Exam Preparation Tips to Help You Study Smart


Exam season is upon us.

I’ve seen thousands of students who have gone through some of the most epic exam schedules (anyone out there with three exams in 27 hours [9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 9 a.m.], which gets around the policy that you can’t have three exams in 24 hours? #schedulingfail), and I have a put together a few thoughts that may help you get through it all.

My over-arching mantra for exam-prep is studying smart. Time is your most valuable resource (more so than food and cheap pitchers combined), so when you are studying, you want to always ask yourself: “Is this the smartest use of my time?”

Remember the following pointers to ensure that you’re studying smart:

Practice exam-style questions

Preparing and completing exam-style questions is the best use of time before an exam. If you have only time to do one thing, work through practice problems, mock exam-style questions, past exams, etc. Spending 15 minutes to understand an exam-style question can easily correlate to an extra 2-10% on your exam!

Tip: If you bought a textbook, they typically have an abundance of online resources with question banks and practice exams. Take advantage of these resources while you can!

Read only when you need to read

Your exam covers 11 chapters and 400 pages of the textbook. Textbook readings may be the place for all the answers, or they can just serve as supplementary material for the lecture slides and notes. Does your prof simply teach from the slides? If so, use the textbook as a resource when you don’t understand the slide material. But if you’re taking a course like biology, where your professor may talk about concepts and ideas during lecture (and simply expect you to memorize all 10 tendons of the upper thigh and why they are all so awesome), then textbook reading is valuable time spent.

Teach to learn

Studies have shown that retention is stronger when you are able to tell the information to someone else. Find peers who are at around the same level of “preparedness” and, on the day before the exam, talk through the chapters and take turns explaining things and testing each other. This process can actually be fun too (just make sure that you can stay focused).

Make chapter summary notes and share them with peers

Who has the time to do a great job of reading slides and textbook material to condense 20 chapters into concise notes? Nobody. But if you can assemble a group of ideally four or five people, each of you are only responsible for three or four chapters and can spend a good amount of time creating quality study notes. Share those and BAM – huge time saver and great concise summary notes! This process is extremely useful since you will be super confident in the four chapters that you were responsible for, and the condensed study notes of the lecture and textbook material should be the only thing you need to familiarize yourself with.

Participate in exam review sessions

For any exam-prep review session, be it professor-taught, from TAs, volunteer student-group sessions like Students Offering Support (SOS), or any of the big for-profit businesses, you need to weigh the two main resources – time and money. If the session is a six-hour event that takes you through the entire course (often can be for $80-$120), it will take you through EVERYTHING. If you aren’t severely behind or don’t need to get 98% (and 93% will do), then there may be better uses of your time and money. If you have specific areas of struggle or if you have specific questions, then professor- or TA-led sessions are key since most utilize the Q&A style.

If you are looking to gain understanding of the material, clarity of your knowledge, and an opportunity to ask questions, a shorter instruction time (like two-to-four hours) can definitely be enough to give you a huge boost in studying while making a good use of your time.

Get ‘some’ sleep

During the exam period, sleep smart. When you have a few days before an exam, get your seven-to-eight hours of sleep if you can. When you are in the middle of a minefield of exams, it is imperative that you get ‘some’ sleep. How much is some? At least three-to-five hours. You need the time to let all that this knowledge solidify in your memory for easy retrieval during your exam.

The best proof I have of this was when I was memorizing my script for elevator pitch competitions. I’d have 90 seconds to spit out 300 words about my idea to the judges. If I stumbled at all, there went the precious seconds that I could’ve invested into my closing sentence. I’d do it over and over again, becoming increasingly frustrated with myself when I messed up. I remember heading to bed the night before getting roughly 90% of the words correct. I’d wake up on the day of and, without looking at my script, my first try would easily be 95% right with only a few minor mistakes.

See the Big Picture

Exam success comes to those who effectively play the game. Not soccer, WOW, LOL or any other palindromic named computer game, but the game of writing exams. Our education system (higher education in particular) is continually growing in student population with bigger class sizes each year. With this, exams often don’t effectively test if you can think critically, analyze problems as one would in the real world, or require higher-level thinking.

So how do you effectively play the game? Know your professor’s style, ask questions about the format, look at past exams if available, and understand the slides and teaching materials to the best of your ability. Memorize where and when you need to, understand how to do key problems, and make sure that you know the core concepts and techniques of the course.

These are the study techniques and tips I used throughout my undergrad and with my tight study group – we all did okay. 🙂

Photo credit: Studying at Concordia University, Montreal by Concordia University on Flickr
About the author

Greg Overholt Greg Overholt (@goverholt) is the founder and executive director of the national student-led charitable social venture SOS: Students Offering Support (@SOSheadoffice). SOS is an organization where student volunteers teach their peers in exam-prep group review sessions, with the proceeds used to fund education projects in rural Latin America, built by volunteers on annual outreach trips. Since 2004, 25,000 students have been taught across 30 universities, raising more than $1,400,000 for development projects. Greg has spent the last five years since graduating helping 3000+ student leaders across Canada to "raise marks, raise money, and raise roofs" on their campuses.