13 Tips for Prepping for Your Next Test

Regardless of what kind of exam you’re taking, there are ways to get ready.

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How you prepare for tests can count almost as much as how you take tests. Sometimes it counts more. That's because in most cases, the professor is actually expecting you to have thought out the answers in advance of the test, not just when you get your test paper. Since there are as many different kinds of tests as there are professors, what's the best way to prepare? Here are our baker's dozen of tips for excellent test preparation:

1. Spread it out. Make sure you divide your studying time over a number of days, rather than leaving it all for the night before. If you try to learn it all at one go, you could find yourself in the same position as that Burmese python in Florida who tried to swallow an alligator whole. The result: not so pretty (for either the python or the alligator).

2. Study for the test, not for the course. Many students think that study time is "go over the whole course" time. It's not. There's no way you're going to be able to learn 15 (or 25 or even 45) lectures' worth of stuff in a week. Instead, resolve to focus your attention only on those points you think will be on the test. And stick to your resolution.

3. Scope out the scope. Be sure you know what's fair game for the test and what's not. Many times students aren't exactly sure which lectures, readings, sections, and homeworks are to be covered on the test. (Does the test include the material that was on the last test? Is the most recent lecture included? Are we responsible for that article discussed in section?) You can't study right if you don't know what you're supposed to be studying.

4. Figure out the format. There are many kinds of questions your prof could ask: multiple choice, short answer, essay, problem solving. Make sure you know which is his or her favorite type of question. Consult the sample exam, study guide, syllabus, or instructions in lecture or section to find out. And if you're not sure, text or E-mail a friend in the class (it's unlikely your professor will be answering your questions in the middle of the night).

5. Line up your ducks. Before you start studying, make sure you have a complete set of lecture notes (putting them in order wouldn't hurt, either) and all the problems, homeworks, and quizzes you've taken. It's difficult to study well if you're missing essential pieces.

Extra Pointer. If you're going to borrow a friend's notes for a lecture you missed, pick a smart friend, not just a Facebook friend. You'll really put yourself behind the eight ball if you get the notes from someone who barely paid attention in class and then the big question on the midterm is on that very lecture.

6. Remember this. In some courses—language, history, math, and some sciences, for instance—there's a lot of stuff to be memorized. Do this first. You'll memorize better while you're still at least half awake. And you'll feel a sense of relief and well-being when you've gotten the tedious work out of the way.

Extra Pointer. Use mnemonic devices or acronyms (that is, words formed from the initial letters of the things to be memorized). Make them as clever or as dirty as you can; they're easier to remember that way. And then sing them out loud while making faces and flapping your arms—really. You'll remember the tunes and your silly motions.

7. Capture the concepts. In many courses, the real studying work is to get your mind around the key concepts and central ideas of the course. This isn't just memorizing some code words (as in the previous tip), but understanding the main points in a clear enough way to be able to explain them to someone who didn't know them. Tip: Locate the three or four main concepts the professor was trying to teach, and think how each can be explained in enough detail to communicate a real understanding of the idea.

8. Go for the score. Allot your studying time in proportion to the points on the test. Are short ID's worth only 15 percent? Spend about 20 minutes preparing them. Do essays count 80 percent? Spend 110 percent of the time on them. You get the idea.

9. Never read. Reading the assignment—or if you've been good, re-reading the material—is never an efficient way to study. It takes too long. Instead, scan your reading notes or, if you don't have these, study the lecture notes. Your prof probably flagged the main points.

10. Milk a friend. In many cases, it's good to invite a friend to your "study group"—that is, to find a friend, smarter than you, whom you can ask to explain the things you don't understand. Just make sure you're picking on the basis of smarts.

11. Conspire with the prof. If your prof or TA is having a review session, that's a gift from God. Be sure to go, equipped with lots of questions about what you think will be on the test. Otherwise, try the special office hours the days before the test or your own individual meetings during the regular office hours.

12. Test-drive your test. The last stage of your studying should always include some practice, "self-testing," in which you construct some questions in the format you expect to be on the test, then formulate some answers. You might be tempted to skip this step, but don't. A trial run helps you start thinking like your professor and processing the material in the way you'll need to do in the actual exam. Think of it as a warm-up for your brain.

4-Star Tip. Be sure to monitor—and evaluate—your test-taking performance as you go. If you find that you're devoting too much time to one question, or spending too much time thinking rather than writing, or getting so tensed up that you can hardly think straight, make a mental note. When you have finished your trial run, think up strategies so you won't fall into the same pitfalls when you take the real test.

13. Pull a "half-nighter." Figure out how many hours there are in the night, then spend half that number cramming. Try sleeping the other half.

Professors' perspective. Most professors grade as much on how well you express your ideas as on how much you know. So if you've stayed up until 5 in the morning funneling as much data into your head as you can, you won't be able to think and write clearly when you take the test at 8:30 a.m. That's where the sleep comes in.

Bonus tip. Have an Egg McMuffin or something similar. Your brain will work better with carbs and protein (even in reduced dosages, if you opt for a low-fat version).

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