How to Cram for a College Exam

It's the night before a big exam, and suddenly you've realized that those equations won't solve themselves. Don't panic! Follow these tips for cramming - productively - for your college exams.

cram exam test study tips

Plan Your Attack

You should know by now that cramming isn't the most effective way to study for anything in college, but sometimes even the best students find themselves falling short at the last minute. If you want to actually benefit from your cramming session, it's important to stay calm and get organized. You'll need to start by determining four things:

  1. How much time you have. Is it dinner time or 2 a.m.? How many hours do you really have to work?
  2. Where you will study. Go somewhere with as few distractions as possible. If you don't need the Internet to study, consider finding somewhere without wireless to keep yourself from procrastinating more.
  3. What you need to study. Make a list of the most important things that you expect to see on the test. Be realistic and prioritize - you won't have time for every little detail, so focus on this big stuff.
  4. How you will study. Select one or two subject-appropriate study techniques, then write up a to-do list that incorporates each of the items you plan to study into one of these techniques. This will be your 'road map' for the night.

Once you have your cramming session planned out, grab your computer, any study supplies you may need (textbooks, notes, flash cards, etc.), healthy snacks and a caffeinated beverage, and prepare to hunker down.

Important: Don't forget to include at least two hours of sleep into your study plan! Even a little bit of rest can improve recall and focus and will serve you even better than eleventh-hour studying at exam time.

study exam cram tips

Study Techniques

Struggling to find the right way to study? Here are some suggestions:

Review your notes.

Hopefully you took class notes. If not, find a sympathetic classmate and photocopy theirs. Reading them over will help you identify the subject matter that was most emphasized in the class, which is almost certain to show up on the exam. Furthermore, it can help you identify any materials that aren't covered in the texts.

Make the most of your books.

You probably don't have time to read a whole book, or even an entire chapter. Try to answer the chapter end questions to determine how much information you're actually missing, then look for summaries at the beginning and end of each chapter, as well as illustrative examples throughout. The index and glossary can also be helpful for studying key terms and concepts, as can the workbooks and student manuals that come with some texts.

Use study guides.

If you're studying for a quantitative exam in a subject like math or biology, you may be able to find a study guide that reviews key equations or formulas. If you're studying for a literature or other humanities exam, you're going to need good summaries of the books covered on the test. Popular options include CliffsNotes, SparkNotes and Grade Saver, all of which offer e-book summaries that can be purchased and downloaded to your computer. Just remember that you should not rely on these book summaries to get you through the rest of the course.

Take a practice exam.

Some courses will offer practice exams or sample questions from past tests. If these are available to you, use them! They'll help you become more familiar with both the materials that are likely to appear on the exam and the style of the exam questions.

Practice memorization techniques.

Simple memorization won't work for anything beyond simple facts, but if you need to know how to conjugate a French verb or solve for the hypotenuse of a triangle, last minute memorization may help you. Try creating a mnemonic, writing the information out over and over again and saying it out loud to yourself repeatedly. Musically inclined students may also consider writing a short rhyme or ditty to aid their memories.

Quiz yourself.

Be sure to pause periodically throughout your cramming session to check up on your progress. Just make sure that you're not pausing so often that you fall behind schedule.

Find yourself resolving to cram no more after pulling an all-nighter? Don't miss the Education Techie's tech tricks to being a better student.

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