All is fair in love, war, and studying for finals.
But exam prep doesn’t have to turn your life into a warzone.
To prove our point, we’ve put together this list of the most effective study strategies.
- Start early. But, like, for real.
You’ve probably heard this advice a million times over, but it bears repeating.
Start studying at least a week before the exam to allow yourself a little breathing room.
- Pick a comfortable place to study, away from all distractions.
Choose a quiet area, preferably with a source of natural light nearby. Then shelve all the electronic devices you won’t be using to study out of sight—and ideally, also out of reach.
If you need to study on your computer, use one of the following apps to prevent you from losing focus:
- Freedom – lets you block particular apps and websites or all of the internet to reduce distractions.
- Self Control – allows you to block websites for a particular amount of time. Once activated, the block cannot be undone by a command from the application, restarting your computer, or even uninstalling the app altogether. It will only be removed automatically once your pre-set time runs out.
- Focus – displays a motivational message to dissuade you from procrastinating every time you try to access a restricted site. This is a great app if Self Control seem a little too brutal for you.
- Clean up your work space.
A cluttered desk will only get in the way of your focus. Organizing your study area to make sure it’s clean will also help de-clutter your brain and let you think more effectively.
- Avoid studying with friends.
Intentionally or not, you will inevitably end up making each other procrastinate. Studying in groups increases the temptation to chat, complain, take extra-long snack and coffee breaks, or do just about anything other than study.
You can’t get distracted by remembering something you meant to tell your friends if they’re simply not there.
- Meet up with your friends after your separate study sessions are over to quiz each other.Though you should avoid hanging out while you study, it’s a great idea to meet your friends for a quick review session. Take turns asking each other questions about the study material. Just don’t start chatting until you’ve both answered the questions correctly.
- Remember that there is such thing as partying too much.
It’s totally natural to be impressed by seniors relating tales of their heroic test-conquering deeds only a few hours after rocking the party.
But don’t be fooled by them.
Chances are, a lot of them simply omit the most important details of the story – like poor grades or even failing.
- Keep a notepad for your to-do list.
Always have a notebook close at hand in case you remember something you have to do while you study. Instead of dropping everything to reply to an email or look something up, make a note about it in your notepad, and come back to it when you’ve finished studying.
- Set specific goals.
Decide how much you want to accomplish during the day. Then break down the material into smaller tasks.
Bad goal: I’m going to study for the exam.
Better goal: I’m going to study the chapters we’ve covered in class to this point.
Best goal: I will study chapters 3 to 5 today, starting by reading pages 47 – 95 by 3 p.m.
- Reward yourself.
Give yourself something you like whenever you complete a certain task. It can be a cup of coffee, some sweets, or even a little nap if you have enough time. Choose something that will motivate you to keep going.
- Take breaks.
You may be proud of yourself for managing to resist all distractions. Yet, the extreme of not taking any breaks at all isn’t effective either. Maximize your efficiency by setting and following a reasonable schedule of breaks and study sessions.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique to study more effectively.
Pomodoro was developed to improve the time management of students during exam preparation.
The main idea of the technique is to have a study structure consisting of constant breaks and short study periods. There is really no point for you to spend three or more hours at a time pouring over a textbook, because your brain cannot possibly absorb all of that information at once.
That’s why the best way to gain—and retain—knowledge is to study in sections. Studying in small chunks will allow you to complete the tasks at hand and improve continuously with less effort and stress.
The first step in the Pomodoro Technique is to decide on a task, set studying priorities, and perform a concentrated study session for 25 minutes. Once the 25 minutes are up, take a 5-minute break to switch your attention from your studies and relax the brain.
This study-break pattern can be repeated up to three times before you should take a longer break. Properly unwind and re-energize by getting some fresh air or going for a short walk.
Your schedule would look something like this:
Session 1: Study 25 min
Break 5 min
Session 2: Study 25 min
Break 5 min
Session 3: Study 25 min
Break 5 min
Session 4: Study 25 min
Long Break 15-30 min
To make it easy to time your sessions, use one of these websites:
Or download one of these timer apps:
- Focus Booster for Desktop
- Pomodoro Keeper for iOS
- Focus Time for iOS
- Clearfocus for Android
- Clockwork Tomato for Android
- Alternatively, use the Pareto Principle to study smarter.
Originally a business model, the principle is also called the 80/20 rule because it stipulates that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.
This method can particularly come in handy when you don’t have a lot of time to study.
There’s a lot of material to cover for your upcoming exam: lecture slides, your notes, textbook chapters, handouts, etc.
But there’s a catch:
Only about 20% of this material will actually make it onto your test sheet.
Take advantage of this fact to make the most of your time. Start your study session by going through the topics that took the longest to cover in class or the ones that have a lot of sub-points.
- Use flash cards and color-coding to help you remember things better.
There are many ways you can use colors to your advantage to study for a test:
- Rewrite your notes using multicolored pens.
- Use bright post-it notes to draw attention to important points.
- Add pictures, diagrams, and mind maps to your notes.
Flashcards can be used as a color-coding key and are great for jotting down to-do lists.
Here’s a helpful list of flashcard types from the etudiance blog:
- Question/answer: with the question on one side and a short summary-type answer on the other
- Term/definition: with the term on one side and its definition and key information on the other
- Mini formula sheet: organized by topic, per unit, or for the entire course
- Mind map: most effective on larger flashcards
If you don’t like fussing with multiple cards, try this alternative to flashcards:
- Practice in the same format you will be tested in.
