The Five Deadly Phrases in Test Instructions

“Don’t get me wrong, I like reading. But some books should come with warning labels: Caution: contains characters and plots guaranteed to induce sleepiness. Has been known to cause blindness, seizures and a terminal loathing of literature. Should only be taken under the supervision of a highly trained English teacher. Preferably one who grades on the curve.”

–  Tyler Johnson, Twisted


Tonight’s post is the product of one thing all high schoolers are masterful at doing: complaining about tests. I think that there are a lot of things flawed with major school tests. I’m not talking about unit exams or chapter quizzes or anything else the teachers make. I have great teachers, and they generally make fair exams.

I’m talking about the big tests, the ones that make every kid quake in their boots. AP Tests, SAT’s, ACT’s, end-of-year finals. 


It doesn’t matter how many, because I’ve already shoved all the marbles in my eye sockets by now.

But I’m not here to complain about the college board. I’ll save that for the kids about to take the SAT’s, like I was a year ago. No, tonight my complaint is far more general: the complaint of the certain phrases in test instructions that make me want to rip up said test and scatter the pieces like New Year’s confetti.

Here goes!

1.  Explain your answer.

No, sir, I would not like to explain my answer. I’ve just worked very hard in reaching my answer, which is the ability I’m supposedly being tested on. Is this ever applicable in real life? I wouldn’t know, since I’m not even out of high school yet, but I seriously doubt everyday conversations include this.

“Hi, I’d like an Oreo McFlurry with medium fries and an apple pie.”

“Alright, sir, your change is $5.73.”

“Yes, but can you explain your answer? That is the real question.”


2.  Be Specific.

This, honestly, feels like the test maker is just reaching out of the paper and slapping you across the face. It’s bad enough they’ve just asked a killer question that you may not even have a confident answer for, then they finish it off with, “be specific.” But what really irks me is that this is never tacked on the end of a simple question where it would make sense, such as, “What color is copper chloride? Be specific.” It’s always something along the lines of this actual test question I once got, which reads, “If attendance at a conference fell by 20 percent from last year, the attendance at the conference would have been 2112. If the attendance at the conference had instead risen by 25 percent, how many more people would have attended the conference this year? Be specific.”

I KNOW TO BE SPECIFIC YOU FOOL. YOU ASKED ME FOR A NUMBER. The only way to not be specific in answering this question is to write “a lot.” I know some people try it, but is it enough of an issue that you have to finish your verbal beating with a verbal kill shot? That’s like having your parents yell at you for three straight hours, then concluding with, “Oh and, be upset. Now!”

Mission accomplished, guys. You’ve pummeled us with a killer flurry of words meant to elicit a certain reaction. They do their job on their own. Don’t beat a dead horse. Especially if you’re the one who killed it.


3.  Elaborate your points.

This once again falls under the category of ‘verbal kill shot.’ Frequently found after an essay prompt, “elaborate” is one of the worst words the sentence can end with. Essentially the test writer is telling you, “Here’s an essay for you to write, and make sure to write lots or you’ll be sure to fail. Kay?”



4.  If not, explain why.

Does. It. Really. Matter? I answered your question. This goes back to the whole ‘life application’ concept mentioned in complaint 1. You’re never going to be an anesthesiologist who sits down with a patient about to go into surgery and says, “Now, are you allergic to any medications? If not, explain why.” It doesn’t matter, my good doctor. The fact is, I’m not allergic to any medications, and if that knockout fluid kills me, it’s now your fault and not mine. So let’s get cracking.

And the same is true for “if yes, explain why,” too.


5.  Use examples.

Okay, my complaint train is reaching the end of its journey. I guess there’s not really an excuse for complaining about having to use examples with your answer, other than the stem of sheer laziness. I’m a senior, and I’m pretty sure I’m developing a scorching case of Senioritis (I plan on posting my official diagnosis in a week or two).


Tests aren’t horrible on their own. But there are certain kinds that relate in no way whatsoever to real life. I would prefer the kind of test where you stand up and talk through answers, explaining your logic and reasoning. I talk better than I write. Unfortunately, some of my teachers are still stuck in this mode:


But, I’m not complaining. I love my teachers and the education I’ve gotten. Still, the fact that high school will soon end isn’t the scariest thing in the world.

It’s pretty darn scary, but not the scariest.