When professors and teachers give out short answer tests, their intention is to measure the student's ability to remember key concepts and terms in the course material and present them in a clear, concise manner. The downside is that, unlike multiple-choice tests, the answer is not in front of you. You also cannot rely on rote memorization since you will often be asked to apply the concepts in a concrete way. On the other hand, such tests allow for partial or even full credit if you have a decent understanding of the material. For students who do not know how to answer short answer questions, we would like to offer some proven, easy-to-follow advice that helps students get top scores. It requires some discipline and will power, if you really want it, nothing is beyond your reach.


Naturally, to succeed at passing a short answer test (or any exam for that matter), it all starts with pre-test prep. This process should not start the night before the test, it should take place throughout the semester, even on the first day! Most students do not think to look over the course syllabus when preparing for the test, but you might be surprised to discover some hints about what the test might cover. This is because the description of each individual lecture tends to include a core concept that could definitely appear on the test.

Attend all of your lectures and take thorough notes, review the materials, and by all means visit your professor or instructor to go over concepts and ideas that require clarification. Ideas introduced at the beginning of the course often return later on, so take note of this. 

Go above and beyond the average student. Doing so will make knowing how to answer short answer questions a breeze! This means outlining and summarizing each chapter in a notebook or in a Word document, taking the initiative to form study groups with classmates, explaining course-related ideas to friends and family, and even putting down information into tables. If you are seeking short answer examples, find out of your professor offers tests from previous semesters, or track down students who have taken that course to get a better idea about what to expect for the test. 

Using flashcards is a highly effective way to remember important dates, definitions, and to be able to match up important actors to events in which they played a major role. Also, while it is important to memorize key terms, take the next step and apply them to situations. This will help you gain the most thorough understanding of the ideas as possible. This can be achieved by writing your own test questions as a way to practice. Do some brainstorming and generate your own short answer examples. 

A few weeks have passed and examine time has arrived. Let us tackle those short-answer questions. First, read the questions carefully so that the expectations are clear. Underline words like “evaluate,” “compare/contrast,” “summarize,” etc. This is your first big clue regarding how to formulate your short answer response. After all, if you are being asked to critically analyze something but proceed to merely describe it; your grade will suffer from not following the directions. 

Do not just read the first question, answer, and move on. Instead, read all of the short-answer questions even before you begin writing and pick the one you can answer the best. After all, time is of the essence and you do not want to struggle on the harder questions when you could be answering the easier ones first. Once you finish the questions you have a better grasp on, you might be able to apply them to the more challenging questions in some manner. Along the same lines, count the number of questions once you see the test and try to estimate how much time you will need to complete it. The last thing you would want to do is finish half the test only to realize there is only 5 minutes left to complete the other half. Some of the questions might be worth more points than others, so you should also take that into consideration as you are planning your strategy. 

Never leave a question blank no matter how challenging it might be. Just take an educated guess if need be. You might still be wrong, but at least you've increased the chances above the 0% that an unanswered question is guaranteed to receive. Even earning a single point is better than laying a goose egg. You also would not want to write absolutely everything that you know about a topic nor should you include things that are related. Students who know how to answer questions will say that staying on-point and never straying is what earns them the top grades. It also would not hurt to use keywords from the question in your short answer response. This will allow you to remain focused on the question.

Once you finish answering a question, read it again and confirm that you have answered it thoroughly. For instance, you might be asked to compare and contrast certain author's opinions about a topic and also make a list of these differences. In other words, you are being asked to answer a question in two different ways. Overlooking this detail could result in only receiving a partial score. 

Keep in mind that you will not be penalized for expressing an opinion. The professor will be more concerned with your ability to back it up with strong evidence. You should also not confuse “short” with “vague.” Your professor wants to see that you can express a main idea in a concise, elegant way. It can be thorough and brief at the same time. 

Finally, during the exam clarify any confusion with your professor regarding any of the questions. Do not be shy. It is better to make sure you know exactly what he/she is looking for rather than taking a guess and being wrong.