Maximizing Success: How to Take Engineering Exams

What happens when you studied really hard and you forget everything right before the exam? 

There are some things you can do to help you do better on the exam!

What are the Steps for Doing Well?

1) Prepare for the exam properly 

2) Get enough rest and food before the exam 

3) Have all materials needed for the exam 

4) Take the exam constructively 

5) Use strategies to get more points 

6) Check your work

Preparation is 90% of the battle

Study for the exam appropriately:

Memorize important details 

Practice solving problems similar to homework 

Make up a good but not overwhelming crib sheet 

Think like the professor

Read the book 

Restudy any quizzes youíve had and be able to solve all of the problems 

These things will certainly help you get the best grade possible. Without them, you are already at a disadvantage.

Sleep and Eat

Getting enough sleep will ensure that youíre able to function normally. You wonít be able to catch all the details if youíre asleep during the exam 

Eating will make sure youíre also at your best.  This is particularly important if you have blood sugar problems 

Enough said.

Have Needed Materials

Never, ever forget your calculator! 

Itís hard enough without having to try to do everything by hand 

Rulers can be helpful. Reading stuff in tables and on charts is easier with one 

Crib sheets are sometimes allowed (also called a cheat sheet) Itís good to put the things youíre likely to forget.  Remember that microfilming the book wonít help...

Take the Exam Constructively

This means you donít just give up. 

Try to turn the problems on the exam into problems that are similar to ones youíve done on homework. (Thisíll normally get you at least a C!) 

Think about what the question is trying to askÖwhich concepts are important to solving the problem 

Think algorithmically on how to get from point A to point B 

Now where else can you go?

Strategies: The key when you forget everything!

Learn how to budget your time. 

If you spend 90% of your time on 10% of the exam, you wonít do very well. 

When you get stuck, move on to the next problem and go as far as you can on that one. 

Do not try to work linearly through the exam from the beginning to the end. 

Start where the points are weighted more. 

    I.e. Do the problem worth the most amount of points first

Strategies: The key when you forget everything!

If you have timing problems: 

    Practice more problems next time 

    Try using a watch alarm or beeper to remind you to move on to other problems when you get stuck. 

    Stress algorithms that get you from different information to where you need to go

Strategies: The key when you forget everything!

What do you do when you need part (a) to start (b) but you didnít get (a) right? 

This is when you basically write out the solution steps without any numbers. 

Or, you can assume a number for a and go onÖ 

When you do this: 

        Demonstrate you know the correct units for (a) 

        Demonstrate you know limits on (a) 

        is it between 0 and 1? Etc. 

Strategies: The key when you forget everything!

If there are multiple routes depending on what (a) is: 

Write out complete solutions for all possible paths (Time consuming, but maximizes points!) Reminder: Most engineering professors give 65-80% of the points for knowing the correct steps, even if you donít even come remotely close to the correct answer. 

The algorithm is most important 

Mathematical mistakes are minor compared to algorithm errors 

Youíll get most points for the algorithm!

Strategies: The key when you forget everything!

Use units to help you outÖ 

How do you convert a velocity to a volumetric flowrate? 

Volumetric flowrate ? Velocity 

                   m3/s     ?     m/s 

You need to multiply velocity by something with m2. This is normally an area! Unbelievably, thinking of units like this will often be worth a lot of points even if you donít know why youíre doing it! 

Check your Work

Are there bounds on your answer: 

    I.e. did you get a negative absolute temperature?

     did you get a negative absolute pressure ?

    is the flowrate faster than the speed of light? 

These bounds will at least let you know when youíve made a math mistake or huge conceptual error. 

What do you do when you find youíve made a mistake on the problem by checking the bounds?

When you Know Youíve Made a Mistake by Using Bounds:

Quickly leave a note that you know what the bounds are and that you know youíre answer is incorrect. 

Go solve the rest of the exam 

Come back and fix your error 

This will maximize the number of points you get on the exam because youíll already get some points for the work you did on that problem. But you wonít get significantly more points for only redoing that problem and nothing else (unless you made a big, big mistake).

Check your Work, Continued

If you have time, recheck all mathematical manipulations on your calculator 

When you solved the two equations with two unknowns, do they actually work in both equations? 

Be aware of your own weaknesses: 

    Did you integrate when you were supposed to instead of accidentally differentiating? 

    Do you often do the same thing wrong on similar problems? 

    I.e. use the ideal gas law to describe liquid behavior?

The Crib Sheet

A crib sheet can be useful or not depending on how you use it. 

You should only put key information you have a hard time remembering. 

Donít put things like the ideal gas law that you know. 

Donít stuff every iota of information on there; you wonít be able to find it if you do. 

Donít rely on your crib sheet as the font of all knowledge.  What happens if you lose it? 

Do put sample problems or sample steps you have trouble with.

Other Details

Remember, the prof is testing you on what youíve learned. 

You probably already did this problem in reverse for homework 

Think about problems youíve done and identify which problem the new problem is like. 

When you get stuck, be aware of time 

Work equally on all problems, but concentrate on the ones that are worth more points or are easy where youíll get all the points for that one.

Other details

Remember to maximize your total points on the entire exam. Donít just maximize one problem. 

Never, ever, ever, ever erase anything unless you fully replace it with a solution you know is correct! 

Make the professor figure out how to grade your exam when you have two answers which might be correct and youíre not sure which one. Sometimes the prof will give full credit for the right answer and no penalty for the wrong one...


Prepare well. Figure out how you need to prepare for engineering exams early on in your academic career. 

If youíre not getting it, pick different ways of studying. 

Beware of studying with others (you might rely on their brainpower too much and they canít help you during the exam) 

Talk to the professor early if you are having problems 

Get help while the help is still useful

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