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organization || 14 exam study TIPS | work smarter, faster & happier!

Want to study smarter, faster, and be happier while doing it? Here are 14 exam study tips and habits!

Good luck on your tests and exams!

If you’re short on time or want to just read the blog post version, see below!

My IB exams are coming up at the start of May, and I’m sure many of you will also be getting ready for your own exams in the next few months. SO in the spirit of testing season, today I’m sharing fourteen tips to help you study more effectively! These are sustainable, realistic things you can do or mindsets to adopt that help you get more done in less time. So get ready for some major test and exam study hacks!

CREATE A WHY: meaning and enjoyment

Before ANYTHING, you have to think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. And I’d recommend you separate this from anything external – you’re not doing this to impress your friends, your parents, or just to get good grades (although those can be nice bonuses). Take some time – maybe sit down for five minutes – and really reflect about this. I’d recommend using the “why questioning” method – I don’t know if it has a specific name, but we’ll call it that for now.

You might start by asking yourself “why should I study for my math exam?” “Well, I want to do well.” “What does that look like to me?” “Getting a good grade, knowing how to do all the questions – even if I make some mistakes along the way, and being comfortable with all the material” “Why does that matter to me?” “Well, a good grade is important so I can get into my university of choice, I want to know how to do the questions because I actually enjoy math and I know I CAN do well – it’s just a matter of being diligent. I also want to know the material so I can prove to myself that I .” Also, an exam is, after all, just a way for me to test what I know. I’ll take it as a challenge to learn as much as possible and see just how far I can come in a single semester.

You might think “Why do I have to do exams when all I want to do right now is focus on other projects, like painting or going out with friends or starting a new blog?” Well, you’ve got to set a date to accomplish your goals, and someone’s set this date for you so why not stick to it? The sooner you do it, the sooner you’ll be done and dusted. PLUS, we can’t always pick when things happen, but we can pick how we react to them. So that’s the second part to this tip. You’ve also got to find ENJOYMENT in what you’re doing. I know it might sound counter intuitive – who can possibly ENJOY exams? In my case, I love exams because I get the entire rest of the day off! Plus, they’re only 1.5 hours, they’re not THAT bad, they’re just on stuff I’ve already learned for an entire semester, and they’re a pretty cool way to wrap up the material I’ve worked so hard to learn – I FINALLY get to spit out everything I’ve been building up. For humanities courses, I get to talk about what’s been on my mind with regards to the material. For math courses, I get to prove just how much I’ve learned.

So tip number 1: Find something about your tests and exams that is meaningful and something that is enjoyable.

LEARN to understand, don’t MEMORIZE

Learning new things is exciting! You start off not knowing something, and then you know it! It’s really important to keep the point of exams in your mind when you’re studying – this isn’t just about the grades, this is about the material and testing how much you truly understand. When you’re studying, make sure your focus is on UNDERSTANDING the material rather than memorizing concepts. Find something to really enjoy about the subject, and focus on really understanding how everything else fits into that idea.

Go through your notes thrice – once when you make them, and once when you highlight them, and once when you actively remember them

I’m not a huge fan of re-writing anything, so I think it’s important to make the most of ANY time you look at your notes. I’ve developed a system where I take really good, organized, mind-map-style notes when I first learn them. Then I read them over soon after (maybe that evening or that weekend) and highlight using my colour code. Then, when the test comes around I’ll read over the notes and practice remembering various key topics.

DON’T annotate – focus on reading first, then summarize it in your own words in notes

I used to HEAVILY annotate my books. But the more I did it, the more I realized I was reading in spurts – multitasking, in a sense. I was writing things down for fear of forgetting them but they weren’t really developing into fully formed ideas in the first place. A HUGE tip for learning and recalling information when exams come around is to READ SEPARATELY. Think separately. And take notes separately.

