Wondering how to study for finals? With a a little strategic planning, you can get the most out of your study sessions. Discover study tips that will help you create a game plan, retain information, stay focused and walk into your tests with confidence.
1. Understand your goals.
"Students follow a series of requirements, and it becomes very easy to feel like you're simply jumping through a series of hoops as opposed to understanding why that class and that test are relevant to you," says Colin Gruenwald of Kaplan Test Prep. "You have to ask why you're going to invest the time and energy to do well on a test. Why do you intend to be the student who gets an A?"View more
2. Prioritize the tests that matter the most.
"It's a mistake to consider all of your finals equal if you're materially better at one subject than another," says Gruenwald. "Some students think that they should commit equal time to studying for each test. They're taking away from their opportunity to really commit time where they need it."
3. Clarify the content and format of your exams.
"Find out what the test is going to cover," says Ted Dorsey, author of Tutor Ted's Guide to the SAT. "Ask what the format ismultiple choice, essay, or both. Once you begin studying, bring any questions you have to your teachers. Most teachers will be happy to help you."
4. Aim to begin studying at least one month in advance.
"Everyone knows that studying a little bit over a long period of time is absolutely, undeniably the right way to study, and yet we are all terrible at actually putting this plan into effect," says Gruenwald. "The best time to start studying is at the beginning of the class. Set aside a little time each week to sit down and organize your notes and think about what's going well and what's going badly. Three to four weeks ahead of time is the latest that you want to create a study plan for yourself. Cramming is toxic."
5. Create an action plan.
If you don't define what you do while you study, you set yourself up for endless hours in the library spent mindlessly scrolling through Facebook in between taking notes that won't actually help you remember the material. Georgetown professor and study expert Cal Newport recommends creating a detailed action-based plan that abandons "studying" as the verb of choice.
When you're thinking about how to study for finals, get specific. An example of an action plan might look something like this:
- 10 a.m. - 12 p.m.: Outline pages 1-25 in biology textbook
- 12 - 12:15 p.m.: Snack Break
- 12:15 - 1 p.m.: Diagram the parts of a cell
- 1 - 1:30 p.m.: Read through all your notes
Besides focus and organization, there's another bonus to being specific: When you're done with your predetermined plan, you can give yourself permission to be done for the day.
The most effective studying happens in short, concentrated bursts, so making a checklist will ensure you don't bite off more than you can chew. You'll also feel accomplished at the end of your study session, instead of being overwhelmed by all the stuff you haven't reviewed yet.
6. Take as many practice tests as you can.
Chances are your teachers have provided you with practice questions, essay topics, and a variety of other materials to get your mind in test-fighting shape. (And if they haven't, it's your job to ask!) Not only do examples help you work through a semester's worth of material, they also make you more familiar with the structure of the exam, which in turn helps with all that nasty test anxiety.
7. Remove all distractions and avoid multitasking.
In the process of writing this article, we had to resist checking our email (and Twitter and Instagram ...) every five minutes, just like anyone else with a minor internet addiction. But the research is in, and multitasking is just not something our brains can do well. At all. If you're spending the evening hitting the books, leave your laptop at home (or if you need your computer to take notes, disconnect from wifi!). The same goes for smartphones, social media accounts, and whatever else might end up being a distraction: When you've settled in to study, it's time to do that and only that. You'll absorb the material so much better and be way more efficient with your time.
8. Read out loud.
A big part of studying is just reading: finally reading that chapter you skipped, re-reading the material you felt shakiest on, reading over the notes you took months ago no wonder your eyes tend to glaze over before long. To prevent entering a trance-like state where you're reading without really processing, start reading out loud. It's one of the oldest and lo-fi study hacks, but also one of the most effective, as it forces you to focus on every word. If that starts to get too easy, read upside down. Yes, turn your notes or book upside down and try to read it that way. It'll slow you down, but you'll actually concentrate on what you're reading, not all the other things fighting for your brain's attention.
9. Listen to recordings.
For those moments when you can't conceivably have your nose stuck in a book while you're walking, driving, exercising, folding laundry, whatever considering listening to a recording that complements your studying. Whether you have recordings of your professor's lectures, found a podcast on the topic, or taped yourself reading over your notes, plug in your earbuds and listen up. This is especially helpful for auditory learners who do best when they hear (and not read!) information. Pro tip: When you're really pressed for time, play the recordings at twice the speed. Seriously, talk about efficiency!
10. Attend all class reviews.
If your teacher is offering any reviews or study sessions, take advantage of them! Your teacher, naturally, is going to focus on the material that will be on the final, which will help you focus on the most important things. Plus, you can ask any the teacher about anything you're finding challenging.
