By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
The best study tips for exams differ slightly from study tips for regular tests. Certainly, the list below contains many strategies that will help you prepare for that one high school or college or high school chemistry test, but most of the study tips are for when you have an intense exam period (like midterms or finals), when you have more than one test to prepare for in the same week.
The more of these study tips you use, the more you will be ready for your exams. When you’re done reading through the list below, I suggest you move on to these super important exam study strategies here.
22 best study tips for exams: For high school and college
1. Begin preparing at least two to three weeks out.
Get clear on when each of your exams is. If you don’t know, figure it out. Look at a calendar and count backward at least two to three weeks from each test and mark the date. That’s when you should begin the study process. This amount of time is critical for using spaced repetition, which is Study Tip #11.
2. Make a study schedule.
Once you know your start date and your exam dates, you need to fill in the days between. This means you make a study schedule. This step might take 20-30 minutes or so, but do not skip it. Here’s how you make a study schedule:
- Get a calendar.
- Block out all non-moving time commitments. This includes school and work hours, practices, appointments, etc. Include travel time to and from each of these commitments.
- Block off time for meals.
- Look at the remaining blocks of free time. (If there are none, then you need to temporarily cut some of the commitments from step 2. More on that in Study Tip #3.) These blocks are when you’ll have your study sessions.
- Mark these blocks of time with which exams you’ll study for. If you have one hour or less, use that time to study for only one subject. If you have more than an hour, break it into two subjects. (Again, this is critical for spaced repetition, which is Study Tip #10.)
3. Temporarily put other commitments on hold.
Exam season is temporary. It’s a relatively short period of the school year when you have to be intense and deliberate. To do this, you might have to temporarily cut back on other commitments. If you end up with only a few blocks of free time each day in your study schedule, it’s a sign you need to refocus your time and do less of everything else until exams are over.
4. Make your own study guide.
If your teacher provides a study guide, use it as a starting point from which you make your own. Making your own study guide is far superior to using one that’s made for you because doing so requires that you think about and mentally organize the material more: this is studying. Here are the exact steps for how to make the best study guide:
- Using a simple table in Google Docs, make a BLANK study guide with vocab, concepts, names, etc. that you will need to know. For more detail on this step and for a picture/template, check out Step 3 in this post here.
- Print out multiple copies of this blank study guide – at least 5 or 6 copies.
- Make one master copy answer key by using all your materials to FILL IN THE STUDY GUIDE. Use all your resources to do this.
5. Prioritize harder exams.
When you’re making your study schedule (Study Tip #2), allot more time to your harder exams. Additionally, start studying for these as soon as possible.
6. Spend time gathering all the right materials.
At the end of a term or the end of a year, you’re going to have a ton of class materials. You can’t study all of them. But part of the study process is to gather everything you have – textbooks, printouts, worksheets, Google Slides and PowerPoint presentations, class notes, etc. – and put them in one central location. If you’re missing anything, find it or get another copy. You will need this pile of materials for the next two study tips.
7. Print out digital materials.
If possible, print out as many of your digital materials as possible. Have a pdf with digital notes on it? Print it out. Have Google Slides presentations with your teacher’s lessons on them? Print them out. This is all part of the gathering stage.
8. Consolidate your materials.
After you’ve gathered all your materials in one location, it’s time to consolidate them. Do not rush this step, as it is part of the studying and learning process. One at a time, go through your materials and pull out the most important information. Get rid of duplicates. Reduce problem sets with 30 questions down to 10 important ones. Remove materials that have the information you already know. Distill your materials down into an essentials-only study packet.
9. Use active recall and test yourself constantly.
Without question, active recall is one of the two best study tips for exams you will ever use. (The other best study tip is in Tip #11.) Active recall is when you put yourself in a state of trying to remember something. It’s the process of not looking at your notes and trying to recall what you’re learning. Sometimes it gives us that feeling of “it’s on the tip of my tongue!” The moments you spend trying to remember something are neurologically magical for learning. There are many ways to engage active recall, including this and Study Tip #11).
10. Use interleaved practice.
Most people use blocked practice to study. Interleaved practice is better. Interleaved practice is an effective study technique for learning when to use a strategy to solve a problem. Blocked practice only works for learning how to use a strategy. Here’s exactly how to use interleaved practice.
