HowTo: Prepare for exams

I just gave this class (talk? I didn’t really prepare it, but I’ve had to give it to sophomore classes before). I figured I should write it up. The internet lives forever, after all: now I’ll never need to remember it myself.

So. This is – by and large – everything I learned about preparing for exams in the 10 years I’ve been a student, a student-and-a-teacher, and now merely a lecturer. It should be of value to every student, up to and including those with photographic memory who can remember everything they need anyway (and don’t we hate them for it).

Final Exams

What is it that makes finals so bloody hard? To some extent yes, it is the content of the exam. Final exams are usually cumulative, they are usually a few hours long, and they are the final exam. They’re supposed to be hard.

I refer however to Final Exams as an event, as a period. Specifically as a period in which you will need to revise and prepare for anything from 3 to 5 final exams, in a relatively short period of time, then turn around and do those exams in a shorter period of time. It is this that makes finals such a nightmare. One exam, fine. Multiple exams, optimally spaced through time, also fine. Multiple exams in 10 days? Not so fine.

Having established this, one must appreciate what we need to do to prepare us for finals. We have a tendency to try to force-feed as much information into our brains as possible.

This is the wrong approach.

Memorisation is not the key to final exams (accounting majors excepted). Performance is the key. One excels not – typically – according to how much information they can stuff into their heads, but how well they can organise that information, and how efficiently and accurately they can recall that information at the appropriate times. Having established this as the goal of revision, a different paradigm emerges.

It is not staying up until 4am on caffeine, reading as much as we can. It is not sitting with your head in a textbook, the day of the final. Those are Very Bad Things To Do.

Athletes! You will be best-prepared to absorb this lesson. Do you stay up until 4am, the day of the Big Game, learning new plays and watching video-tapes of the opposition? No (let us hope). Because you need to perform for the big game. Mentally, physically, you need to be rested and prepared to turn everything on for the few hours that it will be required.

Introduction over, let us proceed. There are two pillars of exam preparation: (1) Physical; and (2) Scholastic.

Preparing physically

First: Sleep

Undergraduates in particular, and American undergraduates moreso (this is not cultural: it is a by-product of living in dorms), sleep terrible hours, made worse when an exam approaches.

The Circadian Rhythm is an endogenous sleep cycle enjoyed by all living things. Typically it is 24 hours. Humans, for example, sleep 1/3 of our cycle, and are awake for the remainder. Attempting to do otherwise will inevitably mess you up.

This is not an Area of My Expertise, so I’ll go non-technical. When was the last time you de-fragged your PC? PCs need de-fragging so that they can sort out their memory, organise everything and generally make themselves faster and more efficient processors and retrievers of information. We are the same. Our brains are not sponges, they are PCs. They cannot absorb information for hours, then give it back to you the next day. They need downtime, every day, to sort that information out. Figure out what’s important, what gets kept, what goes in what folder.

The better you leave your brain to the business of sleeping and organising the information you give it, the better your brain will be at being able to answer all of your questions, when you need them answered.

How much is needed? Anything from, say, 8 to 10 hours. One’s sleep needs to be consistent (i.e. in a rhythm), so as many hours as you need such that you don’t have to sleep in on a Saturday. One should be sleeping your optimum, every night, and not need more or less sleep on any given day. Teenagers usually require more than adults, mind.

It is endogenous (in that we are born like that), but – for humans, definitely – our sleep cycle is synchronised by an exogenous force: the sun. We do not merely sleep 1/3 of our ‘day’, we sleep when it’s dark: our Circadian Rhythm is di-urnal. This means that, amongst other things, sleep that one gets before midnight will be better than sleep after midnight. Eight hours from 12-8am will not serve as well as 8 hours from 10pm-6am.

So not only does one need to sleep consistent hours (number) but consistent hours (time of night). The same number of hours, at the same time, every night. This will improve the body’s daytime performance – which is, after all, the point.

Mess with this at your peril. Come to finals yes, you will lose sleep, skip meals, etc. The first impact is tiredness, then poor performance in exams, then all the way to too tired to eat, have a conversation. You’ll end up with barely a functional cerebral cortex, falling down stairs.

Second: Food

What one eats is equally important. I have less to offer here, since it’s fairly easily-managed (allowing, again, for dorm-living, college dining halls, etc.). The key to food is natural. Complex carbs in the morning, no carbs after 7pm, 4 to 6 smaller meals rather than 3 bigger meals. And above all, natural foods. The goal is to have clean blood: the less shit you consume, the cleaner your blood(stream) is, the more oxygen it carries, the more it carries to your brain, and the better your brain absorbs, sorts and recalls information. Your brain is the muscle, remember; you need it for that Big Game.

Sugar: if you need sugar for energy, have it. Have it naturally, though. Don’t eat/drink things because they’re sweet: that is not the same as sugar. Corn syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup and God-only-knows what else is not the same as pure cane sugar. Put it in tea, put it on Kiwi fruit, put it in a milkshake.

Black Tea: loaded with anti-oxidants. Dump your sugar in black tea. The caffeine will keep you up without making you wired. When that wears off, when the sugar wears off, peeing every 20 minutes will keep you up. Whatever works, yeah?

Milk is apparently under review, but you should err on the side of caution and go with don’t add milk to your tea. Caseins, the proteins in milk that go in Lactaid milk and all the bloody soy cheese, strip/block all those health benefits. Research seems to go back and forth on this one, but just use non-dairy milk and it won’t be an issue. If you don’t like the taste: there is also rice, almond, etc. Use vanilla soy milk with vanilla essence, and have vanilla black tea (quite nice). Whatever works.

