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What to Expect on a College Exam

Even if you aren’t heading off to college for a few more months, you are probably already dreading that first college exam. I certainly did, and my experience has been shared by countless numbers of newly enrolled students. For freshies, as they’re warmly referred to on campus, going into their first real college level exam feels oddly similar to those trepidant dreams where you arrive for show and tell with little besides your nudity—unpleasant. If the thought of a college exam incites this sweaty palmed— I’m naked and only have an empty purple wallet with me—feeling, read on. College exams aren’t that bad and there is information available that can help you understand what to expect and how to prepare.

What do the tests actually look like?

Essay

The essay exam is the most common type of college test. For students who are actively engaged in class discussions and coursework this is positive; such students get the opportunity to share their ideas about a text or topic and typically, to confirm that they have actually stored some of the information they’ve gathered over the semester. The disengaged student, unless he is a master of bologna, will have a more difficult time with this method because to participate in the exam he has to have a sufficient background of information to draw on. Such resources are impossible to create overnight. Essay exams typically link a variety of texts that were used throughout the semester so reading only half of the required material won’t get you very far. Some math tests are essay, but usually math exams require students to complete problems in detail showing work and providing explanations rather than relying on essay or multiple choice formats.

Multiple Choice

The multiple choice testing technique becomes rarer by the day. Occasionally a professor will administer a multiple choice test, but it is usually as a pop quiz rather than a full fledged exam. Don’t fret over the quiet abandonment of the multiple choice exam—students who are active in the class are usually better off without it anyway. Unlike essay tests, multiple choice exams don’t give students credit for their understanding of the material or the concept emphasized by the teacher they simply require the rapid memorization and regurgitation of facts. They’re common in high school, but don’t expect to find many multiple choice tests in college unless you are a science or math major.

Grading Styles

The grading techniques that professors rely on for exams tend to be uncomfortable for students. In my own experience I have found that instructors are either extremely lax (everyone gets an A) or brutal and that any equilibrium between these two extremes is unheard of. Thus, the first test with an unknown professor is always particularly nerve racking, even when you are prepared.

  • The Curve. In the sciences and math, grading curves are fairly common. The grading curve essentially weights the performance of a student against his peers rather than a standard 100 point scale. In liberal arts classes you won’t find that professors rely on this technique very often.
  • Merit. It’s important to understand that when it comes to test day, your level of class participation goes along way—if your efforts have been recognized by the professor they are typically rewarded on the exam. This may not be a comforting realization, especially for less involved students, but it is worth mentioning. While we would like to think that exams are purely a measure of merit, the reality is that your professor is human. Like rest of us, his reactions are tainted by personal bias.

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