How to Prepare for High-Stakes Exams

One of the most significant regular experiences that you’ll have in college are midterm and final exams that factor in as 25, 40, or 50 percent of your marks in some classes. Clearly, your performance on such exams will make or break your grades, and, by extension, your overall academic success. Never fear! If you did your homework faithfully, understand what the test is going to be about, and spend an appropriate amount of time preparing in advance, you’ll be able to succeed on your final exams. Below are 10 tips to help you prepare the most effective way to study.

Start Early

It’s best to being preparing for your midterms or finals at least a month prior to each. Doing so will allow you to avoid rushing and overloading yourself in the last few days before finals. Procrastinating until the last moment will create unnecessary stress. Moreover, those all-night cramming sessions may be exciting, but they are also exhausting, and ineffective in helping you to do better than you otherwise could have. Breaking up your studying into manageable portions will enhance your performance over time.

Have a Game Plan

Writing things down makes us far more likely to actually do them, so actually creating a study schedule that you can see on paper or on your phone will help you to use your study time most efficiently. Know what material you need to cover and when you intend to cover it will be liberating and energizing, especially when you are able to cross each session off your list. Be sure to break up your studies into short, specific sessions to help resist distractions and keep your focus. Taking regular breaks keeps your energy up and stress levels down when you’re studying for final exams.

Prioritize Each Class by Difficulty

Attack the subjects that you find difficult first. Give yourself more study time for more challenging classes, rewarding yourself afterward with the subjects that you know that you can handle more easily. You’ll then be able to tell yourself “Great, I have the tough stuff done, now the rest will be fun.” The fact is that can do your best in each class, and on each high-stakes exam, without devoting an equal amount of time to each subject.

Attend the Review Session

If your instructor or teaching assistants are offering a review session for an upcoming exam, make every effort to attend it. They will go over the material to be tested, offer study tips, and let you focus on exactly what you need to know. You will be able to get any niggling or lingering questions answered, and will also obtain detailed guidelines for how the final exam will be formatted. Whether to show up for the review session is really a no-brainer.

Join a Study Group

If your idea of studying for finals is locking yourself in a room and blocking out all external contact for as long as it takes, that’s fine. Meanwhile, plenty of students consider that the best way to study is to meet in a small group to help each other prepare. Not only can the feeling of solidarity lift you up, but you may actually have your attention drawn to some important information or angle of approach that will be useful on the exam. Just don’t let it devolve into an hour of talking about what’s on Netflix after 10 minutes of actual studying!

Review Your Notes

If you’ve taken detailed and helpful notes during the term, you’ll have this key resource to help you study for your final exam. Be sure to outline and reorganize the most relevant information, so as to focus on what will be tested and disregard what will not. Use highlighters to identify the information that will be most vital to know. Save our notes for your normal review and perhaps transfer what you’ve highlighted to flashcards for scanning just before the exam.

Re-watch Lectures and Other Course Videos

Especially if you are taking an online course, going back over videos of the instructor’s lectures can be a great way to prepare for your final exam. You’ll invariably pick up on information and connections that you missed the first time you heard them, and you may be able to pick up clues for approaching questions likely to appear on the big test.

Change Your Environment to Change Your Perspective

Identifying multiple places where you know you can study effectively can increase your chances for success on your high-stakes exam. A library carrel? A local coffee shop? The kitchen table? If one space stops working, just pick another. Just be sure to know when and where you are at your best and your study skills will improve from semester to semester.

Don’t Skimp on Sleep or Exercise

It’s impossible to perform at our optimal level when we are tired. That means you need to be sure to get enough sleep. One way to do that is to exercise regularly. Exercise increases the blood flow to our brains—there’s definitely a non-mythical reason that the phrase “sound body, sound mind” has been used for thousands of years. Wind down before bed (avoid eating and shut off your screens) to leave you mind clear to study for your final exams.

Don’t Forget to Take a Break

Every list of best study tips for exams should include building in breaks. You don’t have to sacrifice a balanced daily existence just because finals’ week is on the way. Budgeting your time well means including moments that you can look forward to during your study periods. Make sure you get your relaxing cup of tea, your favorite muffin, a walk by water, or intense gaming session. We all need things keep us going as we seek to reach our goals.

High-stakes exams present a particular obstacle, or opportunity, depending upon your perspective. It’s one that you don’t have to deal with every week, but also one that shouldn’t be ignored until the two or three weeks each year that they appear. Play the long game, take the tips above seriously, and enjoy your success!