How to ace exams – 25 top tips for better results
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
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OK, ladies and gentlemen, here it is. The end of the line. Test time. Where the rubber meets the road. Where the mettle is tested. Where women and men, or mice, are made. The following 25 tips can help improve your test-taking and exam-acing prowess. But will you be brave enough to follow them all?
#1 Understand your situation
So often, test taking is really a matter of motivation. Plenty of students assume that the exam is just a formality, they have done fine on the homework, have great attendance, the instructor once commented positively on their choice of shoes, and so on and so on. Assume nothing. Know exactly what your final grade for the class/term/year will be if you fail the exam, and if it isn’t the grade you want to see, get busy.
#2 Start studying on the first day of class
Now, we’re not talking about pulling all-nighters and cramming a term’s worth of material into your head before you’ve even attended your first lecture. What we are saying is that you need to have the exams firmly in mind from the first day of class. Start looking for the need-to-know things, take good notes, attend all the lectures, invest the time. The more you do from the first day to prepare, the better your grade will be. This, unfortunately, is the advice most students do not heed.
#3 Know that you are alone
It sounds so awful, doesn’t it? “You are alone”. But the truth is, you are. Unless the exam is of a collaborative nature, the grade you get is your responsibility and an indication of the work you put in, and no one else. You can’t blame anyone for how poorly you might do (though you’ll do just fine if you follow all these tips properly). Conversely, you get all the glory for a test well done. N.B. this is not to cast you into existential despair, only to encourage you to be aware of your situation and realise that you can control how successful you are.
#4 Trust no one
This is somewhat in line with the fact that you are alone in this (to some degree). You can’t trust anyone, seriously. You can’t trust anyone to lend you the book you need, give you the notes you missed because you were sick, offer you correct information for the problems as they understand them. You absolutely cannot trust anyone who starts any sentence with “I heard …”. No. You get that information yourself, you request that/those book/s from the library (a decent instructor will put necessary books on reserve), you go over to your friend’s place (thoughtfully arranged in advance) and use your phone to take pics of those notes. And if there is a question, you always ask the instructor, not the class.
#5 Know your enemy
It is starting to seem a bit Machiavellian with all this ‘you are alone’, ‘trust no one’, and now, ‘know your enemy’. Well, it sort of is. But what enemy do you need to know? There really is only one opponent in this game, and that is you. But it helps to know something about the creator.
"There really is only one opponent in this game, and that is you."
If you really want to know the kind of test you will be taking, find out if your instructor is the kind of nice person who asks easy questions on exams and then plan to take an exam given by the complete opposite sort of person (apply tip #6 here). If it happens that your instructor is the exact opposite kind of person then imagine someone worse and plan accordingly.
#6 Find old tests
It is common that old tests for courses are floating around departments, even tests from before computers were born (but after mimeographs and Xerox machines). If you can find exams from the instructor, even better. If s/he offers, or doesn’t mind being asked, get those. It is rare that similar questions occur, but it can give you an idea of how the tests are structured, what to look for, and so on. Alternatively, you could consider the model exam answer service we provide here at Oxbridge Essays.
#7 Find recent test-takers
Most university courses are recycled as part of a standing curriculum and this is especially true for lower-level undergraduate courses that occur every term, every other term, or every other year. Chances are pretty good that there are people who have studied the courses and taken the exams still active on campus. They might not have anything useful to offer, but at the same time they might. So it’s worth a try. Be mindful though that this isn’t a last-ditch save and is probably something that should be done well in advance of the exam date(s) because you need all that time to actually study.
Our academics know that certain exam questions come up again and again. They'll provide you with a model answer for you to study and build upon so that come exam day, you're fully prepped.
#8 Be selfish
Let’s be clear here – we aren’t saying you need to be an awful person. No one’s a fan of grumbly, nasty people, and being that way won’t get you far at university, or in life. But you do need to put yourself first; you need to prioritise your needs before the needs of others as much as possible. People and the desire to do things with them can suck up a lot of time. So if it comes down to going out for drinks or studying, choose studying. But if it comes down to sitting with your mother in the hospital or studying, visit your mother. And bring your books.
#9 Be unavailable
In the world today, this tip is probably the toughest one to heed: you must make yourself strategically unavailable. We advised being selfish and not sharing yourself, and that is in the physical world. But in the same way, being available by phone, text, and email can take up just as much time and effort. The pings and dings and rings of the cell phone! The beatings of those hideous hearts! Just turn the phone off and ignore the less important emails where you can.
#10 Isolate yourself
This tip comes highly recommended. Toward the end of the old film The Paper Chase (1973), when the time comes to study for the exam, two lawyers-to-be rent a hotel room for three days and completely isolate themselves. In fact, as they enter the room they point to the television and say, “Get that damned thing out of here”. What wise lawyers-to-be they were. If you have a friend as dedicated and focused as you are, then the best thing you can do when the heat is on in the final run-up to an exam, is grab what you need and lock yourselves away. You can watch the clip here.
#11 Cancel social media
OK, this is our last tip on being selfish and isolating yourself, we promise. Ahh, the irresistible lure of needing to know what’s happening in the world of people on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And the Mr. and Mrs. Rights or casual what-ifs of Tinder. You wanna swipe something? Swipe the pages in your textbooks. Joking aside, the point is that time goes quick, it is precious, and most of these aforementioned things will just waste it. They all have logout functions, so use them.
You have probably heard this before, and it is true: you need sleep. There are still people who believe that if they stay up all night cramming they will do fine. But your brain needs the time and rest to consolidate the information you are dumping into it. You physically cannot retain all the information in one hard go. Hence tip #2. Now, naps can help, but you need to structure your time so that you are getting the solid 7-9 hours of nightly slumber that you need to be at your peak. When you are done studying, you can read more about the power of sleep here.
