How to Effectively Study for Your College Exams in 5 Steps – With Tips

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

Learning how to study effectively for college exams can seem daunting at first.  In college, unlike high school, how and when you study is completely left up to you without the influence of teachers or parents.    Although it may not seem like it, exams are not a ploy to stress students out or force them to fail a class. Testing is a vital part of education. One study shows that students who are regularly tested tend to retain that information longer. And because doing well on exams is so important, the exams themselves motivate students to learn the material in depth.   So the question is, how can you effectively study for college exams? Follow the steps below to start you on your way.  

1. Gather information

The worst thing you can do is walk into any situation unprepared. Before you begin the studying process, make sure you know what the test will cover. Know the chapters and topics it will focus on, as well as the format of the exam. This will not only help you to know what to study but also how to study it.  

2. Do a complete review

Start the studying process by reviewing all the materials from the class. This can include your class notes, quizzes, and information highlighted in your textbooks. This gives you an overview of everything that could potentially be on the exam.    Your review will bring up material that you don’t remember very well or could use some clarification on. If there are concepts or areas you're having difficulty with, now is the time to re-read the information and also seek help from your professor, teaching assistant, or fellow students.  

3. Create customized study guides

Making your own study guides and review tools is more effective than simply re-reading notes, or looking over highlighted passages in a book. You can put key concepts and questions on flashcards, summary sheets, or idea maps. Doing this is the same idea as teaching the concept to someone else. By creating study aids, you review and clarify the information you'll be tested on.   Photo by janeb13

4. Test yourself

Using those study aids, begin the process of testing yourself to see the material you've mastered and which areas you need more work on. Additionally, do as many mock exams as you can find and make sure to complete any practice questions found at the end of each textbook chapter. For questions you don’t know the answers to, review the information in your book or in your notes.    Then go through the cards or test again to see if you've improved. Continue to do this until you can answer all of the questions each time you go through your study aids. With this approach, you're actually using that repeated quizzing aspect of test-enhanced learning, which improves your long-term retention.  

5. A final review

You should always perform one last quick review the night before or the morning of the exam. This keeps the information fresh in your mind before you sit down to take the test. Focus on questions that will likely be worth the most or that you were previously struggling with.  

Study tips for exams

Now that you know the steps to studying better, there are also things you can do to make the studying process easier and more productive.  

Use spaced repetition

Avoid cramming. Stuffing information just before the exam is incredibly stressful and means you probably won’t retain it or even understand it. Also, it can make it more difficult to recall during the exam.    Instead, develop a study plan that spans several weeks before the exam and allows for small, frequent reviews of the course material. Remember that repeatedly reviewing material over a period of time allows for better retention.  

Keep it manageable

Schedules are just as important for studying as they are for managing your daily activities. The best study schedule allows you to split your study time into chunks that can work around the other requirements of your day. This will keep things from falling through the cracks. When scheduling for your study time, try to put those times in the day when you're not too tired to focus well.   Photo by tjevans

Break down large concepts into smaller ones

Sometimes the sheer size of a concept can be intimidating. So instead of taking on the entire semester as a whole, for example, break it down into much more manageable sections. This will allow you to focus on one portion at a time and help you to better understand and retain each idea.  

Make studying for exams a priority

It's hard to make time for studying when you've got classes, assignments, and lab work, plus you're rushing off to your part-time job and going out with friends. Still, no matter how hectic your schedule is, you should always make sure – as much as possible – to prioritize your studying.  

But don’t overstudy

When you are nervous about an upcoming exam, you may tend to overstudy. Studying constantly can easily lead to burnout, which can affect your ability to understand and retain the information you just covered. Once you're able to answer all the questions on your flashcards or other study aids you created, give your brain a break until the final review before the exam.  

Schedule study breaks

Your study schedule should actually contain time for study breaks. Mental fatigue can be as debilitating as physical fatigue. Even if your studying is going strong, working too long can lead you to lose focus and make your time spent less effective.   Take a few hours to relax. Go out with friends, or watch your favorite show.  

Eliminate distractions

Your concentration will be much better if you create a proper study environment. This includes having all of the supplies you need and making sure that you have a space that is free from distraction. During study time, silence the notifications on your phone so you’re not tempted to turn your focus elsewhere. If you have an iPhone, you can also block social media apps so you aren't tempted to mindlessly scroll and lose track of time.    Photo by StockSnap

Remember to ask for help

If you're having a hard time understanding any of the material you're reviewing, use the time before your exam to go over it with your professor, teaching assistant, or in your study group.  

Participate in an organized study session

Study groups can be very helpful when prepping for exams. You'll have fellow students who can quiz you as well as help you understand any concepts you may be struggling with. These groups don't have to be formal – just getting together with classmates for a few hours can be worthwhile.  

Get some sleep

Physical health is as important as mental health when it comes to studying. If you don’t go into a study session fully rested, your memory, attention, and performance will suffer. Start with getting the appropriate number of hours of sleep and eat well-balanced, healthy meals, and snacks while studying.  

Reward yourself

Studying is hard work, and you will stay better motivated if you see a reward for your work that goes simply beyond good grades. At the end of each study session, reward yourself with some downtime and do something you enjoy.  

Make it daily

When studying becomes a habit, you will be more apt to stick with it. Set aside some time to study each day, and once you have followed that pattern for a while, studying will become a daily habit.  

When should I start studying for an exam?

The simple answer is to start the review process right after your first class. By starting immediately, you will better understand the course material, and the follow-up work in class will be easier to accomplish.    Reviewing each concept as it is presented will also help you retain the information and eliminate the need to cram when it comes closer to the exam date. Remember that everything that you do in a class is a lead-up to a test, quiz, or exam, so the quicker you can master the information, the better prepared you will be.