I’m in a coffee shop surrounded by college students cramming for finals. The girl across the room is about to rub a bald spot in her hair trying to figure out calculus. The guy in the corner just started laughing. He also has a math book open. Nothing’s funny about math; there are no humorous story problems. He might be losing his mind.
Every successful student has to cram for an exam every once in a while. I’ve included seven steps to help you do so without becoming that guy in the corner of the coffee shop laughing at math problems.
Gather all your materials before you cram for an exam
Make sure you have all your notes and books with you. By now you shouldn’t need your books because you’ve taken good notes. But it couldn’t hurt. Also make sure you’ve got a pencil or pen, a notebook or legal pad, and you shouldn’t need much else. Paper and pen are plenty to cram for an exam.
Turn off social media
Social media is electronic ADHD. It will sink a cram session like an elephant in a row boat. Furthermore, Kim Kardashian won’t tweet anything in the next 50 minutes to improve your geometry grade. I promise. Texting, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Pinterest, etc., are great, but take a break to cram for exams.
Turn on a timer
Cramming is about finding a good rhythm. If you study for 6 hours straight, you’re more likely to drool on your test than pass it. We recommend a 50/10 split: 50 minutes studying, 10 minutes of anything else. On your break, exercise, or sing, or dance, or sit still, or play soccer with the neighbor’s house cat. You pick. Then get back to work. Setting a timer will help you find a rhythm.
Focus only on the big ideas and key details
Remember, you are cramming at this point. Any learning here has a limited shelf-life, so stick to the basics. You are learning just the main ideas and the key details. Those are the things that are most likely to be on the test, so focus your energy there. Look for headings, key people, dates, equations, vocab words, and explanations of major ideas. Filter the rest.
Involve all your senses to cram for an exam
Warning: only try this at home. Practicing this in public may brand you as a crazy person. We know you aren’t – you are just a great student. So talk to yourself. Every big idea you read, talk it out. Explain things to yourself. Make lots of hand motions. Pace if it helps. Emphasize words with a funny accent. The crazier you look, the better. No, crazy people don’t remember more. But the more senses and emotions involved the more you’ll remember.
Make your own study guide
Whether or not your teacher/prof. gave you a study guide, you need to make your own to cram for an exam. This is far and away the best method to study for an exam. After just making the guide yourself, 80% of your work will be done. You’re cramming, so it doesn’t have to be neat. Only you have to be able to read it. Writing it out, reading as you go, involving all your senses – it’s like an information shoe horn.
Set goals and rewards as you cram for an exam
Who wants ice cream?
You do, but only if you finish your study guide before 10 pm. You can’t eat too late because it gives you weird dreams, but you can’t have the Rocky Road until your study guide is done. Deadlines and rewards will help you stay on track. Use a carrot if you’d rather, but I find mint chocolate chip more motivating. Since you are a successful student, you recognize that setting a personal goal for yourself will help you keep moving without getting bogged down.