My first undergrad chemistry exam

For many science students at the University of Waterloo, their first exam experience comes in the form of what is known as “Chemistry Term Test 1”. University chemistry is a fast-paced environment with little time to stop and catch up. The content moves through at a blinding speed, and you need to keep up. I had my first chemistry exam three weeks after the beginning of the term. That’s why it is called Term Test 1, because it definitely does not happen in the middle of the term. Based on my first chemistry test experience, let me give some advice.  

  • Be ready for multiple choice (MC). In high school you are most likely used to having tests that is separated between a little multiple choice and some long answer questions. With hundreds of students in the class, there is no way anyone could mark long answer questions, so everything is done by a machine. This means that there are no partial marks either. You either get full marks for a question or you get none, even for questions that in high school would have required a full solution.
  • There is a mix of theory and practice. Yes, it is important that you know how to answer all of the calculation questions, but many people forget about the theory, or should I say chemistry, behind the problems. It’s great that you can calculate the pH of a solution, but do you understand what a Brønsted-Lowry base is?
  • Your calculated answer will be one of the options — even if it is wrong. I don’t know how professors do this but somehow, they know all of the possible mistakes that you can make. Along with that one correct answer, the other MC options will originate from common student errors. Even though your answer matches, you still need to double check. 
  • Listen to what your professor says. As obvious as this seems, some people are still surprised when they receive their test paper. Your professor will go over what content will be on the exam, how much content will be from each unit and the general strategies to focus on. Sometimes professors even post previous term tests to use as practice tools. Make sure you use these tools to prevent feeling shocked and overwhelmed during the test.

Now the above points may not apply to every chemistry test you write, but in my three years in science I can tell you that most tests so far followed these four points. So, as you are racing through the term remember to take the time to truly understand the chemistry of the course BEFORE your first test. Besides, it’s way more fun — and rewarding — when you actually know what’s going on. 

Kevin Potoczny
Author, in an undergraduate lab