Midterm season is upon us, and while it’s important to recharge the mental batteries over winter vacation, it’s important to think about the weeks ahead. Whether you’re a middle schooler tackling pre-algebra for the very first time, a high schooler navigating a tough chemistry class, or a senior counting down the days to graduation, you’re going to have to master critical study skills if you want to do well on your exams and achieve academic success.
When it comes to test-taking, some people seem to be born with a mystical, innate talent, while others struggle time and time again. The skill of effective test-taking however, is just that – a skill. It can be learned, practiced, and mastered. We’ve compiled a guided timeline of time-honored study habits to help students achieve top scores.
1-2 Weeks Before Test Day
Annotate your notes and identify confusing concepts.
- The two weeks leading up to a midterm exam are critical. Cramming isn’t going to cut for a cumulative test. Getting an early start on studying will improve your scores and reduce your stress. In the week or two prior to the exam, read through your notes, the textbook, and any other materials your teacher may have provided. Develop an annotation system that works for you and stick with it across every subject. For example, you can highlight key definitions in blue, use red pen to indicate where you made mistakes on assignments and correct your errors in the margins, and mark confusing concepts with an asterisk so that you remember to ask your teacher for help.
3 Days Before Test Day
Don’t just learn the material… teach it!
- Roman philosopher Seneca was on to something when he said “While we teach, we learn.” Teaching a subject – whether it is trigonometry, chemistry, Spanish, or just about anything else – is one of the most effective ways of learning the material. So gather a group of friends, a few younger cousins, or your parents, and spend an hour giving them a crash course in ions, onomatopoeia, or PEMDAS. You’ll find that your own understanding of the material will become significantly more nuanced in the process. More importantly, you’ll also reveal any gaps in your knowledge and thereby figure out what you still need to work on prior to exam day.
Make your own exam.
- If those practice exam questions that your teacher handed out in class are still tripping you up, then it’s time to get into the mind of a test creator. Write up your own 1-2 page exam covering all of the material you’ve studied. Diversify the question types and really try to put yourself in your teacher’s mind. Analyze past exams, looking for any patterns or trends. Does your history teacher always start the test with a multiple choice section and then follow up with a handful of short answers? Create a mock history exam using the same general structure. Does your Spanish teacher always start with vocabulary matching, and follow up with a prompt that requires you to respond using the latest grammatical forms and vocabulary from class? Make a mock exam copying that exact format. Does your English teacher mix it up on every exam? Draft up a mock exam with a veritable smorgasbord of question types: multiple choice, matching, short answer, essay, crossword puzzle, and so on and so forth. By getting in the mindset of a test creator, you’ll mentally prepare yourself for any type of question that you might encounter on test day, while simultaneously cementing your understanding of the material.
1 Day Before Test Day
Read through your notes and review your homework.
- You’ve trained like an athlete over the past two weeks, and now you’re raring to go. But even athletes need a day of rest to make sure they’re ready to go on race day. You and your brain have earned a well-deserved break! The ONLY work you are going to do today is skimming through your notes and homework assignments in the evening before you go to sleep.
Eat a healthy dinner.
- Avoid eating heavy, greasy foods the night before your exam. We all enjoy indulging in pizza and chocolate, but eating non-nutritious foods like these the night before an exam will leave you feeling sluggish on exam day. Opt for something lighter and healthier and your stomach and your brain will thank you in the morning.
Do something relaxing.
- Listen to music, watch TV, read a book, and just R-E-L-A-X.
Turn off the screens early.
- Swap out sugary cereals for oatmeal or eggs and a piece of fruit. Pick foods that have a good amount of fiber to help keep you fuller for longer. If your test is after lunchtime, be sure to pack a nutritious lunch (or pick the most nutritious options from the cafeteria) to refuel before the exam.
Do a rapidfire review session with your classmates.
- If you have some free time in the hours before the exam, get together with a group of classmates and take turns quizzing each other on the material. Try not to do this in the final minutes leading up to the exam, particularly if you feel as though it may make you more nervous.
Show ‘em what you’re made of!
- It’s go time! Relax, and take comfort in the knowledge that you are extremely well prepared for the test. If you’ve got multiple choice questions, eliminate wrong answers one by one until you’ve narrowed your options down enough to find the correct answer. If there’s a short answer section, restate the question in your own words to help you identify what the prompt is asking for before you start writing. Most importantly, don’t get stuck on any one question!
Review your answers, if there’s still time.
- If you still have time left over at the end of the exam, go back and review your work. Only change your answers if you are 100% certain that your first answer was incorrect. Do NOT second guess yourself on every single question. Instead, focus on catching glaring errors.
- You did it! Congratulations! There’s only one thing left to do now…
The Day After Test Day
Analyze your exam experience.
- Draw a chart with two columns. In the first column, list all the things you found easy on the exam. Give yourself a mental (or literal) pat on the back for putting in the legwork to make everything in that column go smoothly. In the second column, list out all the things you found more difficult. For each item in the “difficult” column, analyze why you thought it was challenging, and write out something actionable that you can do in order to better prepare for it in the future. For example, if you took an English exam and wrote “writing out sentences for vocabulary words” at the top of your difficult column, you know that you’ll need to prioritize practicing this skill when preparing for your next exam. Draw a chart after every exam you take and store them in a folder, binder, or notebook. Your goal is to make the “easy” column grow with each and every new exam, and to beam with pride as the “difficult” column shrinks.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of test prep strategies, but implementing these into your study regimen will help set you on the right track to becoming a test-taking pro. Figure out what else works well for you and customize this timeline with your own ideas. And remember: practice makes perfect. Stick with these tips and tricks and soon you’ll see your exam scores start to climb. And maybe soon you’ll be known as the student with the mystical test-taking talent!