What this means is that you shouldn’t study for all of your exams the same way.
Say you’re studying for a history exam, and you study by making flashcards with key terms and events.
This study format would be effective if your test is in a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank format.
But if the exam actually consists of short-answer and essay questions that require you to answer “Why?” or “How?” you will find yourself in trouble.
- Don’t review what you already know.
Doing problems that you can comfortably solve may boost your self-confidence a little, but try not to focus your efforts on material you’ve already mastered. If you only review what you know, you will run out of time before you grasp the more challenging material.
- Understand; don’t memorize.
“Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.”
Memorizing a concept or definition without understanding what it actually means, or how it works, will backfire on you as soon as you come across information that’s not presented exactly the way you’re used to seeing it.
To get a better grasp on the material, try explaining important concepts and topics to others.
- Turn your readings upside down.
Whenever you think cramming is inevitable, turn your readings upside down.
This way, you’ll need to really concentrate while reading, and you’ll memorize everything you need more quickly.
It’s at least 50% more effective than simply repeating something to yourself without paying much attention.
- Ask professors or upperclassmen for sample exams and old test questions.
Going through an older version of your upcoming exam can help you determine the most important topics to focus on. It will boost your confidence and calm your nerves, since you now know what you’re in for.
- Don’t pull all-nighters.
During finals week, you may feel that one or two sleepless nights spent on studying can save you.
Kick this idea to the curb. Staying up all night may make you feel productive, but it rarely brings actual results.
Getting a regular amount of sleep is much more effective than pulling an all-nighter while you struggle to keep your eyes open and squeeze new information into your exhausted brain.
Get some sleep to refresh your brain, instead!
- Avoid starving yourself or stress eating.
Being preoccupied with your course books, you may totally forget about such a down-to-earth trifle as food.
Though it’s certainly possible for people to last several days without food, finals week is not the time for experimentation.
At the other extreme, you should also avoid using stress as an excuse for treating yourself to junk food or too many sweets. They may temporarily satisfy your taste buds, but they’ll only make you feel more sluggish and unproductive.
Long study sessions and the general stress of exams put a lot of pressure on your body, so it’s important to supply your body with the right energy-rich nutrients.
Glucose, zinc, and vitamins C, E, and K all boost your mental activity, while foods rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, such as salmon, flaxseed, and walnuts have been proven to increase concentration and decrease anxiety levels.
- Drink more water than caffeine-filled beverages.
If the stress from finals doesn’t do the job, drinking liters and liters of coffee and energy drinks will surely do you in.
It’s true that studies have shown that caffeine can boost your short-term and long-term memory. And coffee even helps your body combat the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
But drinking too much of it can be really detrimental. Know your coffee limit, and instead drink more water.
Studies say that as many as 75% of all people are in a perpetual state of dehydration. Drinking at least 8 glasses, or one large bottle, of water each day will keep you hydrated and increase your brain’s capacity to process information.
- Drink hot chocolate.
Sure, pure water is your best friend while studying for final exams. Make sure you have at least one glass of water during each of your short study sessions.
But if you feel like you want something a little more exciting, consider hot chocolate. Besides being delicious, cocoa improves blood flow to the brain.
- Train your abs.
Speaking of blood flow, physical activity is often overlooked as a way to boost productivity.
But it can do wonders.
Even if you don’t regularly work out, now is a great time to start.
We don’t mean going to the gym. And there’s no need to make yourself sweat blood.
Doing ten-minute ab exercises during your study breaks can work miracles. You will feel less sleepy and stressed as your brain gets a boost of oxygen and starts to work more effectively.
- Gamify your studying.
This is an especially useful tip if you are very competitive.
Increase your productivity by betting on how fast you’ll finish a particular chapter or by competing with a classmate or friend over who will finish a practice sheet first.
This is guaranteed to keep you motivated and will speed up your study process because you’ll have an extra incentive to put 100% of your effort into it. Just be sure not to sacrifice the quality for speed.
- If you need help with concepts, turn to the internet.
KhanAcademy.org is an excellent place to find math tutorials, as well as tutorials for 15 other subjects including arts and humanities, science, economics and finance, and computing.
YouTube might be 80% funny cat videos, but there are also dozens of educational channels that you will find very helpful.
Search YouTube for related lectures or presentations, and you’ll definitely find some gems there. You may even find your professor’s lectures or YouTube channel.
We also highly recommend Crash Course if you need help with any of these subjects: Physics, Literature, Biology, Philosophy, Chemistry, Psychology, Ecology, World History, Astronomy, U.S. History, U.S. Government and Politics, Anatomy & Physiology, Big History, Economics, and Intellectual Property.
Bonus tip: Use Instagram and Twitter to study.
You probably already know how to work the hashtag magic. So here are some awesome tags to explore on Twitter and Instagram when you study for a test:
- Motivation: #nevergiveup
- Moral support: #upallnight
- Practical hints: #schoolwork
- study hacks #english
And of course, you can always take an Instagram break to make a selfie with your towers of books.
It clears out that Twitter can also be used for the following educational purposes:
- self-education #didyouknow
- life hacks #howto
- study tips #betterlearning
- tips for ESL students #bilingual
- special chats #mathchat #litchat
You can also use Twitter for a short break, to boost your motivation. Short tweets about your homework suffering can receive many responses of your friends trying to encourage you.
And last, but not least, here are some great academic hashtags to explore on your own time, to help with your studies: