Break a Leg – 7 Exam Tips for English Learners

Your students may hate taking exams, but I bet they love learning idioms! Here is a list of 7 exam tips full of idioms and everyday expressions to lighten things up before exam time.

1. Know the test format inside and out

When you know something inside and out, you understand it completely. That stressful feeling inside usually results from the fear of the unknown. If you know exactly which types of questions to expect, you will feel more relaxed on test day. This will help you perform better on the test.

Visit official websites for TOEIC, TOEFL, or whichever test you are taking, and learn the exact format for each section and question.

2. Be prepared for Murphy’s law

Murphy’s law suggests that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Here are some things that can go wrong on test day:

  • Your pen will run out or your pencil will break (bring extras)
  • Your eraser will break or run out (bring an extra one)
  • You’ll need to use the washroom (don’t drink too much water)
  • You’ll get thirsty (bring water)
  • Your phone will ring (turn off your devices)
  • Your nose will run (bring tissues)
  • Your stomach will growl (eat a high-protein breakfast)
  • Your mouse batteries will die (bring batteries)
  • Your pants will feel too tight (dress comfortably)

All of the above will cause you to lose concentration. For the best results, prepare for the worst-case scenario.

3. Don’t let examiners pull a fast one on you

When someone pulls a fast one on you, they try to trick you. The writers who develop tests know every trick in the book. (Take my word for it. I used to be one.)
When you are using practice materials, don’t just study the correct answers. Take note of all of the common distractors that exam writers use.

Here are some common distractors (incorrect answer choices, aka tricks):

  • opposite of the correct answer
  • close to correct, but not correct
  • contains a key word from the text or listening
  • common misconceptions
  • common usage errors
  • true facts that do not answer the question
  • draws on personal experience rather than information provided

4. Read each question with a fine-tooth comb

When you read something with a fine-tooth comb, you read for detail. Though some parts of an exam require you to skim and scan, it is important to read every single word of the instructions or questions. Don’t make assumptions. Make sure you know exactly what the question or section is asking you to do.

5. Find the meat and potatoes

Another expression for the main idea is the meat and potatoes. Whether you’re taking the IELTS, the TOEIC, or the TOEFL, you will have to read and listen to many paragraphs. Paragraphs always contain a single main idea. Before test time, become an expert at finding the main idea in everything you read and see.

6. Go with your gut

When you go with your gut you use your human instinct. Your first instincts are often correct. When it comes to multiple-choice questions, eliminate the answers you know are wrong. The process of elimination allows you to choose the best remaining answer based on your gut feeling.

7. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s

When you dot the i’s and cross the t’s, you check for errors. When possible, double-check your answers and proofread your writing. This doesn’t mean you should second-guess yourself. If you answered C for many answers in a row, don’t be tempted to change your responses.

Break a leg!

Glossary of idioms and everyday English

  • break a leg: good luck
  • lighten things up: to make a stressful situation feel less stressful
  • know something inside and out: to understand something completely
  • Murphy’s law: the idea that anything that can go wrong will go wrong
  • worst-case scenario: the worst possible situation or outcome
  • pull a fast one: to trick someone
  • every trick in the book: every joke or way to fool someone that exists
  • take my word for it: you should believe me (I’m a credible source)
  • take note: to notice
  • with a fine-tooth comb: in detail
  • every single one: each one (do not leave anything or anyone out)
  • the meat and potatoes: the most important part, the basics
  • go with your gut: to follow your instincts
  • gut feeling: a strong feeling about something or someone
  • dot the i’s and cross the t’s: to check one’s work
  • double-check: to check one’s work again
  • second-guess: to doubt oneself


Leave a Comment ↓


    Joel Aldrich says:

    Mar 15, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    This is realy great! Keep up the good wook.



    Judy Mueller says:

    Mar 15, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    This is a great exercise–useful information, meaningful English practice. Thanks!


    • Tara Benwell says:

      Mar 17, 2015 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks, Judy! I spent many years writing exam prep materials and feeling guilty for all of the traps we had to include. Like many language teachers, I also hated that students had to take these kinds of standardized exams. It’s much more fun to be able to offer hints!



    Cathy says:

    Mar 15, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for the great ideas in you test taking tips. We are working with our friend in Guatemala who will be taking the TOEFL next month in order to graduate from college. What a fun way for her to think about some serious information. Thanks again.


    • Tara Benwell says:

      Mar 17, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Cathy! The TOEFL is a big challenge. Let us know how it goes!


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