Types of Standardized Tests, From CAT to Pencil & Paper

Certification and college entrance examinations come in all shapes in sizes.  All of them can be scary, stressful, and difficult, but they can all also be overcome by the prepared test taker.  Not all tests are created equal, and each of the different types of tests should be prepared for differently.  One of the first steps to preparing for a test is to determine how your exam is administered.  

Oral Exams

Oral exams, such as thesis defenses and some International Baccalaureate exams, can be intimidating, but they can also be your time to shine and to enjoy exploring a topic with an expert examiner. The key to preparation for an oral exam is to practice speaking the answers out loud so you don't get tongue-tied on exam day. Talk to a friend or to a mirror.  Write down answers and practice reading them out loud. While you shouldn't memorize whole speeches, it can be useful to practice getting your tongue around the phrases you'll need to say. This is also a good time to look up the correct pronunciation for words that you are more used to reading than saying out loud! It's also a good idea to identify facets of your speech that may make you difficult to understand or that make you sound less sure of yourself. Talk with a friend, or record yourself then listen to the recording. Be on the lookout for speedy talking--if you're anything like me, you might be speaking more quickly than you realize!--and verbal tics. For example, maybe you say "like" or "um" a lot. Like any bad habit, a verbal tic can be very difficult to get rid of. Persistence is key; start working on your speech habits well before the exam, and try enlisting a friend for help. For example, you could designate your home or school as a "like"-free zone and ask your friend to point out your "like"-ing to help you eliminate it.  

Paper and Pencil Exams

Old-school paper-and pencil exams still exist! For example, when taking an AP exam, you'll most likely get an exam booklet in which to write. When preparing for a paper and pencil exam, it's important to determine what writing instruments you'll need. For example, some AP exams require that you bring a pencil for the multiple-choice sections and a pen for the essay sections. You should also figure out exactly what you'll be required to write; are you just filling in bubbles to answer multiple-choice questions, or will you have to write out short answers or entire essays? If you're like most people these days, you've gotten more used to typing than writing, so if you will be writing a lot during your exam, it might be useful to practice your handwriting beforehand.  


These are the exams which require the famous number two pencil and include the SAT and certain AP exams. A test taker will receive a scantron sheet, which includes numbers (corresponding to the numbered question sheet) and bubbles (or boxes) that the test taker must fill in completely to answer a question. Due to the nature of the scantron, an exam administered using a scantron will be multiple choice.  Assuming there is no guessing penalty on an exam, the format allows the test taker to make an educated guess at an answer.  This can be quite an advantage if you are well prepared to take the exam.  Preparation for a scantron exam should include sharpening a pile of number two pencils and reading up on whether your exam penalizes wrong answers so you can decide whether to guess if you don't know an answer.  

Computer-Based Tests

Computer-based testing is increasingly popular. Examples include the GRE and the PRAXIS exams for teachers. These exams generally require you to go to a testing facility where you will sit in a cubicle in front of a computer that presents questions one-by-one. Because there are multiple types of computer-delivered tests, it is important to be familiar with the technology you will be using to take the test.  Nothing can be more stressful on test day than entering a new environment and trying to learn new technology while also trying to pass a test.  If possible, take a few practice exams on a computer in order to get comfortable answering questions on a computer.  

Computer Adaptive Testing

Computer Adaptive Tests (or CAT) are a type of computer-delivered test. A CAT --for example, the Graduate Management Admission Test or GMAT--allows for a more precise idea of a test taker's overall knowledge of a subject. The computer presents the user with different questions based on his or her performance in the exam. From your perspective as the test-taker, this means that the better you do on early questions, the more difficult the questions will become, meaning you're working with a higher maximum score. This means it's to your advantage to answer questions at the beginning of a CAT very carefully.