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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


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.

Last Edited: July 2015

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