11. Use spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition and active recall (Study Tip #9) are best friends. Spaced repetition means you study for a short period (up to an hour) and then walk away from the material for a while (try periods of 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 2 hours, and 24 hours). After your break, come back to the material and study it again, using active recall. Spaced repetition is one of the best study tips for exams because over time it moves the information from your working memory (short-term memory) to your long-term memory.
12. Use old-school flashcards.
There’s a time and place for bright shiny digital quiz apps, and I don’t hate them, but the process of making your own flashcards activates the brain-hand connection, which can help you retain information better than if you were to use pre-made flashcards on an app like Quizlet. Use this flashcard study strategy.
13. Learn the information in 3 different ways.
When you’re studying something tricky, approach it from three different angles. Use a combination of verbal, text, visual, audible and kinesthetic approaches. For example, teach someone else the material (verbal, and also Study Tip # 22), listen to a video explanation (auditory) and read about it (text).
14. Study according to your learning style.
Whether you call them learning styles or learning preferences, they can make a difference in your study motivation and knowledge acquisition. Below are study tips for each of the three primary learning styles:
15. Set up your ideal study space.
Our surroundings can motivate us or bring us down. During intense periods of studying for exams, you need to ensure that your study space is set up to inspire you and reduce distractions. Below are tips for setting up a study space according to your learning style:
- Study space tips for visual learners
- Study space tips for auditory learners
- Study space tips for kinesthetic learners
16. Spot the gaps.
Throughout your study sessions, pay close attention to anything you don’t understand. Any time you have mental friction between one concept and another – like there’s something missing – write this down. This is an indication that there’s a gap in your understanding that you need to fill. Do not just ignore these gaps – do something about them. This is where you could use Study Tips #17 and #18.
17. Meet with teachers.
Hopefully, you’re in the habit of staying after school or meeting with teachers during class time whenever you feel behind or confused; exam week is not the best time to introduce yourself to your teacher for the first time all year! With that said, if you encounter material during your study sessions that you just can’t understand, despite your best efforts, meet with your teachers. Here’s how to email a teacher.
18. Study in groups.
At a certain point, close to the end of your exam preparation, consider studying in a group. Gather a few like-minded people (not necessarily your friends) and plan a few hours to review the material together. Always plan group study sessions after you’ve studied the material yourself. Here’s exactly how you should prepare for and manage a group study session.
19. Prioritize sleep and exercise.
If you find yourself pulling all-nighters, you’re not planning your time right. The neurological processes that occur only while we sleep are essential for cleaning up cognitive cellular waste (it’s a real thing) and solidifying memories. In other words, if you don’t complete an appropriately lengthed sleep cycle, you won’t learn much. Similarly, exercise is critical for peak mental clarity and function as well.
20. Continue to work on assignments, but do it strategically.
In a perfect world, the weeks leading up to your exams would be full of nothing but sleep, food, exercise and studying. But often, teachers continue to assign work during this time, which can complicate your study schedule. A great study tip would be to group homework assignments and study sessions by subject. For example, if you have science and literature homework, and you also have to study for your science and literature exams, plan your science homework and science study session back-to-back, and plan your literature homework and literature study session back-to-back. Doing so reduces context switching, which is terrible for focus and learning.
21. Use Google Images for tricky concepts.
Our brains store information in picture format. That is why it can be helpful to see visual representations of words and concepts you’re having trouble remembering. The solution is to do a Google Image search for whatever you’re learning: the results can be better than your own study materials.
22. Teach other people.
Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t teach it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” This is very true indeed. To test whether or not you’ve mastered something you’ve been studying, try explaining it clearly and concisely to someone unfamiliar with the material. Use simple language, as if you were teaching a child. If you are unable to explain a concept to someone else, it means you do not know it well enough yourself.
The above list of 22 best study tips for exams most definitely contains nearly every strategy you need to adequately prepare for your tests. However, not one (not a single one!) will help if you don’t do the work. Read about the tips, click around the list for the additional resources I link to, even print out the list if you want. But at a certain point, you’ll need to jump and start.