Tips to Help You Survive Your Exams


A book and notes on a table.

We know what you’re thinking! Exams aren’t for another six weeks, so what are we doing talking about them now? We’re glad you asked. Even though you can see them coming from months away, exams have a tendency to sneak up on even good students. It’s easy to put off studying when there are so many distractions begging for your attention. The leaves are changing, there are new friends to spend time with, exciting sports to watch, and plenty of other activities you’d rather do than break out the books for a study session. The thing is, what you do now largely dictates how you fare on your exams. With that in mind, let’s look at five steps you can take to finish your first semester with a bang.

1. Get started now

In one study, 99% of students admitted they relied on cramming at the last minute to try and prepare for a test. Unfortunately, almost all of them are doing it wrong, because research suggests that spacing out your learning is more effective for 90% of the population.

Cramming is also a poor choice because it commits material to short-term instead of long-term memory. Because so many of your classes in college are cumulative, with material from the second semester building on the things you learned in the first, you’re making your life more difficult when the next round of tests and exams inevitably arrives. If you’re serious about your academic performance, it’s time to stop procrastinating and start studying!

2. Use a flashcard tool for memorization

Let’s face it – a certain amount of studying involves rote memorization, whether it’s vocabulary words in another language, different molecules in organic chemistry, or complex equations for calculus. The good news is that flashcards can make this once painful process much easier, and there are lots of tools out there to choose from.

The Brainscape app lets you create your own flashcards, but it also lets you study using a wide variety of pre-made collections. Whether you’re reviewing for Psychology, Music Theory, or Computer Engineering, Brainscape has a set of flashcards to help you prepare. The app also uses cognitive engineering to adjust the cards that get displayed based on your prior results. If you have a 100% success rate on one definition but can’t seem to remember another, it will show you the card you’re struggling with more often to help you commit it to memory.

3. Don’t forgo your fitness routine

There’s no way around the fact that the pressure to perform well on exams produces stress, but there is a way to cope with that stress that can also boost your academic performance. Countless studies prove that exercise mitigates stress by reducing levels of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol and replacing them with your body’s natural painkillers and relaxation-inducing endorphins.

Now, new research is indicating that exercise can even improve your mental performance. According to a study published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, intense exercise boosted the speed at which test subjects learned vocabulary words by 20%. Another study from the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology demonstrated that moderate-intensity strength training improved the speed at which participants could process new information. Instead of cutting out exercise to save a few minutes during one of the busiest times of the year, the science shows that sweat is even more important.

4. Go to office hours and review periods

Imagine you had a study partner who was so qualified they could teach the class – in fact, they do teach the class. Visiting your professors during office hours is a great way to get the most reliable information about questions that you haven’t been able to solve on your own. Because they’re taking time out of their busy day to help you, make sure you arrive at the meeting prepared. Showing up and asking what’s on the exam is an annoying interruption that won’t help your cause.

Most professors will also hold review periods where they address some of the most important topics for you to study, and they’ll occasionally even drop a few hints to reward the students who took the time to come. Attend these review sessions and take thorough notes. If you have an unavoidable conflict, reach out to a friend who’s attending and ask for their notes. Don’t forget to show your gratitude by returning the favor (or picking up Starbuck’s to help them through a late-night study session!).

5. Take occasional breaks

When you’re stressed out and in the thick of exam season, it’s easy to shut yourself in the library for hours and lose track of time. The good news is that you don’t have to feel guilty about taking a break. According to a study from the journal Cognition, focusing on a single task (such as studying for an exam) for hours at a time can actually hurt your performance.

On the other hand, taking brief breaks allows you return to a task with renewed focus, ultimately boosting your productivity and improving outcomes. Step outside and go for a quick walk or listen to a few relaxing songs and tune out for a bit. At the very least, if your exams are in the next day or two and you feel like every second counts, change subjects every once in a while to switch things up.

Even the brightest and best-prepared students can experience a feeling of dread with the onset of exam season, but changing your approach can make this time of year less painful and more productive. To ensure you perform at your best when it matters the most, follow the above steps and turn your exams into an opportunity to succeed.