Tips for Making the Grade
It’s sad but true; students who fail my exams usually know the required material. In fact, many are experienced social workers who have returned to school in order to advance their careers or gain additional clinical skills. Oftentimes, they are smart, highly motivated perfectionists, who feel the need to prove their worth at a top-ranked graduate school by telling me everything they already know about social work.
What many students often don’t understand is how to take a graduate-level exam. That’s why I now begin every new course by reassuring students not to stress out over the eventual taking of their exams. Instead, I encourage them to enjoy the learning process and grow as a social worker. As long as you absorb the course materials and contribute in class, you’ll be well-prepared to pass the test. Here are two of the most important things to keep in mind when preparing for and taking your exams:
- Answer ALL of the questions. A good way to leave no doubt in my mind about your command of the required course material is to rephrase the question as an introduction to your answer, using your accumulated knowledge from class. If you highlight these introductions in bold type, it’ll immediately tell me you have learned what you need to know.
- Cover the key points from course materials. When I read your exam paper, I’m looking for specific ideas. If you answer all the questions and cover the key points, you’ll pass. It’s just that simple.
Of course, to receive a better than average grade, you’ll need to cover exam topics in detail, showcasing your knowledge by referencing the things you’ve learned and discovered in class. I advise students not to dive immediately into writing their answers. Rather, take a few moments to think about the question and then formulate a clear, concise way to convey your mastery of the topic. Remember, I’m looking for key points.
Once you’re ready to begin your answer, write for an impatient reader. Face it – grading test papers is not recreational reading, and if you take me on a treasure hunt to find the key point you’re trying to make, I’ll wonder if you have an adequate grasp of the course material relevant to the topic being discussed. Start each paragraph with a focused overview of the thinking to come and then expand upon your thoughts with three or four concise sentences that support your perspective.
Clear, well-organized answers are key to getting a good grade. After all, learning to write succinctly isn’t just a valuable test-taking technique; it’s also the skill you’ll need when it comes to writing grant applications, reports and proposals for the impatient readers, who will be crucial to your career in social work.
And remember, I’m on your side. When one of my students fails an exam, I’ve failed, too. So apply some test-taking savvy and make us both succeed!