Fact or Fiction? Famous Test-taking Strategies Reexamined

You have approximately 113 standardized tests to take before you graduate high school. That’s not even counting your pop quizzes, AP classes, or college entrance exams. Everyone thinks they have a few magical test-taking strategies up their sleeve (socks inside out, lucky undies, answers written on the inside of – wait, no!) Find out whether the strategies you swear by are true life-savers… or total fiction.

 1. Bananas are instant calming agents.

THE MYTH: The whiteboard is going fuzzy. Your leg won’t stop jittering. A bead of sweat rolls down your forehead and your stomach is about six seconds from expelling its contents onto your desk. “Wait!” you cry. Time stops, and you run to your locker to grab the item that you hope is there…IT IS! You peel the banana in record time, cram it into your mouth, and slide into your seat with a stable heartbeat and steady hands to ace your biology midterm.

THE REALITY: Maybe. Some believe bananas function like beta blockers, which keep epinephrine from binding to beta receptors so you don’t feel the effects of adrenaline. Because the fight-or-flight response isn’t triggered, your heartbeat slows and blood pressure drops. Musicians have been using beta blocking drugs (and apparently bananas) for years to banish stage fright. Others think that bananas help correct an imbalance in gamma-aminobutyric acid. Whatever it is they’re actually doing, people from all walks of life report that bananas help reduce anxiety. Go figure.

2. Not sure? Just answer C!

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THE MYTH: You’re running out of time. You have no clue what Otto von Bismarck’s strategy was in the Austro-Prussian War—you’re just trying to remember where Prussia is. Five. Four. Three. Two. C! You remember that because of a weird glitch in all teacher’s brains, C is statistically the most common answer! You hand in your test feeling good, and are rewarded with an A+++.

THE REALITY: Fiction. This one has been around for ages. Seriously. Ages. In your grandpa’s day it was B. One analysis of SAT statistics suggests that the distribution for each answer hovers pretty close to 20%—that’s even. When one answer does show up more often, it’s 1) only occasionally C, and 2) usually by a margin of less than 3%. In short, expecting to score higher on any given test because in the face of doubt you answer C is like consuming soda with Pop Rocks and expecting your stomach to explode. Not going to happen.

3. Don’t change your answer—you were probably right the first time.

THE MYTH: You’ve finished the test. You’re just checking over your answers when suddenly you pause. Doubt assails you. George Eliot didn’t write Mrs. Dalloway. It was Virginia Woolf. And hey. These other ones look wrong now, too. Panic threatens, but with a deep breath and an inward smile you toss your test on the teacher’s desk, secure in the knowledge that your first guess is almost always right.

THE REALITY: Fiction. Your first instinct is not always the best course. In fact, pretty much its only distinction is that it’s…well, first. Research suggests you’re twice as likely to change your answer from a wrong choice to a right one than you are to change it from a right answer to a wrong one. The moral of the story? Edit away.

4. Chewing gum: The jaw bone’s connected to the brain bone.

MYTH: You haven’t missed a day of school. You haven’t cut a single class. You haven’t skipped so much as a paragraph of the reading. And for all the good it’s doing you now, every single question on this test might as well be written in Swahili. You’re doomed. Or are you? You reach into your pocket, pull out a crumpled wrapper, and pop a piece of gum in your mouth. Ahhh. It all comes flooding back. You speak Swahili.

REALITY: Fact?! At least when you time it correctly. Recent studies suggest that chewing gum will help you on a test, especially where memory and recall are concerned. The funny thing is the latest evidence tells us you shouldn’t chew during the test itself—you should chew immediately beforehand (post-banana). The temporary increase of blood to the brain should give you about a twenty minute window for slightly-increased awesomeness.

5. Dress for success.

MYTH: You have not slept. You have not showered. You still have those funky lines you get from reading too long stamped across your vision. And yet you saunter/stumble into your final wearing your best khakis and your favorite button-down, nary a wrinkle in sight. Your wardrobe says it all: you shall triumph. In more of a Bill-Gates-businessman than a Russell-Crowe-gladiator kind of way.

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REALITY: Fact. I’m not saying ditch your sweatpants (anyone who tries to take mine from me will have to pry them off my warm and cozy dead body). It depends on you. Wearing clothes with strong cultural associations affects your cognition. Students who were asked to test wearing a lab coat they thought belonged to a doctor performed better than those who thought their identical borrowed coat belonged to an artist. Crazy.