Home > Resources > Study Skills > Study Smart > What to Expect on a College Exam

What to Expect on a College Exam

Dreading the first college exam can occur even before you’ve started the semester. Most freshman do not know what to expect on the first, or consecutive exams- worry not, as they are not as bad as one may think. While the academics are obviously more rigorous, as it should in higher education, the format and standard layout of exams are identical to those you have been seeing throughout your secondary education.

Exam Layouts

Essay

Perhaps the most common type of college test, the essay exam is typically great for those students who are actively engaged in class discussions and course work. They have opportunity to share their ideas openly and intellectually and this confirms retention of class material. On the other hand, students who lack classroom engagement and do not pay attention will struggle to demonstrate what they have learned. It is nearly impossible to study this material in one evening, as the learning process has spanned over the course of the semester and is not easily learned again. Essay exams generally link multiple texts used in the semester. Math exams are rarely in essay format- they require problem-solving and providing explanations in reasoning rather than expressing ideas on concepts.

Multiple Choice

Multiple choice testing is slowly diminishing from schools and fortunately, many students do not prefer this format. Multiple choice exams do not credit students for their understanding of the material since there are limited options, and only one can be correct. This route of testing favors rapid memorization, regulation of facts, and limited expression of knowledge. Simply put: you are either right or wrong. They’re more common in high school and are rare in college unless you are a science, math, or similar major.

Grading Styles

Each professor has their own preference for grading and students will find that some are extremely lax or lenient whereas others are brutal and rarely give out perfect scores. You will not know what to expect with a new teacher, until after the first exam, which could be nerve-wracking.

  • The Curve. In science and math courses, a grading curve is very common. It essentially weights the performance of a student against his peers rather than a standard, on-hundred point scale. In liberal arts classes, professor will rarely issue a grading curve. This can be a positive and negative style- although you may earn a decent grade with a curve, despite your poor grade, students who study hard may find it irritating that their lazier peers bumped a grade up. Then again, those who earned good scores will receive even higher scores with a grading curve. It seems to benefit both parties in the end. .
  • Merit. Class participation matters, when it comes to exam day. If your efforts have been recognized by the professor they are typically rewarded on the exam as well. This may not be a comforting realization, especially for less-involved students, but can serve as motivation to become more active in class participation. It may be difficult to acknowledge that exams are merit-based, but professors are humans as well. Like rest of us, their reactions are tainted by personal bias.

Latest College & Financial Aid News

Proposed Pell Grant Expansion for Short-Term Training Programs

July 9, 2019

by Susan Dutca-Lovell

Lawmakers are considering extending Pell Grants to people who pursue short-term training in order to land better jobs, faster. Federal student aid in the form of Pell Grants can currently be used for college degrees and qualifying certificate programs. [...]

3 Women Charged in $1M Student Financial Aid Fraud

July 2, 2019

by Susan Dutca-Lovell

Three San Bernardino County women who have been accused of stealing $1 million in federal financial aid from Fullerton college, in California, have been arrested by the U.S. Justice Department and are charged with various counts of mail and wire fraud. The scheme involved enrolling hundreds of mainly non-existent students, successfully applying for grants and loans and pocketing the money. [...]

Patriotic Scholarships that Celebrate America

June 27, 2019

by Susan Dutca-Lovell

Nothing says 'Merica like these Patriotic Scholarships as we approach Independence Day and remember how, in America, education is a great equalizer. Whether you are an American citizen searching for college scholarships or are studying abroad in the USA, these American-themed scholarships are for those who truly believe in the American dream. In the land of the free, we have plenty of free college scholarships to help you achieve your higher education dreams. [...]

Last Reviewed: July 2019