Preparing for an Exam

Whether taken on the computer, with a blue book, or instructor prepared sheets, an exam has a significant impact on your course grade. It provides the opportunity to demonstrate how much you have learned (or haven’t learned) during the semester and how well prepared you are for the next class in this discipline. So, make no mistake, they are important!

While some exams cover only certain portions of course content, many exams - specifically finals - are comprehensive. As such, these all-inclusive exams demand more study and understanding than section-specific exams. In order to be prepared for all of your exams, follow the suggested steps for each class and conduct your own countdown:

Get Organized

For each course, check your syllabus for all exam dates. Your professor will let you know what each exam will cover, but if you want more information, be sure to meet with them in office hours. If your exam/final is comprehensive, review earlier tests for those questions you didn’t know the answers to. Go back to your books, notes, and other resources and develop your answers for those questions.

Comprehensive or not, determine what you know and understand, and, more importantly, what you do not know or understand. As you begin the next two steps, don’t waste a lot of time reviewing or studying what you already know. Focus, instead, on what you don’t know!

Narrow Your Focus

Conduct a short review of your course material. Review and organize your notes (both your textbook and in-class notes). Add explanatory notes, correct inaccurate or incomplete information, write exam questions in the margins. Make any adjustments necessary to ensure they are ready for your intensive study needs (Step 3).

Develop summary sheets, word lists, mnemonic devices for memorizing vocabulary, mind-maps, fishbone diagrams (cause & effect), flashcards, etc. of important material you need to know.

Create a study to-do-list of the material you need to know before the exam. Include textbook sections and chapters, classroom and textbook notes, study questions, practice problems, vocabulary lists, and formulas. Use your study to-do-list to develop a study schedule for the week before and the week of the exam.

  • First, estimate how much time you will need to complete or learn each item on you study to-do-list.
  • Second, using a monthly calendar, block out time in sequence (earliest exams first, latest exams/finals last, information you are concerned about first, information you know very well last) for each activity for each class.
  • Be sure to schedule time for your classes, work, breaks, sleep, eating, and exercise/relaxation.

Study for Success

Follow your study schedule! Focus on comprehension and understanding of material. Reach the point where you can summarize course concepts in your own words.

Take breaks. Remember, a frustrated and tired learner is a poor learner.

Use your mind-maps, mnemonics, study sheets, etc. to give visual organization to your course material. Look for similarities, differences, and relationships. Increase your retention by linking new information with information you already know. Apply concepts. Remember, if you can apply it you understand it. Ask yourself:

  • What’s an example of this?
  • How does this differ from this?
  • How and why would I use this?
  • When does this formula apply?

Outline the major concepts for potential essay questions. Work practice problems for mathematics and other math-based courses.

Finals Week

For the last fifteen weeks you have been preparing for this last opportunity to demonstrate to your professor how much you have learned! 

Preparing for Finals Week

Start early.

  • Preparation for finals begins before the actual week of final exams. You cannot cram an entire semester’s work of information into one or two nights of studying. Get started on Monday the week before final exams. Think of finals week as a week of finals.

Determine what type of final you will be taking.

  • A non-comprehensive final will cover all the information given/discussed after the last mid-term exam or test. A comprehensive final will cover all of the information covered from day one of the class. Determining which type of final you will be taking could make a huge difference in the time you’ll need to commit to studying for a particular final.

Know what the final will cover.

  • If you are 23 chapters behind in your reading for a class, don’t spend the night before the final trying to read the material for the first time. Unless the professor has clearly stated that the book covers different content than the lecture and that it will be covered on the test, you’re better off focusing on your notes (assuming you have been to class).

Use all of your materials.

  • Continue to review your textbook headings and sub-headings, and introductory and summary statements.
  • Review summary sheets, mind maps, mnemonics, study sheets, etc.
  • Summarize information aloud.
  • Give yourself mock tests and see how you do in specific areas of concern.

Study your favorite subject last and the one you dread first.

  • Force yourself to devote more time to a subject in which you are not strong and reduced time studying subjects you are really into and, by extension, better at.


  • Study in an out-of-the-way place. As tempted as you are to study with your friends, your best bet is to find a place of your own where you can think. Avoid the mass hysteria at the student union and flee from people wanting to borrow your notes.

Don’t chase an old test.

  • Don’t spend the entire night before trying to run down a copy of last year’s exam. Even if you do find one, you’ll most likely be very disappointed to find that it bears little resemblance to this year’s test.

Avoid last-minute cramming.

  • Use the time before the test to relax, catch your breath, and take a minute to get focused. By cramming until the last 30 seconds before you sit down to take the exam; you will more than likely just confuse yourself.

Eat well, stay active, and get plenty of sleep.

  • You need at least four hours of sleep a night to function. College finals are designed to make you think. If you are sleep deprived, you won’t be able to comprehend (or answer) the challenging questions you will face.
  • Take time to relax!

During & After the Exam

Read all of the directions carefully.

  • Read through the entire test to see what you are up against. Determine if you will have any time pressure and if it is manageable. Determine where the easy points are. Answer those questions first if you think you may be short on time. This will leave the most time to focus on the harder portions of the exam. If different sections of the exam are weighted differently on the point scale, do not waste all of your time on the 2 point questions when there are heavier-weighted 10 point questions to tackle.

Stay calm during the exam.

  • If at first glance, the test is overwhelming, remember to breathe! Do not panic! If you don’t know the answer to a question, move on to the next question and come back later. Remind yourself that you are well prepared, and take the exam one question at a time. You will gain momentum by answering the easy questions first – and you will do better by keeping your head in the game.

Ask questions if allowed.

  • If you do, you may find that you gain a great deal of clarity about what the professor is truly getting at with the question. You might even get a feel for the answer the professor is looking for if you listen closely.

Stay for the entire session.

  • Reread the questions and your answers to them. Make sure you understand what the question is really asking and that you have answered the question completely and accurately. 

Remain calm after the exam.

  • Even if you think you did horribly, worrying about it afterwards will not change a thing; it may, however, effect how you do on your other finals. Keep your head up and move on to the next exam. Odds are that if you were well prepared for this exam and you did poorly that others also did poorly. If you received a 48% and the professor decided to curve the final, your score could still be a passing grade.