How to Cram for a College Exam
If you haven't cracked a book before now or if you just want to be as prepared as possible, cramming the night before an exam is a must. This how-to will guide you through the process.
Don't Freak Out
Panicking isn't going to help at this point, so don't bother. Instead, take a few deep breaths and calmly assess the situation. You need to determine four things:
1. What You Need to Study
Knowing how much information you have to cover to be prepared for an exam is essential. Be realistic and make a list. Put the things you already know at the bottom and the things you are clueless about at the top.
2. How Many Hours You Have to Cram
Since it's the night before the exam, your cram session is sure to be limited. Determine how much time you have. Again, be realistic. If you are confident in your ability to successfully pull an all-nighter, by all means do so. But if you know you can't function without sleep, you're better off setting aside time to get some zzz's.
3. Where You Will Study
You'll need to find a quiet, well-lit place that's completely devoid of distractions. This may mean leaving your room, your house and possibly even your town.
4. Your Plan of Attack
Coming up with some sort of game plan before you get started will save valuable time. To start, decide what study techniques you'll be employing and what you'll need to accomplish your goal. Then, make a schedule or a to-do list to help you execute your plan in a timely manner.
Gather a Few Essentials
Before you begin, gather up everything you think you might need to cram for the exam. These items may include:
- Textbooks or other books
- Class notes or other study materials
- Blank paper, index cards or something else to write on
- Multicolored pens and highlighters
- Post-it notes or sticky flags
- Voice recorder
- Water and several caffeinated beverages
- Finger food snacks that don't make a mess
The study technique you should use will depend heavily on what kind of learner you are and what kind of test you're studying for. Here are a few techniques to pick from:
Hopefully you have class notes. If not, it's time to think about making photocopies of someone else's--preferably someone who takes good notes. If the professor made a specific point of emphasizing specific subject matter in class, it's likely that at least some of this subject matter will appear on the exam.
A few ways to use your notes:
- Look through the notes and try to find things that have been underlined or highlighted in some other way. This information is probably important.
- Scan the notes and look for key information that you can highlight or flag with post-it notes for easy reference later on.
- Rewrite key information from your notes. This will help you memorize and comprehend important points.
- Read some of your notes aloud into a voice recorder and replay them later.
Using a Textbook
Reading an entire textbook is not an effective way to cram for an exam. Instead, try concentrating on the summaries that appear at the beginning and end of each chapter. Chapter end questions, illustrative examples and other sections that are located throughout the book may also prove helpful.
A few other techniques to try include:
- Looking for bolded words. Words in a bold or italicized font are probably important. Take note of these words by writing them down, highlighting them or flagging them in some other way.
- Knowing how to answer chapter end questions. Lazy professors pull their exam questions straight from the back of the book.
- Using the table of contents, the glossary and other overlooked parts of the textbook to get an overview of key information.
- Reading introductions and conclusions. These parts always include important points.
Using Cliff Notes and Study Guides
Reading or re-reading a book overnight is no easy feat. You may want to consider using Cliff Notes or other types of study guides. These materials usually include plot summaries, character information and step-by-step instructions to help you get through it all. It's not a perfect trade-off, but when you're in a crunch it works. You can find Cliff Notes and study guides online and in book stores.
A few examples:
- Cliff Notes - Can be bought in book form or downloaded to your iPod
- Spark Notes - Can be bought in book form or downloaded to your iPod
- Book Rags - Free ebooks and text viewable online
- Pink Monkey - Free study guides and chapter summaries viewable online
- Grade Saver - Free online study guides viewable online (downloadable PDF)
Using Other Study Materials
Some professors are kind enough to hand out study materials prior to an exam. If your professor does that, you should use what you are given. The information within these materials will almost certainly be woven into the exam.
Other study materials you may be able to use:
- Workbooks or Student Manuals - A lot of college textbooks have accompanying student manuals or workbooks that contain sample essays or quizzes. These are great to study from because some professors take exam questions right out of them.
- Past Assignments, Tests and Quizzes - A good way to review for an exam is to focus on what you've already been tested on. You can do this by pulling out any past assignments, tests or quizzes that include the subject you're currently studying.
Using a Voice Recorder
Reading information into a voice recorder or mp3 player is a great way to study because you can listen to everything later on. When you hear something over and over again, it's bound to sink in just a little bit. If you decide to use this steady technique, you can replay what you recorded:
- While you sleep (can't hurt, right?)
- While you're brushing your teeth and getting ready to go in the morning
- While you eat breakfast
- While you travel to class or the exam center
- While you wait for the exam to be handed out
Using Memorization Techniques
There are tons of different memorization techniques that you can use to cram for an exam. A few of the best include:
- Repeating information over and over again. (Do this until you can easily repeat something ten minutes later.)
- Rewriting information that you want to retain. (Rewrite at least three times for maximum retention.)
- Acting it out. (Make up a dance or hand signals to remember whole sentences.)
- Making rhymes and songs out of important dates and facts. (Who can forget that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue?)
- Using acronyms to remember facts. (SIM translates to Sedimentary, Igneous and Metamorphic--the three basic rock types.)
- Using acrostics to remember words in a specific order. (My Dear Aunt Sally = Multiply and Divide before you Add and Subtract)
It's a good idea to quiz yourself midway through your cram session to see how well you're retaining information. This way you still have time to switch up your study technique if it isn't working for you. A few ways to quiz yourself:
- Use a voice recorder with pre-recorded questions
- Use index cards that have questions written on one side and answers on the other
- Use chapter-end questions from your textbook
- Use questions from past quizzes, tests or assignments
- Ask someone else to quiz you
Bonus Study Techniques
A few exam-specific study techniques that might help you through your cram session:
You can try studying for essay exams like you would study for any other exam, but you'll be better off memorizing a few important points for every bit of subject matter you may be tested on. As long as you know the basics, you should be able to elaborate enough to competently answer the average essay question.
You may also want to think about taking 20 minutes to brush up on your essay writing skills. The inability to write a decent sentence or paragraph could work against you even if you know the exam material. Good places to read up on essay writing include:
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab - Writing essay exams
- Tulane University - Answering essay questions
- Paradigm - Basic punctuation and sentence concepts
Multiple Choice Exams
You might be able to pass your exam by marking 'C' as the answer to every question, but it's highly unlikely. You will be much better off employing one of these methods:
- Focus on details while studying. (Multiple choice exams always focus on details.)
- Memorize vocabulary words and definitions. (Multiple choice exams test your knowledge of concepts by structuring questions around vocabulary words.)
- Understand multi-step processes and event sequences. (Multiple choice exams almost always include questions about groupings and similarities.)
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