exam candidates can view the facility, learn about the check-in procedure and even try a few practice questions at one of the testing stations. If your center does not offer this service, it may still be worthwhile to make a test drive to the facility so that you can be sure of the location, parking and approximate travel time. Even if you live in a different town from the testing center, it can be useful to map out the location and try to get a good idea of how long it will take to reach the facility.

2. Know the rules of the center. In addition to learning about the facility, it can be extremely valuable to know the basic requirements and restrictions of the testing center before exam day. Understanding the rules will help you to prepare for the day, in addition to helping you avoid unpleasant surprises. Some of the most important things to learn about your testing facility include what can and cannot be brought into the testing room and the basic rules of behavior for test candidates.

3. Bring exactly what you need. Most test centers will provide you with a locker so that you can store any items that are not allowed into the exam room. You will often only be allowed to bring in your locker key, identification and any permitted testing materials to your testing station. This means that you can bring snacks, an extra sweater, medication or anything else that might help you through the exam. As there is typically limited space available in lockers, it is wise to choose carefully when deciding which items to bring.

4. Arrive early. Leave earlier for the test center than you think you need to, even if you’re certain you know how to get there. This gives you a cushion in case you run into the worst traffic jam ever, inclement weather or similarly unpredictable factors. The last thing you want is to be stressed out before you even get to the facility. It also pays to arrive slightly early so that you can adjust yourself to your surroundings. On the other hand, there isn’t usually a benefit to arriving more than about half an hour early. You are not likely to be able to check in earlier and sitting for too long in the waiting area could intensify your testing nerves.

5. Prepare physically. Even if you have trouble sleeping the night before an exam, engaging in relaxing, enjoyable activities before bed can help to soothe your nerves. Avoid consuming a heavy meal or alcoholic beverages, as this can affect the quality of your sleep. If you have time, taking a brisk walk the morning of the exam can help to reduce stress and focus your mind. It can also be beneficial to do a few light stretches before you enter the exam room, as you will be sitting in the same position for a long time. Once you are seated, periodically stretching your arms and legs and doing a few head rolls can help you to stay comfortable and alert.

6. Dress for comfort. Exam day is definitely not the time to dress to impress. Wear comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely. Many testing centers tend to be kept fairly cool in order to accommodate the heat generated by large amounts of electronic equipment. For this reason, it is usually best to wear layers. Some facilities do not allow test candidates to hang items of clothing on the backs of their chairs, so you may need to decide how many layers you need before you enter the room and store the rest in your locker.

7. Bring high-energy snacks. If you are taking a particularly long exam, you may wish to bring a few healthy foods to nibble on during break time. Snacks such as nuts, sports bars and hard-boiled eggs can provide a quick burst of energy without slowing you down. It can also be beneficial to bring a water bottle for a few quick sips, though it is wise to take it easy on drinks, and especially caffeine, on the day of an exam as there will likely be long stretches between bathroom breaks.

8. Be ready for security measures. Professional testing facilities are serious about ensuring that your exam is completed in compliance with the guidelines of the governing testing organization. This means that you may feel like you are one full body scan away from replicating a trip through airport security before you enter the testing room. An exam center employee may ask you to show that your pockets are empty and that you have nothing up your sleeves or pant cuffs. You may also be asked to store items that are not in compliance with regulations, such as watches with calculators, cell phones or your own writing implements in your locker. Some centers also forbid items on the wrists, such as hair ties, and may ask you to wear them in your hair or store them. It can be a difficult process to endure when you are anxious to begin your exam, and it may even seem a bit offensive that trustworthy you must go through all these procedures, but it is easier, and less stressful, to grin and bear them.

9. Take your time getting settled. In most cases, once the clock is running, you will need to stay focused on your exam, either until a break period or its conclusion. For this reason, it can be wise to take your time as you get settled at your test station. Make sure you are comfortable with your keyboard, mouse and seat position. Examine your testing materials, such as pencil, paper and calculator to ensure that they are functional. Even if you feel you understand the format of the test well enough to skip the test questions, it can be a good warm-up to take that extra few minutes to get used to the system. Then you can take a deep breath, do one last little stretch and plunge into that test with the knowledge that you are comfortable, prepared and ready to excel.

Kendahl Cruver is a freelance writer and testing assistance contractor based in the Pacific Northwest.

Editor’s Note: Two of the most popular testing centers are Pearson VUE and Prometric. Pearson’s administers millions of tests annually in academic admissions, certification, licensure, and government testing. It has more than 5,000 test centers.

Prometric and the DSST credit by examination program have made 10 of its most popular exams available online. The exams are offered to students interested in earning college credits through examination. The DSST program offers 37 exams in select subject areas, including Criminal Justice, Ethics in America, Fundamentals of College Algebra, Introduction to Computing, Introduction to World Religions, Management Information Systems, Personal Finance, and Principles of Statistics.

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