Most students have a one step test prep strategy:
You probably already know how important planning is for doing most things well. I probably don’t have to convince you that spending hours doing something without any clue of the general sequence you should follow is risky. Even though most students understand that, they still end up studying like crazy a day or two before their big test because they failed to take any time to plan out their test prep.
Studying shouldn’t be a one step routine.
By prioritizing, organizing, assessing, and correcting your study plan you end up making it almost impossible to screw up your studying. There is virtually no risk you’ll end up having to stay up late the night before the test because you can set yourself up to be finished with the important stuff days before that.
To get the most out of your study routine, you might want to consider this simple 7 step strategy.
The most important part of preparing for any test is learning to prioritize the information that you’ve been presented in your class and throughout your course materials.
You only have so much time in the day. With any sane study routine, you need to be practical about the amount you can expect to complete by the end of the day. You can’t just learn every bit of information that’s presented to you. (And if you could, it would be a major waste of resources.) Your goal should be to find the information presented to you that will end up on the test.
In most cases (but not all,) you can expect the things your teacher talks about in lecture to be the most tested information in your course. If your teacher makes a point of discussing something in class then you can usually bet it’s going to be on the test before some random fact from the textbook.
This prioritization sometimes gets complicated. Some teachers do the exact opposite. This is going to have to be something you look for with different teachers.
When you get a test back, one powerful thing you can do is review where you were presented with the information on the test originally. Did the teacher focus on questions from the textbook or their own lecture? You can expect a similar pattern on the next test.
Of course, you will sometimes be blindsided with oddball questions but that’s part of the nature of being practical in your study strategy. You could have studied all day and still been blindsided. I don’t consider getting blindsided and losing some 3 points a problem. I consider it a sign that I studied intelligently and didn’t waste hours learning facts that shouldn’t have ended up on the test. This will make you more points in the long run.
Once you have the information you need to learn for the test figured out, you should try to make a manageable plan to study it all. There are a few major factors you should consider when making this plan.
Do you need to memorize or understand your study material? Usually you’ll have some combination of both but, ideally, you’ll mostly need memorization. (Math based courses tend to be the exception to this.)
You need to account for large amounts of time for everything you need to understand. You should also try to get that studying done as early as possible because it’s a whole lot less predictable than memorization.
When you have a straight up memorization task you can usually count on making big progress in short amounts of time.
This organization often comes down to the specific strategies you’re using. The details will vary drastically between people.
One important thing to remember is that this can take time. Don’t be afraid to spend a couple 15 minute sessions prioritizing information and organizing the material. This process will improve the rest of your study routine so much that it will be worth the time.
Next you should be going through a routine to complete your plan.
This is a big subject on the main blog so I’ll make this quick. Your ideal routine will look something like this:
- – Short study sessions
- – Daily (Or very regularly)
- – Consistent
- – No distractions
- – Don’t focus on leech information (stuff that’s hard to remember)
Around 1 to 2 weeks before your test you should move onto the next step. If you only have 1 to 2 weeks before your test then move on to the next step about halfway to your test from the time you started your study routine.
You know that prioritization process you did? Repeat it.
Prioritization is huge when it comes to study efficiency. Once you’ve studied for a week or two you’re going to have a much better idea of what information you’re going to need to focus on. Take advantage of this and reprioritize.
Each prioritization session is like adjusting your sails based on which way the wind is blowing. Things change and you need to be willing to change the way you approach them if you want to be able to control your results.
This is an important point to get.
Do not cram!
Stick with your routine. Do not increase the amount of time you study before the test. That’s just asking for you to get stressed about all the information you’re trying to learn. If you designed your plan and followed through then you won’t need to cram. You’ll be on schedule. (Ideally, you’ll have a few slow days too.)
Your routine is where your power to learn comes from. If your plan didn’t work and you are a little behind then don’t try to correct it for this test through anything other than reprioritization. Increasing your study routine will not help you improve your routine in the future. It will be giving you an excuse to make the wrong decision again in the future.
So… you planned poorly. Face the consequences and next time you’ll be dramatically less likely to plan poorly again.
These days I usually have a week of basic review on the information I’m studying before any testing takes place. Plan for that extra week and you won’t have to worry you’ll fall behind.
While most students start cramming for the test they’re not prepared for, you should be resting. If you followed this plan and didn’t make a massive miscalculation then you’re all prepared for your test.
The day of the test, don’t study in any unusual way. Just live your life the way you normally would.
The night before the test, do not study more than usual. If you’re feeling really nervous about the test (but you know you prepared well) then take a night off. I’m serious! Do something you enjoy that will take your mind off the test. Stressing and studying don’t mix well. Study something else if you must but don’t let your mind stay on that test.
I love this quote:
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
-Misquoted from countless famous people
Worrying is forcing you to live through the stress repeatedly. To imagine failure vividly is just as painful as the actual failure. If you fail then be damn sure to only fail once. Don’t live through it repeatedly.
When it comes to your last minutes before the test there are a few different approaches.
For most people, this is my standard recommendation:
Start a routine. Do the kind of thing that athletes do. Maybe you can just throw in some headphones and rock out to your favorite music. Act confident. Stand like you’re going to kick some ass. (If you followed through then you probably will.) Look at people who are nervous about the test and think, “I’m definitely better off than that guy!” Try to smile. Really… if there is one time to act confident, this is it.
Do this ritually before tests. After a while you’ll start doing this whether you’re properly prepared or not. You end up stepping into the test with such confidence that it’s hard not to do well.
Once you get this strategy down, you may want to try my last minute cram session strategy. I’ve found it’s a bit of a hit or miss for some students. I suspect it comes down to how confident they are going into the test. If you’re terrified when you’re stepping in for the test then you’ll probably just stress yourself out with last minute studying.
Confidence does much more good than any last minute studying does.
These are the seven steps I took in preparation of all my major tests while I was taking nearly a double course load. Using them I consistently scored near the top of my class while barely ever studying (and enjoying myself a good chunk of that time too.)
Plan your studying and you can get more while putting in less. Continue to scramble and pray and you’ll probably just keep getting what you’re getting.
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Aaron Richardson took his grades from fighting F’s to Easy A’s. In the process, he read over 300 books on personal development. Today he’s founded 2 blogs on studying including Smart Student Secrets. He’s written 3 books on the subject. His work has been featured on some of the biggest news, psychology, and student sites on the internet.
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