Actively test yourself

This is the number one technique when it comes to studying for a test or exam. You’ll have to be able to RECALL information from your mind when you’re being tested, so why not practice doing that while you’re studying! What I like to do (if I’m not given one yet) is create a general outline or syllabus with all the key definitions (if I’m tested on them directly) and concepts that I need to know. That way, I have a complete and not-as-scary list of everything I need to know. Then, I use that to actively test my knowledge of the concepts by scribbling on a scrap piece of paper brief notes I remember about each topic. When I’m done, I’ll cross-check that with my notes to add things I forgot and star concepts I need to go over.

Another way to actively test yourself is to do practice questions, if it’s applicable to your subject. This means trying some from the textbook or, if you’re studying for an exam, redoing the questions you got wrong on previous tests.

Create a cheat sheet of things you have to MEMORIZE

LOVE doing this. For pretty much every subject I create a single sided sheet with all the ESSENTIAL formulas or lists I need to memorize. It really helps me map everything out, and test myself later too. I’m also a very visual learner and tend to remember things by picturing their location in my notes – so doing this helps me remember things too.

Create a short list of things to not forget to do (esp. Math courses)

This is especially useful in math courses. When I’m checking over my practice questions, I’ll keep a running list of common mistakes I’ve been making. Right before I walk into the exam room, I just check over my list to refresh my memory not to forget my units, my “+c”, my graph labels and titles, and so on.

Ask your teacher questions! Write them on sticky notes

This one’s self-explanatory! Your teacher is there to help you out, so go to them for help! It also shows that you’re interested in the course.

BREAK down your tasks

Now, let’s move on to the study schedules and the planning. First of all, it’s SO important to break down general tasks like “study economics unit 2” into “read unit in textbook”, “memorize vocab words”, “read notes”, “redo practice questions”, “practice blurting”.

Create a general and generous schedule → Take breaks, don’t shut yourself out

Now, when it comes to actually scheduling your time out, make sure to create a general schedule. I find that when I vastly underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete individual tasks like “read chapter 12”, and then when I don’t end up finishing in the time I wanted to, I get discouraged and disappointed. Even worse, I sometimes simply prolong the time I’d originally allocated, effectively punishing myself for not finishing on time. On the other hand, simply setting aside 4 hours to work on economics is much more productive. You know that once you’re done the four hours, you’re DONE. It also helps you get started in the first place, because it’s not as daunting. As long as you’re doing SOME economics for the four hours, you’ve accomplished what you said you would. Starting just a little bit of something is better than just avoiding it because it’s too scary a task.

Along the same lines, make sure to schedule in fun breaks for yourself! Just because your exams are in a few weeks doesn’t mean you can’t go out with friends or spend a day outdoors! Shutting yourself in will only make you grumpy and less productive.

Sleep first

Though it’s easier said than done, this is obviously one of the most important tips. You’ve got to prioritize your sleep. Always.

Stop comparing your habits to other people’s habits

Are you guilty of obsessively asking all your friends how much they’ve studied in the weeks leading up to your exams? DON’T! Everyone has to find their own balance, and you won’t get anywhere trying to copy the habits of other people.  And this doesn’t just apply to comparing yourself to others, but yourself too! Make sure to keep your mental health in check by stepping free of expectations of how your studying, life, and goals should look. Funnily enough, this is something I’m really struggling with lately, so I know it’s hard. Nothing I do seems to be “enough” for me, but that is such an unhealthy mindset! Life isn’t just fun, but it’s not just productive work either! Find a blend and be okay with it.

Be kind to yourself – if you didn’t study today, it’s okay! Keep moving forward!

Similar to my last point, don’t dwell in what you didn’t do. There’s literally no point regretting things that happened (or didn’t happen) in the past. If you didn’t study today and feel horrible about it, that’s fine! The time has passed already, and you did something else with your time. It’s always passing and we’re always making choices about how to use our time. The best part is, we get to pick how we use the many other moments in our future! So take a deep breath, take a walk (fresh air is literally the best thing ever), and move on.



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