While the structures and difficulty-levels of college examinations have as wide a range as the options for college majors, there are a number of universally effective strategies to ace these tests that go beyond the commonplace “get enough sleep” and “don’t cram” pieces of advice. Whether you have all your exams marked with large red X’s on your calendar for the next two semesters, or it’s Wednesday and you just realized your midterm is on Friday, consider these suggestions:
1. Go to office hours (and class!)
A common complaint voiced by professors and teaching assistants is that students never attend their office hours until the day after the test—and then they only do so to complain about their grades. Instructors are typically required to hold a certain number of office hours each week for every class they teach, and while an empty office can mean they complete a portion of their grading, they do wish to be there to help you succeed as a student. Go speak with them. Ask them questions about the material you don’t understand. They will assist you and greatly appreciate that you are making an effort to learn the course content. If you can’t attend their office hours, email them. Most instructors will be more than happy to accommodate your schedule, or to at least recommend a tutoring service on campus that can help you.
However, don’t be that student who never goes to class and then shows up to office hours expecting the instructor to teach class all over again just for you. You should arrive prepared with specific questions, notes, and problems that the professor or TA can help you solve. On that note – go to class. If you attend class, you will always know when the tests are and what information will be on them. You will absorb the material and at the very least be able to identify the concepts that you didn’t comprehend.
2. Try to explain the concepts to yourself
There are concepts in memorization called recognition and recall. Recognition is the idea that “I’d know it if I saw it”: when you see the right word or idea, you can identify it as correct, but you can’t name it on your own. This is not where you want to be on exam day. Recall, on the other hand, is the ability to locate and share the information on your own right, perhaps with a self-generated trigger or mnemonic device. This is what you do want on exam day, and reaching the level of recall requires being able to explain the concept in your own words. If you prefer to study in groups, an ideal scenario is to have each person in the group attempt to explain the concept or walk through a problem on his or her own, with other group members correcting them as needed. If you like to study alone, however, you can still utilize this method: record yourself explaining the concept or problem out loud, write the explanation down, or draw a visual representation until you have comprehended the idea perfectly. Here is a great study tip on how to organize your notes that you may find useful as well.
3. Put in the time, but take time off
Difficult subjects require putting in a great deal of time – but sometimes the thought of just how large that period of time is can often be a major trigger of procrastination. Even the idea of studying two hours per day might seem overwhelming. One helpful tactic for students can be the Pomodoro Technique: the student sets a timer and works for 25 minutes (one pomodoro), then takes a mandatory 5-minute break. It is not recommended to stay in the same location (at your computer, desk, etc.) for the break, simply because even if you are browsing a social media site, it doesn’t feel like a break for your body. After four pomodori, take a break for 30 minutes to an hour. It’s not difficult to squeeze in one pomodoro at any point during the day – if a friend calls, tell them you’ll meet them in an hour and try to complete one pomodoro. Even if you’re planning on a long evening of studying, you have mandatory breaks to look forward to, and you can be sure you won’t burn out. Here are some more great tips on how to best study for a test!