Exam Study Tips

It’s that time of the year again… I don’t know about you, but my final final exams (of my undergraduate degree) are right around the corner and I’m kind of freaking out.

Fortunately, this term I only have two finals: animal behavior and vertebrate zoology (plus a lab practical). To kind of get out of my own head and re-energize, I thought I’d share some of my exam tips.

Obviously, types of exams (this will be geared especially towards American exams as British exams typically call for more revision) are going to vary by major, class structure, where you go to university, etc. and study habits are all relative, so don’t take these and hard and fast rules, just suggestions!

Make a schedule, timeline or to do list: For big exams or projects, I like to make a schedule of things to do everyday or week before the exam or deadline to stay on top of the work.

Type notes: I hand write my notes, so the first thing I do is type them up as a way to reorganize my information at the same time as going over it again. Whatever your method is, review the material as you understood it as much as you can.

Review lecture slides: Then, I go back and review the lecture for any content that I missed if it’s available.

Say what?: I will go back and make comments on words or concepts that don’t make sense. If Google can’t answer my questions (which it usually can), I will e-mail the teaching assistant or professor. And this might be a silly point, but it really helps if you can pronounce everything, too.

Add visuals: After that, I take visuals from the lectures (graphs, pictures, charts, etc.) that I feel will help me study. I may also Google additional visual aides to add if the pictures from the lectures don’t make sense or I could use supplemental material.

Readings and other documents: The professors don’t post the reading for their own health. Obviously, nobody has time to read a dozen 14-page page papers, but as one of my professors told me, “If you understand the figures, you understand the paper.” I like to read the introduction to reinforce background information, skim the figures and read the conclusion of all the papers I can before the exam even if we won’t be particularly tested on it. Professors may also post other supplemental material such as worksheets, past exams or videos.

Color code: After I have all my notes in a single document, I like to color code different aspects of my notes such as important vocabulary words, examples, time periods, etc.

Other helpful documents: If you see other connections in your notes that were not specifically covered in lecture, make your own connections to check your understanding and to study from.

Notecards: Of course, a classic way to memorize vocabulary words is with notecards. I make sure to study both sides avidly.

Start studying early: It’s in your best interest to start studying as early as you can (I usually start studying for a specific test a week in advance) so you can ask questions as you go rather than bombarding the professor with e-mails in the day before the final like a lot of other students might. For example, I will keep up with the lecture material by week, adding images and checking my understanding as we go along.

Timetable: Set goals of things to go over or do for each day up until the exam.

Pomodoro technique: It’s well understood that studying intensely for 20-40 minutes at a time, then taking a short break is most effective.

Take a break: With that, there are right and wrong ways to take a break. I suggest not using any type of social media as you can easily fall down the rabbit hole and lose the motivation to work. I like to stretch, take a short walk while listening to music, make a snack, write (either letters to pen pals or for this blog), light housekeeping (such as washing dishes, taking out the trash or putting clothes away), beauty routine (pluck my eyebrows or paint my nails), review my schedule for the week, check my e-mail, read blog posts, etc.

Teach someone: If you can’t physically find someone to teach (study groups are great for this), talk (yes, verbally talk) to yourself like you’re teaching an invisible classroom. I find it helps me retain information.

Sleep, please, dear God, sleep: I always cringe when people tell me that they were up until 4AM studying for a test. Your body needs sleep. Our brains do so much thinking and analyzing during the day we need sleep to let it all sink in. You might as well end studying early and retain more information than keep going and forget everything.

Triage: Nobody is a perfect student. There may be a time when you’re so overwhelmed studying for finals because you’re not doing so well in one or more classes. It might be best to forget about that class if you think it’s a lost cause (there are ways to calculate what you will need on a final exam to get a passing grade in the class) and focus on your other classes.

The night before: I have a rule to try not to study 12 hours before the exam to let all the information sink in and psych myself out. I also make sure to get a good night’s sleep.

The day of: Again, I usually won’t look over anything the day of the test. I like to eat a big breakfast and listen to upbeat music pretty much right up until they hand out the exam (I like the drown the voices of the stressed students talking about the topics as it makes me stressed and second guess my knowledge of the material).

Good luck!



  1. Joan Foster
    April 29, 2017 / 11:45 pm

    I am sure you will do very well on your exams. You are a very smart!!!
    Sending all my love today and always!!!

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