Preparing for exams is a stressful affair – but only if you let it be so. Believe me, I know. I used to stress over exams to the point of being ridiculous. I was one of those students who would throw a tantrum the morning before the exam. When my roommates would attempt to cheer me up and reassure me with phrases like “You can do it!” or “You’ve got this!” I would collapse into tears and yell, “I know nothing! I will get this tough question and literally die of embarrassment!” Yeah, I was pretty dramatic. Yet this was exactly how I felt – insecure and miserable.
Then I would get my B (or A even) – and first, I couldn’t believe my luck. It’s over. It’s finally behind me! Then, I would wonder what all the fuss was about? It was a piece of cake! Why would I let myself be so terrified?
I only wish I could send a letter to my past self, telling her that it’s all going to be okay. Maybe sometime this will be possible. Meanwhile, I can do the next best thing – write this letter of love and reassurance to you.
Everything is going to be fine. You’ve got this. Just don’t repeat my mistakes. Here is how you can make studying smooth and stressless.
Start early and plan
I know, I know. Duh! There is a chance you’re reading this precisely because you’ve procrastinated to the eleventh hour and are now going to pull an all-nighter. You’ve found this blog because you hoped some magical formula could get you out of this mess.
What can I say? You still can do it, but it’s going to be unnecessarily difficult. Suppose you start 10 days before the exam and study an hour a day. That’s not much, but it crops up to 10 hours of preparation – which you technically can cram into the day before the exam, but it won’t be as effective. According to Nick Soderstrom, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist professor, “Across all ages and subjects, studies consistently show that spacing out study sessions over time improves one’s ability to remember and understand information for longer periods.” Keep that in mind, at least for the next time.
Pull out your class syllabus
Review your syllabus. You know, that thing your instructor sent you with all the class materials at the beginning of the term. This should be the first thing you do when you plan to review for exams for two key reasons. First, everything on the syllabus is a fair game for testing – you’ve been warned. Second, the syllabus is structured. Basically, you have an outline of everything you will need to cover mapped out and organized – sometimes with notes of relevant book pages you should read on the topic.
All you have to do is break down all the topics from the syllabus into thematic blocks you will cover in each study session, depending on the time you have. For example, you’ve got 40 key topics and ten days before the exam. That means you will need to organize the issues by 4 in the block to cover each studying session – which brings us to the next point.
Set goals for each study session
That’s the main reason why students fail to study and end up procrastinating. They have no concrete goals for each session. They only have a nebulous plan to “study History this evening,” which is a recipe for disaster. Your instructor has lesson plans for every class: things they will need to cover during a lecture, skills the students must learn during a workshop, a number of typical problems the group will be solving in a seminar – you get the idea.
Your studying sessions are classes you teach yourself (shocker!) That’s why they need to be as well-planned and structured as “real” classes are. Set achievable, measurable goals. For example, “Today I will go through and summarize chapters 3 to 5” or “I will revise the material covered in lectures 2 to 4.”
Organize the materials for revision
For some topics, looking through your class notes can be enough of a refresher. However, if you don’t recall a term used in summary, you might want to re-read the relevant section of your coursebook and complete your records.
Create summaries of your study sessions in any shape or form – outlines, diagrams, study notes. Write down key definitions, compare concepts in the charts, use a mind-mapping technique to organize everything you’ve learned. This will help you later to revise everything more efficiently right before the exam. By the way, among our paper writing services, we prepare exam notes for you. So, if you need well-structured notes with key ideas to make your revision easier – just let us know!
Get exam sheets from the previous year
The best way to prepare yourself for an exam – both academically and psychologically – is by rehearsing the exam situation. Practice solving the problems or preparing your answer in a limited time. This way, you will tackle the fear of the unknown and take the anxiety out of the equation.
For this purpose, try to get your hands on the exam questions and problems from the previous year – they are usually available in your school’s library. Alternatively, you can ask around the campus – some students keep these things for a couple of years. Unlike looking for this year’s test questions, getting materials from the previous year is not only permissible but encouraged.
Create a ritual to get into studying mood
Routine is crucial to avoid time waste and procrastination. You can condition your brain to be ready for studying whenever you need it to. For example, make a habit of putting your things in order on the desk before revising for exams. Over time, your brain will start tuning in to study the moment you start putting bits and pieces into the organizer and straightening your desk lamp.
If you cannot study in one place consistently, sounds and smells can trigger that Pavlovian response just as well. Create a playlist for concentration or have a scent you’ve assigned for studying mood. For example, I used to carry a vial of lemon essential oil that I would open and sniff when I needed to prime myself for learning. It helped me to get “in the zone” and drive out all the distractions.
Think of creating a study group
Group work is often a royal pain, so students who had a negative experience in the past try to avoid doing anything in a group if they can avoid it. However, study groups can be very productive as long as you are clear about your goals for each session and manage to stay on track without digressing into friendly chitchat.
Review each other’s notes, talk over the questions you find particularly challenging, explain things to each other. Studying together is a very enriching experience. You don’t even have to create a formal study group – just arrange a learning session with a classmate or two.
Flip the roles
One of my profs used to joke, “Haven’t I explained it clearly enough? Wow, I’ve even understood it myself already!” There is something to it. Explaining does help you understand better. So, instead of reciting what you have learned before the imaginary examiner, try explaining the material as if you were the instructor.
Ask your study buddy to be your audience or imagine a class full of people who know nothing about the topic. Try to make your explanation as simple and accessible as you can. This is the best way to structure and systematize all the factoids floating chaotically in your panicked mind.
Have positive attitude
A tiny bit of stress can be productive. If you feel you have stakes in the matter, it gets your blood pumping, sharpens your focus, alerts your mind. So, I can’t tell you to stop worrying about exams altogether – that attitude loses people their scholarships.
That said, too much anxiety never helped anyone. Moreover, fear can be paralyzing. It is the number one reason for procrastination. So cheer up and just put one foot in front of the other. If the pressure overwhelms you, call a friend or a family member and talk it out. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved!
Take care of yourself
No plan will ever work if you won’t take care of your basic functions. Eat, sleep, and exercise. Choose healthy, nutritious snacks like think fruits and nuts for your studying sessions. Make sure you have your eight hours every night. Take a long walk or just dance to your favorite music if you loathe workouts or the gym is unavailable due to restrictions. Open a window and let some air into the room.
The most dangerous myth that stubbornly exists in the student community is that sleep is a luxury you cannot afford – not if you want to have both grades and rich social life. I call BS. In a couple of sleep-deprived years, you will have none. All you will have will be nervous exhaustion and a tic. According to Lawrence Epstein, MD, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, “After two weeks of sleeping six hours or less a night, students feel as bad and perform as poorly as someone who has gone without sleep for 48 hours.” So please, please, love yourself and take care.