Omega 3, 6, 9: Omega 3 fatty acids are why fish is brain food (and why our children will suffer as we did not). Cod-liver oil, flaxseed oil, linseed oil, these all come packed in capsules as supplements, also.

These are the only specifics of which I’m aware. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, lean meats (if you’re going to hell), etc. Like I said, the food rules are basic: one only has to watch out for the meal-skipping, late-studying behaviour.

Preparing academically

On to the scholastic part of exam preparation.


Time for some visuals. This is the hierarchy (and there is a hierarchy) of “information” or “knowledge”, as it applies to exam preparation:


Bad Habit Prime! Do not sit, waiting for me to hand out the exam, reading the textbook, the lecture notes, or anything that isn’t a single piece of paper with your well-condensed-and-revised notes on it.

I cannot stress this enough, and I see students do it a lot. The point is to take the primary sources of information thus: I use the textbook and distill it into lecture notes. You use my lecture notes and distill it into your lecture notes. Come the time to revise, one then has 3 sources of information to review, revise and condense. Then again, then again. At least 3 or 4 times. The idea is that this process forces the brain not to skim over information. One is forced to understand material in order to re-write it more efficiently, over and over. By the time of the exam, only 2 sides of a page are even needed, because everything else is properly understood.

This goes for formulae: do not sit with the textbook for the purposes of memorising formulae: it is alien, and throws at your eyes and brain more information that merely that. Those formulae should have been written and re-written many times already, finally ending up on that piece of paper. Take nothing else to the exam except the things you need to take the exam itself.

Related to this is another bad habit. Do not “quiz” one another. Our brains are not synchronised. Your friend will be asking you something while your brain is thinking of something else. When the exam arrives those two things will no longer be distinctly ordered/organised. Much like the football player spends the day of the game doing just enough to wake up his/her body for the performance soon to be required, our brains should be engaged in just enough, carefully filtered, activity to ‘wake it up’ and get it ready to switch on.

This seems excessive (and I’m not even finished). Remember this: finals are probably the most we will require from our brains, at least in our younger days. It is a pretty heavy burden we’re placing on ourselves and our brains, every semester, sometimes more often, and we need deliberate and careful preparation. You do not need to be as fresh, after your final exam, as you were on the first day of classes – but you do need to be as fresh at the start of the last exam as you were at the first. You need to make it to the end of the exam not just awake, but performing.

Practice questions

These are also ordered: loosely, past exams, then textbooks, then problem sets (or whatever term is given to the ongoing series of questions given to students, week-by-week).

Past exams: give the best impression of the format and style to expect, but not the content. Rather than looking at past exams and thinking, “These are the questions I’ll be asked”, one should look at them and think, “Now, suppose my lecturer asked this problem, instead. What would it look like? What aspects of this problem would be asked?”

Writing your own questions is an excellent method of practice, as you go along.

Textbooks: any relevant questions. Start with those with answers in the back, move on to the others. Remember: your lecturer is a resource, too. Find them and have them clarify any problem you have. Good ones will be available, by email, more or less continuously. A few minutes of our time is not that expensive that we can’t, when sitting here, answer your question.

Problem sets: our brains skim information. Whether we like it or not. For this reason, questions that one has already done will not work as well for revisions. Our brains skip bits, cut corners, etc. Familiarity, recognition, these are not the same as remembering and understanding.

Skimming is something against which one must always fight, when revising and practising questions. Always do every part of a question, especially as you are beginning to practise. Nearer the exam you can skip parts, as you’re more certain that they are understood.

Finally, expect your practise of problems to feed back into the process of revision and re-writing – leading, ultimately, to that final, fully informed 2 pages of material.


Finals are, as stated, problematic because of their multiplicity. How does one determine the chronology of preparation? I have found this to be optimal.

First, determine the chronology of the exams themselves: the order in which they occur as well as the distance between them:

timeline 1

Then: revise and prepare in reverse order:


Huh. That did not resize well.

Why? Whatever else happens, one can only guarantee being perfectly prepared for the first exam. Every exam thereafter will struggle with deterioration. So this at least maximised performance on the first couple of exams.

Optimally, you will get at least 2 nights and 1 day between exams – enough time to sleep off the first, prepare for the second, and sleep on that. Any more or less (and it will vary, between exams) means you must adjust your preparation period. Use less of the earlier time for exams that have a longer lead-time during the finals period.

Be aware, however, of another brain-trick against which to fight: Hyperbolic Discounting (also discussed here).

You will not have as much time to study as you think.

You will not study as well during that time as you think.

These cannot be stressed enough. Your brain will tell you that things are do-able when they are not. Be very attuned to this form of bias in your time-preferencing. Being on top of this problem will also remove a lot of the stress of exam preparation and taking.

That’s it. That’s basically all I learned about preparing for, and taking, exams during my 10 years in higher education. Longer, really: I learned a lot of this while still in high school. My marks have, frankly, never been brilliant. My trick was managing to make certain to meet the fundamental rule of exams:

Your performance in an exam should only ever be as bad as your understanding of the material.

All of this advice is geared towards removing every other cause of poor exam performance. Hopefully it helps someone.


1 comment so far

  1. opit on

    I took some adult ed. a while back. Course prep sent me back a few grades. Hey, it wasn’t just what I might have forgotten : I never saw a lot of the stuff before!
    Anyway: having some time in my schedule I decided to pop into an optional Class : The Master Student Program. Basically, it consisted of things students put together to help themselves with courses : which consisted of not getting in your own way a lot of the time.
    Your article reminded me of it – taken at Medicine Hat College, Alberta several years ago.

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