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A student working on his computer at a desk
November 23, 2022
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 evaporates. If you find yourself only having 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

Plan out where and how you’ll be taking your exam, and mimic this setup in your studying environment. This can mean turning off music, putting aside your phone, and wearing earplugs!

Just before you get on with studying, take some deep breaths to create a sense of calm and focus—the way you would during your exam. 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
  • Select the areas you want to spend the most time on—if the exam is cumulative and you already had a midterm in the course, prioritize the post-midterm topics (but definitely still review the midterm solutions!)

Revisit the learning objectives 

  • Check the syllabus for the course’s key objectives
  • Review the larger concepts associated with these learning objectives—you'll most likely be tested on those!
  • Practice answering questions (related to these objectives) on paper or—as we’ve found helpful—out loud

Quickly look through your notes and the lecture slides 

  • Focus on the testable material (ie. what was covered in class)—but 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 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 for 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

Pro tip: To ensure you don’t make the same mistake twice, prepare a list of mistakes you made while completing practice questions. Also list out any content you missed while studying. Prior to your exam, return to this sheet of paper for a refresher!

Step 3: Practice

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

There’s a reason that this is our top tip in this section. If you only have time to do one thing, you should do the 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 which 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 the questions you find the most challenging, and be sure you understand the concepts behind them, either 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

If your exam is open book...

  • Read over the notes and texts quickly so you’ll recall which section to refer to during the exam
  • Create a table of contents of your texts for quick reference
  • Load sample solutions in your browser (or print them out for faster flipping), 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 one's own learning process—perform better on tests than students with lower metacognition. The techniques that work well for someone else might not work as well for you, so, most importantly, choose the most effective study technique 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 during the exam when 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.