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How to Ace Your Next Exam

Updated on July 13, 2017

Most of us are never taught how to study. As a result, we believe that it should come to us intuitively. We waste time, energy, and sometimes even money preparing for our midterms and finals, only to receive average scores at best.

If you put significant time and effort into studying but aren't earning the grades you desire, you might believe that you don't have the capacity to do well--but nothing could be farther from the truth. You don't need a bigger brain; you need a better study strategy.

In this hub, I'll outline a time-tested five-step studying process so that you can study smarter. Additionally, I'll share tips for exam day to help you overcome testing anxiety and perform with confidence!

1. Start Studying at Least One Week Before Your Exam

The results you'll achieve if you study consistently over a long period of time far outweigh those you'll achieve from "cramming" the night before the exam. In fact, in a 2009 study, researchers at UCLA found that spacing out studying over several days was more effective than cramming for 90% of students!

Set aside a small chunk of time every day leading up the exam--it can be as short as half an hour--and commit to reviewing exam material during that time.

2. Develop Study Methods Based on the Kinds of Information You Need to Know

Whether you're taking a history exam or a math test, it's important to incorporate the 4 R's of studying into your methods: review, relearn, rewrite, and reteach. This will ensure that you know and understand concepts at the depth required to take the exam. Now, we'll take a look at examples of each of the 4 R's that you might want to add to your study plan.

  • Review: Reread your notes, textbook chapters, and any handouts or presentations from class that you have. Are there still any terms, concepts, or procedures that are confusing to you? Make a note of them. Use an online flashcard tool to increase your efficiency when reviewing long lists of vocabulary.
  • Relearn: If you completed or were given in-class practice problems, worksheets, problem sets, or practice exams, do or redo them. Don't just assume that you'll be able to recreate work from three weeks ago on the exam!
  • Rewrite: Many students swear by rewriting their notes after class to improve memory of concepts. Take rewriting to the next level by rephrasing and summarizing your in-class notes. This will give you a chance to more thoroughly process the information by putting it in your own words.
  • Reteach: If possible, have a friend or family member quiz you on exam material. Otherwise, teach a poster or your teddy bear--your student doesn't have to be human!

3. Keep a Running List of Questions That Arise

Don't understand what a term means? Not sure how to use an equation in a problem? No matter how small or insignificant they seem, keep track of your questions. You may find that they follow a pattern, indicating a lack of understanding of a larger concept.

4. Reach Out to Your Professor, Class Assistant, or Peers With Questions

First, try searching for the answers to your questions in the class textbooks or online. If that doesn't work, email questions, attend office hours, or set up a meeting with class instructor(s) to get your list of questions answered.

Find a group of classmates to review exam material with you if possible. Don't spend all of your time studying with them, but get together at least once to go over important concepts and questions. Everyone brings something different to a group and can make others aware of material that they need to study more.

5. Get Enough Sleep Leading Up to the Exam--Especially the Night Beforehand

Research has repeatedly shown that sleep quality and quantity are directly linked to test scores. In fact, one team of Belgian researchers found that students who slept at least seven hours per night around exams earned grades an entire letter grade higher than their sleep-deprived counterparts on average.

So eat a healthy dinner, study just an hour or two, and get to bed early the night before your exam. Your report card will thank you!

Tips for Performing Under Pressure

You've spent a week preparing for your exam using the 4 R's of studying, meeting with your professor and peers to discuss exam material, and you woke up this morning after a restful eight hours of sleep. Still, your heart is racing and oh, no--your mind just went blank! How can you prevent performance anxiety from sabotaging your exam period?

  • Easy pre-test anxiety by practicing deep breathing techniques. Close your eyes and inhale for four counts. Hold your breath for four counts, and then exhale for four counts. Repeat until you feel calmer.
  • Before beginning the exam, count the number of pages or exam questions and pace yourself accordingly. Don't let the clock run down to five minutes left and realize that you're only halfway through the test! Calculating how fast you must move through the exam also gives you an idea of how thorough your answers need to be.
  • Skip questions that you can't answer and return to them later. It's easy to get hung up on one question for a long time. Don't! Spend most of your time answering questions that you have a reasonable chance of getting right.
  • Always write down your thought process for answering a question. Even if you're not certain of your answer or are unable to come to a final answer, you can still earn partial question by showing the grader your process.


Do you use a study strategy to prepare for your exams?

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