Welcome to the Study Break Series! Over the next few weeks, I will be giving you my best study tips for your upcoming exams based on my 20 years (!) of being a student. Many of the strategies in this particular article are inspired by Cal Newport, the author of How to Become a Straight-A Student.

From the title, you can probably guess that this article examines when you should begin preparing for an exam. In short, a week in advance is the general consensus among many productivity gurus.

The word "studying" has a negative connotation among students because most undergraduates think of long, tiresome sessions in the library. Instead of trying to study everything the day before, transform the work into short blocks of work spread across your daily schedule. The best way to study is to block three hours every day leading up to the test to review the material.

Your Study Schedule

For your typical high school or college class, there are stages of preparation that get you ready to ace an exam.

  1. Pinpoint gaps in your knowledge. This includes gaps in your notes and missed lectures. Then, find the information to fill the gaps as soon as possible.
  2. Create study guides composed of questions to push you to recall information from your lecture notes and reading notes (also known as active recall).
  3. Master the questions on your study guides.

So, when exactly do you implement the three steps above?

Tips to Schedule Studying

As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, divvy up your exam prep into small sections over the course of the upcoming week before your exam. To help guide you, here are five tips.

  1. Do larger chunks of work in the beginning of the week.
  2. Fill the gaps in your knowledge early in the process because it usually takes more time than you expect.
  3. Do not organize notes or track down missed assignments on the day that you study.
  4. On the first day of studying, do a task that takes only 30 minutes and gets the ball rolling on the process.
  5. Try to do very little work on the day of the exam. If you look at some material, use it as a confidence builder.

Need an example? Here is one from my junior year a week before an Inorganic Chemistry exam.

Wednesday: Collect all of the pertinent documents including lecture notes, scribbles from office hours, and past study guides. This should take half an hour.

Thursday: Transform all the notes into study guides and keep a running list of gaps in my knowledge. Ask the TA or a friend for help on concepts. Print out the study guides. This should take between two and three hours.

Friday: Ask friends to help explain ideas and skim difficult lectures again. This should take two hours.

Saturday: Active recall for three hours.

Sunday: Active recall for three hours.

Monday: Final active recall for three hours.

Tuesday morning: Quickly skim study guides on the hardest material to boost confidence. This should take half an hour.

If you do the work described above, you will be prepared for the exam. If you wait until the day before, it would be difficult to accomplish everything listed above. Gaps would be unfilled, some material would be uncovered, and your confidence may not be high. By spreading the work out over the period of a week, you are able to fit more preparation in because the hours are more focused and thus more productive.

What do you think of these study techniques? Let me know in the comments below!