How To Ace Exams in College (Or Anywhere Else)

I have never received a B in a class.

I do not believe that this is because I am innately more intelligent than the majority of my peers. Rather, it is both because I have an excellent system for studying (and actually make myself use it) and because I am highly skilled at judging my own level of preparedness. The latter, while tremendously useful, can be a difficult skill to teach (although I plan on trying to do so in a later article). The former, however, is actually a rather simple, albeit multifaceted, process.

NOTE: I am an engineer, and will therefore be going about this guide with science/math related courses in mind. These techniques can, however,be equally useful for almost any field.

Step 1: Gather Your Tier 1 Study Materials

Your Tier 1 study materials include every possible scrap of data that you can find that may help you on the exam. These include notes, textbooks, lecture slides, past homeworks (and solutions), past exams, and any other material you deem appropriate.

I cannot stress enough the importance of past exams. The more the better. They are your #1 resource for getting a feel for both the content of the exam and, more importantly, the style in which you will be required to convey it (test style has such a large impact on my specific studying methods that I will be devoting an entire post to this topic some time in the near future).

If your professor doesn’t offer any previous years’ exams, try and pester him to give you one. Sometimes there are also student run test-banks or websites that you can get them off of (e.g. Koofers or Cramster). If you simply cannot find any past exams, it becomes all the more important to get as many details you can about the test from the professor. Try and get him to answer at least

  1. What the format will be
  2. Will questions be proofs / theory or practical application
  3. Will questions cover any topics not on the homeworks

You should hope that the answer to 3 above is no, because at this point the past homeworks will have become your primary study tool.

Step 2: Block Out Your Time

One of the biggest mistakes that you can make when preparing for an exam is to just assume that you will have time to do your studying. Trying to lackadaisically squeeze it in between everything else you have going onis a recipe for disaster.

At least five days before your exam you should sit down, go over your schedule, and apportion out a 1-3 hour time slot, a 3-5 hour slot, and a 1-2 hour slot (these values can vary depending on the detail/scope/topic of the particular test). Make sure that for these time blocks you will be able to go somewhere quiet, with plenty of desk space and minimal distractions. I always study using my computer, but if you don’t you should strongly consider leaving your computer behind or at least disconnecting it from the internet. Another advantage to setting up your sessions in this manner is that the first block isn’t too difficult to get yourself to start. Then, as I spoke about in my last post, once you have begun the studying process you will find that it isn’t too difficult to continue it.

Ideally, these time blocks should be 3 days before the exam, 2 days before, and the day before the exam. If needed, the second two blocks can be shifted forward by a day, but to play it safe the first one really shouldn’t be. Regardless, if you want to minimize the total time spent studying it is best to do most of it within the three days before the exam.

Step 3: Three Days Before the Exam

If I were to ask you about a detailed presentation that you sat through yesterday, odds are you wouldn’t remember all of the particulars. But if I were to show you different random snippets of information, you woud probably be able to identify which ones were from the presentation and possibly even expound upon them a bit. The goal of this study session can be thought of in a similar manner.

This early on, the primary aim is to refamiliarize yourself with all of the topics that will be covered on the exam. Basically what you need to do is read through all of the material that you gathered in step 1 at least once. This includes the practice exams, but at this point you only need to look over the questions, not the solutions. The goalis to both jogg your memory on all the different topics that you may have forgotten and to give you a very clear picture in your mind of what you will need to study over the next few days. As you go through it all, it would help if you jotted down on a seperate piece of paper which topics you think you know fairly well and which ones will need a lot of review.

I know that this may sound like a lot, especially with dense information, but if your goal is just to skim through it and not to memorize it it really shouldn’t be too bad. I usually find that I can get through it all at least once in a couple of hours, and sometimes even get started on one of the practice exams.

Step 4: Two Days Before the Exam

This is when you are going to be doing the majority of your studying. To start off, you should immediately go and start trying to do one of the practice tests. If you find that you are able to do it, great! Keep going. This means that you probably don’t have to worry too much about your test. If you find that you are unable to do a large portion of the problems, that’s also fine. In fact it’s to be expected- that’s what this study session is for.

This is the point where how you need to study will really depend on what materials you have available to you. The best situation would be if you have large numbers of past exams with their solved solutions. In this case just start working through the tests as best as you can and referring to the solutions whenever you get stuck. It is sometimes also a good idea to leave one test until the end of the day to gauge your progress once you’re finished the rest of your studying. Once you finish the other tests, start working through the homeworks. You don’t need to solve every homework problem again if you are pressed for time, but make sure that you would know how to solve them all again. You should also keep an eye out for any questions that are on topics not covered in the practice exams and pay them extra attention.

If you don’t have very many previous exams, then this process is still pretty much the same, but you will want to solve out more of the homework problems. Make sure that you have actually written out at least one problem of each type that may come up on the exam. When you are taking the test you can’t expect to be given the exact same problems, but if you have at least one problem of each type extremely clear in your mind it will alleviate a large portion of the pressure.

