Exam prep really varies based on the type of exam you're preparing for and we recommend you check out our individual pages for the exam you're taking. However, there are some general strategies you can employ to ensure success whether you're sitting an in-class exam or standardized testing.
Steps to Prepare for an Exam
1) Create a study plan.
We always need a strategy for studying to ace any exam. Here are some important questions to ask yourself when building your strategy:
- How much time do I have to study for the exam?
You can calculate this by looking at how many days/weeks there are until the exam and how much time you usually have per day/week.
- What reasonable tasks for me to complete within that time?
There are a few ways to determine what to study. First, consider what materials you’ll have to prep/organize and how long it will take you to prep those materials. For example, for an exam based on some readings, you might have to do the readings and take notes. Second, consider how much time it will take you to learn the material that you’ve prepped. And third, consider how long it will take for you to do any practice exams that exist. From these three, you can then determine what you can expect to get done in the time that you have.
- When will I complete these tasks?
Once you know what tasks you plan on completing, you can write up a schedule of when you plan on completing each task. You typically want to relax for a little before the exam to optimize your performance. For a standardized test, usually at least relax for the previous afternoon and for an in-class exam, usually for five minutes beforehand. You also want to make sure you’ll have time for regular relaxation – it’s not good to burn out before the exam.
While many should write this plan down to remember it properly, it is also okay for you to not write it down but to just keep an idea in your mind of what you have to study and when.
Here’s a sample schedule for a standardized exam. The student has listed all the prep books they plan to finish on the top row. Under the row titled “Information,” they’ve listed what prep materials they plan on doing from each book. They’ve then planned when they’ll do those materials in the subsequent rows. In addition, the person notes “vocabulary lists” and “prompts” in the second column, which are likely materials they’ve previously spent time compiling for themselves to study later. This plan was written using Excel and is really easy to adjust based on whether the student meets these goals or not.
2) Study the materials effectively.
Here are some test-study strategies to maximize retention that you should tailor based on your needs:
- Talk to your teachers or exam boards to understand exactly what is required of you.
You’ll want to know the exact format of the exam and what information will be included/not included.
- Seek help from friends, family, or the Internet if you don’t understand a concept. It’s better to ask for help before the exam rather than to realize you don’t know something during it.
- Have a study/workspace with no distractions. Distractions can divert you from your focus, and harm your ability to retain information, so avoid them.
- Eat properly and take regular breaks. It turns out being comfortable and mentally relaxed (to some extent) are good for learning. Having intermittent 30-minute breaks for meditation, spending time with family members, or relaxing can help you concentrate better.
- Find fun ways to prepare. If you enjoy using mnemonics, switching up what you’re preparing for, or prepping with friends, go for it!
- Make sure to get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep (about 7-8 hours) ensures that you stress less and are better able to focus on the exam materials.
- Do practice tests! The single best way to get a good score on an exam is to do as many practice tests as you possibly can. Check out old exams from the library or from websites online. You can’t read every single exam prep book in full, but focus on doing all the practice test sections of those books.
- Do an easy practice question the morning of the exam or a couple hours before if it’s in the afternoon/evening. Only one question. This will make you more confident and get your brain working, rather than you spending the first five minutes of the exam getting your juices flowing.
3) Relax before your exam.
We’ve included this as an important step, because it’s truly crucial to relax before and even during your exam. Try to watch a fun movie or TV show the night before. Approach your exam day with a positive attitude. Some attitudes that have helped are:
- I’m almost done with this exam and once it’s over I’ll get to relax.
- I’ve prepared as much as I can and am ready to do my best.
- There’s nothing I can change now – what I score is what I score.
If you are able to internalize any of these three, it might help you relax more with regards to the exam. In addition, be sure to get full sleep the night before (or at least enough sleep) and to eat food before the exam if you’re hungry. Also, wear comfortable clothes and show up on time so you’re not stressed about missing it.