#13 Eat well
This also will not be new information, surely! You need to fuel. You need to eat healthily. Don’t skip meals, either. The good news is you can eat healthfully often as a poor university student. Go for the veggies, the fruits, and some lean protein. This is just as important as sleep. Don’t eat the foods that are going to burn up and make you sluggish (sugar, refined carbs, saturated fats). Go for the long-haul fuels like complex carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals.
#14 Quit your job, or call in sick
It isn’t something we recommend with pride, but yep, if it comes down to it and you can live without the job and / or the money, quit the job to do the studying. Or, if you can, call in sick. Now, if you are good sort who plans well ahead, maximises your down time and are generally on top of things, this won’t likely apply. But if you have to choose, choose studying.
#15 Form a study group
One of the best ways to learn is to do it cooperatively and socially in a group. This is a bit of a double-edged sword though. If you form a study group and everyone is committed and focused, it can move you light years forward in preparation. But if the group is not so committed, it can be a disaster. The same applies to joining a group. You really want to know the people – know who they are and how they work, and make sure they will benefit you and complement your learning style.
#16 Know yourself
Ah, this fine Delphic maxim! Know thyself! Who are you? How do you study? What works best to put the information that you need between your ears? These are things you should have already sorted out, and you should apply them consistently. If you aren’t sure, don’t hesitate to go to others and find out what works for them, for tips. But this is all stuff that needs to be sorted before crunch time.
#17 Use your empty/free time
In the classic 1986 film Soul Man, the main character (played by C. Thomas Howell, then blessed with youthful good looks) gets arrested. His professor, played by the incomparable James Earl Jones, tells him: “The next time you get arrested, call me. I’ll bring you your books. You can study in jail.” We don’t necessarily endorse calling your instructor from jail for your books, but hey! Whatever works. We do recommend using your free time to the best advantage, which means carrying notes and books wherever you go. We’re huge fans of index cards, and bringing these in your pocket and reading through them while waiting in line or on the bus is easy.
#18 Don't experiment
Now, as you prepare for your exam, it is not the time for experimentation and trying new things. On the day of the marathon most runners put on shoes that are already worn in, that fit and work comfortably. It is not the day a runner tries out a new pair of shoes, and for good reason – no one wants to be dealing with things going horribly wrong on the day they’ve been training for, for months.
"You want reliability. Save the new and untried methods for another time when the result is less risky".
Just like every other make-it or break-it venture, you want reliability. At this point you need to go with what you know works and save the new and untried methods for another time when the result is less risky.
#19 Don't use drugs
Please, we are begging you, with tears in our eyes, don’t use drugs either to alleviate the anxiety of taking the test, the grief you might feel for not having done well, or anything pharmaceutical to enhance your focus. This is bad. It won’t go well. We have seen it. No more needs to be said here.
#20 Make your test
Gather up all your course materials. Sit down at your desk. Imagine that you are your professor, and that you have been possessed by a demon who feeds on the despairing souls of students who are asked questions that they cannot answer. What questions would these be? Think of as many as you can, then make a practice test for yourself and possibly others who can do the same. Quiz yourself brutally. Repeat to maximise effectiveness.
#21 Study throughout the day
One sure-fire route to exam success is managing your time well. The first thing you need to know is when during the day you work best. Some people are freshest and sharpest in the morning; others are worthless until after lunch. Your peak hours are the times when you need to put in the most effort. But that does not mean you can do nothing for the rest of the day. Do the things that require the least focus in your least-focused hours. But study throughout the entire day wherever you can.
#22 Get some exercise
You have heard it before and you will hear it again: active bodies are good for the brain. It makes for a nice break to get out and do some exercise, but there’s no reason why you can’t mobilise your body while you are studying too. Get up and stretch frequently. Walk around while you read. And read outside – in a park, in your garden (if you’re lucky enough), or wherever inspires you – to reap the additional benefits of extra oxygen.
#23 Do the hard work first
When you are organising your studying time, one thing that can really help you is to identify the hardest work and do it first. This has two advantages. The first is that it gets the unpleasantness over as quickly as possible. The second is that it makes everything that comes after an absolute skate (the phrase, “save the best ‘til last” was coined for a reason).
#24 Read ahead
This is an extension of tip #2. You absolutely do not want to be the person reading the book in order to prepare for the exam. The book should have been read. You want to be the person who is re-reading the book for the exam. This is one of the most effective ways that you can manage your time to prepare for the test. If you read back through most of these hacks and tips you will find one recurring theme: time-management. Of all the things involved with studying, reading usually takes up the most time. Get it out of the way as early as possible.
#25 Location, location, location
It definitely helps to have a specific location that allows you to say to yourself: “this is where I study”. Some people like the white noise offered by populated locations and so study happily and well in restaurants and cafes. Others find any noise a distraction and frequent libraries and cosy stacks. Some people live alone and can ignore all the demands on their attention and focus in their homes. Wherever it is, it should be a consistent place that you go every day.
You made it through all the tips – hurrah! As a reward, here's a final extra one on us. From the first day of class, you should not miss a day or an opportunity to study and prepare. It is particularly important to remember that “repetition is the mother of memory”. This means that if you want to remember something, you need to repeat it, and often. Sometime ago there was a buzzword circulating among academics – we’re not sure anyone uses it anymore, but it is a fitting idea and it goes like this: if you really want to learn something, you have to over-learn it. This is basically the kind of mastery that comes from consistent repetition. A good example is language. Your ability to use your native language comes from such frequent and repetitive use that you have over-learned the material. The same philosophy should go into the studying that you do as you prepare for your exams. Don’t just learn the material; aim to know it as well as you know your first language.