11. Take five-minute breaks every hour.
"When you study, your brain consumes glucose," says Dorsey. "Take a five-minute break every hour to let your body produce more fuel for your studying. Take a walk and stretch. Taking breaks will actually improve your studying."
12. Play classical music while you study to concentrate better.
Studies have actually show that listening to classical music a person's reasoning and intelligence while they are listening to the music (it's called the Mozart effect). Try it for yourself and see if Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven or Mozart give you a boost!
13. Build up your endurance.
Build up mental endurance by pushing past your comfort zone. Maybe you're used to learning 10 flashcards every day, but what if you learn 15 instead? This is sort of like increasing the reps on a weights set, except instead of building your biceps, your brain is getting buffer.
14. Use apps to help you.
We generally recommend staying off your phone while studying (distractions!), but here's permission to make a few more swipes. There are tons of apps out there to optimize your studying, and many are either free or pretty cheap. There are apps to replace graphic calculators, apps that show the periodic table, apps that create paper flashcards and apps that show world maps. If you're a data junkie, try Study Checker, which tracks your study habits and reveals the trends, so you can see where you can up your efficiency.
15. Stay motivated by periodic rewards.
How do you stay motivated when you're so not in the mood to study? Treat yourself! The carrot-and-stick approach is indeed for real. It's unrealistic to think you'll be able to review non-stop, so build in breaks as rewards. This has a whole bunch of benefits. Chunking your review will make the material more digestible, you'll be more driven to get things done since there's a (temporary) reprieve in sight, and your brain will benefit from the refresh. Ultimately, it's all about hacking your brain a little bit. When you're deep in a studying haze, you may be so eager to escape that you find yourself making strange bargains, like that you get to look at Instagram for five whole minutes if you can finish the next chapter of your reading. Just go with it.
16. Try memorization techniques.
When Joshua Foer wrote his book Moonwalking with Einstein (which documents his yearlong quest to join the ranks of memorization masters), he learned a lot about how to remember tough facts with easy techniques. One such tip? Associating hard-to-recall nuggets with familiar spaces (this technique is called building a memory palace).
Here's how it works: if you were trying to remember everyone who signed the U.S. Constitution, for example, you would mentally place the signers along a path through your childhood home to help you recall each one. There's Benjamin Franklin at the front door, George Washington sitting on the couch, James Madison in the kitchen, Pierce Butler hovering in the hall, etc. Imagine all the signers in different places in the house, and your brain will create a pattern to recall them by associating the men with places you know like the back of your hand.
17. Fuel your brain with healthy snacks.
Trust usif you eat heavy, unhealthy foods late at night, your brain isn't going to be in prime form. As such, it's especially important to factor food into your study routine! Fruit and nuts are particularly good choices during crunch time. And fuel goes beyond what you're putting in your mouth: Getting enough quality sleep and taking some time to recharge is also super important. After all, what's good for the body is good for the mind.
18. Learn how you study best.
"Everyone learns differently," says Dorsey. "Just because your friend makes color-coded outlines, it doesn't mean that's the best way for you to study too. Change the lyrics of a song you know to help you memorize the countries of Africa. Write a funny story about the characters in The Scarlet Letter. Any studying is good studying, so do it the way that works best for you."
19. Know when to stop studying.
"Within 12 to 24 hours of the test, it's time to stop studying," says Gruenwald. "You're not going to learn a lot of new content. The likelihood is much higher that you're going to stress yourself out and confuse yourself. For the last-minute studier, flashcards can be a good resource. They can earn you a few more points on test day, and it's a much healthier thing to do than starting on page one of the textbook."
20. Get a good night's sleep.
"Eight hours is ideal for the night before an exam," says Dorsey. "It may be tempting to stay up late studying, but remember: you're going to need energy and focus while you're taking your exam."
21. Naturally energize yourself the morning of the test.
"Do something stimulating the morning of the test," says Gruenwald. "Don't sit down and watch a back-to-back marathon of American Idol; that's just going to zap your energy level. Instead, read a book, do a crossword puzzle, take your dog for a walk, or get some exercise. Do something that's going to make you feel alive and positive, and will build up your energy level and confidence in the 24 hours before the test. Please, stay away from caffeine and energy drinks! Your hand will shake so that you can't write coherent words, and you may crash in the middle of the test."
Last but not least among our study tips is simply to take a deep breath and relax. "You've survived final exams before, and you'll survive them this time too," says Dorsey. "If you're feeling nervous when you sit down to take the test, take three slow, steady breaths. Remind yourself that you've been getting ready for these tests all year long."
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