Staying Ahead of the Curve

I’m going to take an educated guess and assume that in high school, studying for exams wasn’t too much of a process for incoming students. Depending on the class, you’d skim the notes or textbook, do some practice problems, and extrapolate that how you did on those would translate to how you perform on the actual test. Oh, and all this can be done the night or two before the day of your assessment.

You can do that at college too, although I should warn you that the results you get might be very different than what you’re used to. Exams can be pretty difficult. Part of that may be due to the material itself being hard, but other times the professor may really want to “make sure students truly understand the material” and “challenge students so that they can grow intellectually.” Regardless of their difficulty, I can give you some tips on how students ~should~ study for exams to save you all from approaching your first one with either excessive worry or overconfidence.

You’ll first want to look at everything that is being covered on the exam. Figure out how many sections you’ve covered, think about how many sections you can feasibly study in a day, and then do some math to determine how far in advance you should start. Be sure to take into consideration the difficulty of the material, as well as any other academic/extracurricular obligations you have between now and your exam. Once you figure that out, it’s up to you to determine what order you want to review the material.

Now for what you should be doing as you study:

  • While looking over the material, write down any questions you have, and if you can’t answer them, go to office hours.
  • I like to take notes as I go over the material – I write down important facts, concepts, formulas, etc. That way I have a study guide to look over later for cumulative exams.
  • If applicable, make flashcards and practice them in chunks, eventually combining the chunks into the single pile.
  • If it’s a math or science exam, make sure to do enough book problems to the point where you’re consistently getting them correct, or at least understanding why you’re getting some incorrect.

Finally, you’ll want to leave a couple days before the actual exam to do as many practice exams as possible if they’re available. This will give you a great idea of what to expect most of the time. In fact, many students under a time crunch opt to skip the previous two paragraphs and start here instead.

In the end, how you choose to study really depends on your own comfort with the material, as well as how hard your professors’ exams typically are. You can start studying the morning of your afternoon final by skimming your notes, walk into that exam room with a healthy level of optimism, and still pass. Alternatively, you can start studying for your final two weeks in advance by doing practice problems and exams for a couple hours a day, walk into that exam room with a healthy level of optimism, and still fail, leading you to doubt everything you ever work for and whether anything is ever worth it. No need to worry about that latter case though. There’s always that blessed curve!