Student studying
November 25, 2019
4 mins read

How to study for an exam on a time crunch

What has up to this point been a distant meteoroid in the ether is approaching and, quite suddenly, you see it—the meteor shower of exams has arrived. 

Sometimes exams hit hard and fast, and the time you thought you had to prepare seems to have evaporated. If you find yourself in a situation where you only have a very limited amount of time (maybe because of a hectic exam schedule), here are some steps you can take to focus and maximize your studying. 

Step 1: Prep the environment

Make your studying environment similar to that on exam day, e.g:

  • Study in a large indoor space
  • Turn off music 
  • Avoid study spots where you’re too comfortable 
  • Close social media tabs and turn on your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” function—focus is the key!

When you’re ready, take some deep breaths to create a sense of calm and focus. You can even breathe in time to the animation below:

Breathing exercise

Step 2: Review

Figure out how much time you have for each topic

  • Divide the material into chunks, and set aside study time for each

  • Factor in breaks and some time to test yourself at the end
  • Decide what areas you want to spend the most time on, e.g. if the exam is cumulative and you already had a midterm in the course, set aside more time to study the topics covered after the midterm

Revisit the learning objectives 

  • Check the syllabus for the course’s key objectives
  • Review the larger concepts associated with these learning objectives—you’re most likely to get tested on those!
  • Practice answering questions related to the objectives on paper or even out loud (the latter can be quite helpful)

Quickly look through your notes and the lecture slides 

  • Focus on the testable material i.e. what was covered in class (avoid just passively re-reading your textbook)
  • Skim the notes you took, or open up the lecture slides in case you missed taking something down

Devote more time to areas and concepts you’re not as comfortable with 

  • Skip details that won’t be tested or are not relevant to the overall concepts
  • Make small reminders to yourself for things you might’ve forgotten the first time
  • Flag questions you have and the concepts and details that tripped you up
  • After you’ve gone through all the course material, search Piazza (if your class uses it) to see if another student has asked the same question, or go over problematic areas with a friend
UBC Student studying with friends

Step 3: Practice

Do the sample exams if they’re provided, and time yourself

There’s a reason that this is our #1 tip in this section. If you only have time to do one thing for practice, you should do sample exams and go through the answer key.

Past exams are likely similar to what you will encounter, so do them if you can—they’ll reveal what concepts tend to get tested and indicate how you may do on the real final. Check your answers against the key! 

Pay close attention to what questions you found the most challenging, and be sure to understand the concepts behind them, whether by rereading your notes, clarifying with the prof or TA, or asking a classmate.

Revisit past problem sets and quizzes 

If you still have time (or if you don’t have sample exams):

  • Redo problem sets
  • Add to the list of questions that threw you off

Prep a cheat sheet, if that’s allowed

  • Include whatever you think you’ll need the most
  • Avoid copying everything in tiny print onto the sheet, as it may get so packed that you won’t be able to find anything quickly
  • Write down sample solutions on the cheat sheet, particularly to problems that tripped you up the first time you did them

Bonus step: think about how you think

What study techniques have been effective for you in the past? How do you learn best?

Studies have shown that students with greater metacognition—that is, a greater awareness of how you learn—perform better on tests than students with lower metacognition. The techniques that work well for someone else might not work well for you, so the most important thing is to study in the most effective way for you

Student studying in Buchanan

Finally, 3 things to remember

1. Get up regularly to get your blood moving and prevent burnout 

Every 40 minutes to 1 hour, get up and do some light exercise. Use a timer! This can be as simple as a few jumping jacks or stretches—anything to give your mind a break and wake your body up. And hey, regular exercise can actually help improve your memory.

2. Get enough sleep

You can better retain info (so that all that hard work isn’t forgotten!) and think more clearly on the exam if you’re well-rested. Don’t skip out on sleeping!

3. Take a break right before the exam 

Stop studying 30 minutes before the exam and give your brain a rest. Know that you've done the best you can in the time you have—big hug!

Hopefully, you won’t have to study on a time crunch again, but stay positive, stay strong, and prepare as much as you can for the things that’ll “comet” you—you might be surprised by what you can accomplish when you know what to focus on.