If you have no previous exams, then it sucks to be you. But all is not lost. The homeworks will now become your primary studying tool, and you will want to work through as many as possible. Your textbook will also start to play a major role. Try going through and solving out any of the examples in the book that cover the right material (without looking at the solution if you can). Additionally, if you have the solutions manual, try looking through all of the problems in the book that were not on your homeworks and solving out any of the simpler ones that test the basic concepts. I have had multiple exams where I did this and then encountered one of these exact problems on the test.

Finally, once you are finished with your practice exams and homeworks and have done any problems from the book that you deem worthy, it is time to fill in the holes. Go through both your notes and the chapter summaries in the texbook and double check that you have done some problems on every topic covered. Depending on the class, you should also make sure that you understand all of the basic concepts and simpler proofs. Usually you can get your professor to tell you whether or not there will be any proofs on his exam, but even so it can never hurt to be able to do the basic ones just in case.

The Ultimate Crib Sheet

This is goal of your entire study session, and really the key to this whole method. Take out a blank piece of printer paper and keep it next to you while you are going through all of your study materials. Whenever you come to a new formula, write it down on the paper. If there are important diagrams, sketch out a basic version. Whenever you solve out a problem that is the first of its type, try and write down a shorthand version of it here.

By the end of your study session, this piece of paper (front and back) should contain all of the information that you could possibly be tested on. I don’t care how small you have to write to get it all to fit. If you can just barely read it, it’s big enough. I have yet to have an exam where I wasn’t able to fit it all on one page.

If your professor allows a cheat sheet, great! You should be set for this exam. If not, that’s fine too. It just means that you still have a bit of work ahead of you.

From now until the test, all of your studying efforts should be focused on this sheet of paper. Before you finish off this main study session, go over it a couple times. At first you may have to reference the primary material on some of the points that are a bit too concise on the sheet, but once you do you will have created a memory trigger. Your brain will get used to associating that small snippet with the whole topic, and later on that will greatly improve your recall.

Why This Works

The way memory works is through associations. Just like in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) the more inbound links to a webpage the easier it will be to find on google, so to with your brain the more ‘links’ you have to a specific memory or piece of information, the easier it will be to recall it later on. This works even better when you can associate the desired information with sensory data. Your brain is extremely efficient at recalling sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feelings. You may have difficulty remembering when George Washington was born, but I bet you will never forget the smell of a skunk, even if you’ve only smelt it once.

The reason why this ultimate crib sheet is so effective is because it creates a visual index of all of the material in your mind. Each small shorthand entry will link back to all you have studied on that topic, and by going over this sheet enough times you will be able to form a visual structure in your mind of the sheet itself. When I take an exam, as soon as I read a question I instantly think of exactly where on my sheet this topic was covered and then have no problem recalling the details.(Note: this works even better if you use colored writing implements and a decent organizational structure on your sheet)

Step 5: The Day Before (and of) the Exam

This is the easy part.

Now that you have your crib sheet, fold it up, stick it in your pocket, and carry it with you everywhere. Whenever you have a minute or two to spare, pull it out and skim over it. At first it may take you a little while to go through the whole thing, but after not too long you will find yourself able to skim through it in under a minute. Once you reach this point all you have to do is keep going through it to make sure it sticks in your mind even under pressure, and you’re all set.

Finally, if you have time, I usually like to go through one of my practice exams closed book and timed. This works a lot better if you had multiples and were able to save one for now, but even if you didn’t it will be good to practice applying what you know and to gauge just how well you have done in your studying. If you’ve done everything that I’ve described here, you should be finishing this exam in well under the given time.


I know that this has been a bit long winded, but I hope that you have found it worth it. In summary (Hopefully as a review, but I know some of you just skipped straight here. For shame.), here are the five steps:

  1. Gather all possible material that could come up on the test.
  2. Block out a 1-3 hour time slot, a 3-5 hour slot, and a 1-2 hour slot in the three days before the exam.
  3. Three days before the exam: skim through all of the material at least once.
  4. Two Days before the exam: work your way through all past exams and homework.
    1. Create an Ultimate Crib Sheeet
  5. The day Before the exam: review your crib sheet throughout the day until you barely even have to glance at it to recall the information.

Further Advanced Study Techniques

If you have paid attention and are able to make yourself apply this method the next time you have a test, I have full confidence that it will greatly improve your performance. Yet this is really still just the beginning.

What I have discussed here is merely the overall structure for your studying. Soon I will be writing a series of more advanced articles on how to improve your memory, how to pick out the important matierial from the chaff, and how to cater your studying process based on the specific syle of test.

If you really can’t wait for more advice, try checking out this great post at studyhacks. He makes some great points and has an amazing collection of articles on the topic.

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