How to Study for Exams in College

Whether you’ve taken a few exams and are looking for ways to improve your test-taking skills or are preparing for your first-ever college exam, creating a study strategy is invaluable. This week’s blog reviews some top tips for studying for exams. At Multnomah, we focus on success in the classroom, long-term memory retention, and study tactics that will serve you after college.

Student studying at desk

Take good notes

Good studying starts in the classroom with good note-taking. Taking notes in class can help you determine the key information your professor wants you to focus on. That way, when it comes time to study for the exam, you won’t have to rely on everything you’ve read in your textbooks so far. Instead, you’ll have a narrowed focus on the most relevant concepts.


Focus on what you don’t know

Building off of good note-taking, when you start studying for an exam, begin by organizing your notes from the topics you understand least to most. Prioritizing what you know least will give you time to take advantage of your professor’s office hours and master the areas you’re the least confident in.


Write it out

Even in the digital era, handwriting is a proven method for memorization. Handwriting activates your brain and is associated with neural encoding and memory retrieval (Psychology Today). Tactics for using handwriting while studying include writing on notecards, a whiteboard, and taking handwritten notes.


If you have to cram, do it well

A somewhat unspoken part of college is learning the skill of time management. It’d be great to spend extended time studying for all of your exams, but sometimes life gets busy, and cramming can feel like the only option. The thing is, cramming only functions for short-term memory and can lead to stress, anxiety, and panic. So, while it’s generally the best option to study ahead, when you have to cram, approach it wisely. Cramming effectively means prioritizing the most crucial information, getting some sleep, and using the final moments before your exam to review the least familiar information. Because cramming relies on short-term memory, this tactic will help you use every second you have to best prepare.

Professor studying with students

Study with a group

Studying with a group can be effective early in the study process when there may be a subject matter you don’t fully grasp. Lean on your classmates to help figure out the grayer areas of the material for you. You may find explaining concepts aloud to others also helps you better understand the material!

Teach others

Teaching as a study tool is a criminally underrated tactic. Instructing someone else on a subject is effective because it requires you to comprehend the material, present the information concisely, and answer follow-up questions, all while speaking out loud. The best part of teaching as a study tool is it’s effective for more than just passing an exam. The tactic will help you deeply ingrain the information and better understand its application to real life. Not to mention, teaching others can be a great way to serve your classmates who may be struggling with the material.

Create little rewards

Providing yourself little incentives can be helpful in short-term goals like acing an exam. Combining internal motivators (i.e., studying because you’re passionate about the subject) and external motivators like getting a good grade, rewarding yourself, or receiving praise can help drive you towards a goal (Science). Realistic rewards might include treats or coffee from Roger’s, hanging with friends once you’ve finished, short walk breaks, etc. One thing we’d recommend is not picking a distracting reward like browsing social media that will make it hard to re-focus.

Man sitting in dorm writing at desk

Find the right study spot for you

When it comes to finding the right study spot we could suggest a quiet space like the library. But, in our experience, “the best study spot” varies person-to-person. What works for some may not work for you. For instance, a quiet space with no distractions may work for some, but for others, sitting still with nothing but their thoughts is maddening. The best tip we can give is, to be honest with yourself about where you study effectively.

Make/Take practice tests

Making and taking practice tests combines many of the tips we’ve discussed so far. Making a practice test takes time, so it requires starting the study process early and writing the questions out for yourself. Practice tests can also help you determine the topics you need to spend a little more time on. Lastly, once you’ve made a practice test, you can share it with your study group and help teach them the areas they’re struggling on! As a bonus tip, we recommend asking your professor about the types of questions they like to ask. A multiple-choice practice test won’t help you out as much if the actual exam is fill-in-the-blank.

Prioritize understanding over memorization

Whenever you can, prioritize grasping the concept rather than memorizing facts for a test. Understanding is about more than getting an A on an exam. It’s about retaining information that will help you in life and in your career (the reason you’re at college in the first place)!

Get rest

Studies have shown good sleep the night before a test correlates to students’ grades and GPA (Sleep Foundation). However, for the best results, it’s ideal to get enough sleep all the time. Better sleep habits have been estimated to attribute to a 25% difference in academic performance! More than test performance, sleep is good for your mental, emotional, and physical health. So, get some Zzz’s and best of luck on your next exam!

For more help studying for exams, schedule an appointment at the Success Center. Contact their team to set up an appointment today: