How Should I Prepare for Tests and Final Exams?

The Pre-Game: Good Study Habits 

1. Keep up with your work. If you attend class regularly, keep up with readings, and take notes conscientiously, studying can be a relatively pain-free process. Make sure to review and expand upon class notes regularly throughout the semester. Consider developing a glossary or collection of note cards for vocabulary review in each class. Many students find that preparing for an individual class for 60-90 minutes per day, five or six days per week, will leave them well-prepared at exam time. To assist students with organization at finals time, we have compiled a couple of time management tools that are included with this page.

2. Don’t cram at the last second. Building off our previous entry, try studying for 60-90 minutes per day for a week leading up to an exam. All-nighters simply don't work for most people, and students experience declining returns on their efforts when they attempt to study for four and five hours straight.

3. Complete a mock test. So many social science, natural science, and foreign language text books contain hundreds of questions at the end of chapters that never get answered. Why not set aside an hour, and try to answer these questions on paper without using your notes? If you complete a mock test 3-4 days before an exam, you’ll then know where to focus your studying. You may also combat pre-test jitters by demonstrating to yourself what you know. For the humanities, try answering a couple of potential essay questions on a timed, closed book basis and see how you do. Another simple way to conduct a mock test is to ask a friend or classmate to give you an oral quiz based on concepts in the textbook or in either of your notes.

4. Do not multi-task while studying. Set aside time to study in advance and then follow through. For most people, that means leaving your dorm room and turning off visual/auditory distractions, including iPods, Facebook, and music with lyrics.

5. If you have outstanding questions, go see your professor or tutor at least three days before the exam. If you’ve given yourself a mock test in advance, you’ll be able to go to office hours with an agenda.

6. Think about what written questions might be on the exam; Outline each potential essay as a form of pretesting and practice.

7. Find a group of dedicated students with whom to study. A group study session is an ideal time to review and compare notes, ask each other questions, explain ideas to one another, discuss the upcoming exam and difficult concepts, and, when appropriate, delegate study tasks. Do set an agenda and a specific time frame for your group study session, so that your work together doesn't veer off-topic.

8. Keep your ears open in class. Your professor will sometimes come right out and tell you about the exam or present study strategies. You need to be in class every day to receive such help. This is particularly true as tests and final exams approach. Use review sheets thoroughly.

9. Review your class notes every day. Add keywords, summaries, idea maps, graphs, charts, discussion points, and questions where applicable. Take the time to organize lecture notes after class, adding key examples from labs and course readings.

10. Take notes on the course readings. You should also review these notes on a regular basis. Again, create visual enhancements when possible (e.g., compare/contrast charts, timelines, etc.). Use both your course notebook and the text's margins to record valuable information. Please see our entries on reading for further information on this topic.

11. Make sure to get plenty of sleep. Sleeping hours are often the time when we completely synthesize information, especially topics we’ve covered in the couple of hours before bedtime. You want to be as fresh as possible and able to fully engage your working memory when you take the exam. Also, don’t stop exercising or taking time for yourself, even at final exam time.

12. Find ways to apply materials from class. Think about how course topics relate to your personal interests, societal problems and controversies, issues raised in other classes, or different experiences in your life.

Game-Day: Performing Well on the Exam

1. Develop a good ‘morning-of’ routine. Eat a healthy breakfast. If music gets you going, go ahead and play something upbeat. Get a bit of physical exercise, even if it’s a brief stretch or brisk walk. If you’re feeling nervous, record your fears on paper or use mental imagery to envision doing something that you enjoy and then apply those feelings towards the exam. Think of preparing like an athlete before a contest or a musician before a performance.

2. When you first receive the exam, glance over the entire test before you start. Create a plan of attack. Write down any key terms or formulas that you’ll need before starting. Think about how you’ll use the time allotted.

3. Read the directions carefully. If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask the professor. Remember that many questions at the college level have multiple queries or prompts.

4. Write out a brief outline before beginning essay questions.

5. Use the process of elimination on multiple-choice and matching questions. Also, for multiple choice questions, you may wish to cover the options first and try to answer the question on your own. That way, you’ll find the answer options less confusing. As you prepare for multiple choice exams, make sure to be aware of context, relationships and positionality among concepts, and multiple definitions of terms. A deep understanding of vocabulary is a key to success on multiple-choice exams.

6. Leave the most time-consuming problems for the end, especially those with low point values.

7. Focus on the question at hand. If you complete the test one step at a time, you are much less likely to find it to be overwhelming.

8. If you are stuck on a question, bypass it. Mark the question off, so you can return to it at the end of the exam.

9. Show as much work as possible. This is particularly important for math exams. Make sure that you're answering each part of the question.

10. If you have time at the end of the exam, go back and proofread your work and look over multiple-choice questions again. Check to see that you have answered every question before you turn in the exam. But remember, your first answer is usually your best answer. Be extremely cautious about changing answers later on.

11. Some people benefit from conducting a memory dump when they first receive a test. That is, they jot down a comprehensive list of concepts, formulas, vocabulary, and details at the beginning and revisit these ideas as they're progressing through the test.

12. See if there is a way to draw a picture or otherwise create a visual description of the question you are trying to answer.

13. Strive to include course terms and concepts in written responses (correctly, of course).

Post-Game: Reviewing Your Performance

1. If there was a part of the exam on which you struggled, go see your professor. This is likely not the last time you’ll see the concept covered.

2. Hold onto your notebooks. You never know when the information you’ve learned will be useful in another situation. The same rule goes for many of your books.

3. Take a moment to review your test preparation strategies. Take account of what worked and what needs improvement. In particular, take a moment to gauge whether your study group was helpful. If you feel like your test-preparation strategies need work, go see your professor or the Academic Advising Office.

4. Reward yourself. If you’ve studied conscientiously for a week or more, you should take a bit of time to relax before getting started with your studies again.

Written by Matt McCluskey, Coordinator of Academic Support