Ready for Exams

Exam Preparation

If I could give only one piece of advice to students about preparing for exams it would be this: think of your exams as performances (e.g. a sporting event, contest, play, or recital) and exam prep as rehearsals or practice.

We intuitively recognize that knowing is not the same as doing. Knowing what the technique is, for instance, is not the same as using it effectively. To be able to do something well on demand and under pressure we need to practice regularly, and ideally, under authentic circumstances. We practice particular scenes, movements, or plays over and over again. As a performance approaches, we have a dress rehearsal. We scrimmage against another team or practice a type of shot repeatedly with a partner. A coach or director gives us guidance and feedback on our performance so that we can build on our strengths and shore up our weaknesses through continued, focused practice.

Yet, how many of us put the same kind of purposefulness into our preparation and practice when it comes to academics? Just as with most things, the "secret" to success is preparation. But there are less and more effective methods of preparation.

Think like a professor.

  • Grasp the big picture of the courses and your professor's learning objectives.
  • Focus on main principles, themes, and concepts first, then look for evidence (details, examples) supporting and explaining them.
  • Pay particular attention to concepts professors focused upon in class or in homework, quizzes, problem sets, and other assignments.

Predict exam questions from your lecture notes, problem sets, discussions, and readings.

  • Formulate central questions that link large chunks of course material. They will usually be derived from main principles and concepts—including how various concepts relate to each other. Practice answering them.
  • Identify and classify information that might show up in an identification or short- answer section. Prepare yourself to show what you know succinctly.

Consider where your weaknesses lie.

  • What concepts remain unclear?  Which problems do you routinely struggle to solve? Targeting your studying will help you make the most of the time you have for each course.
  • Evaluate not merely whether you "know" the material, but whether you have mastered it and can apply your knowledge in ways your professor will ask of you.

Create study aids such as:

  • Reading summaries that capture main points of texts and relate them to course themes.
  • Charts of theorems, mechanisms, or principles rewritten in your own words.
  • A course blueprint that organizes main themes and concepts of the course.
  • Problem packets in which you collate similar problems from the course and their solutions.

For quantitative courses, work through problems.

  • Work through previous assignments, the ends of textbook chapters, or old exams.
  • Don’t think of each problem as unique; instead, look for similarities among them and common techniques for solving them.
  • Don’t consult the answer key until you’ve tried to solve the problem yourself--work under test-like conditions whenever possible.

For essay exams, practice writing your response.

  • Predict questions and outline your answers in preparation for the exam.
  • Identify specific examples/evidence you will use to support your main points.
  • If the exam is in class, time your practice runs to get a sense of the depth/quality of essays you’ll be able to produce in the time allotted.
  • Evaluate your practice efforts (outlines/drafts) and consider how to refine your response.
  • Practice producing your answers or outlines, not merely reviewing material.

Try to explain difficult material to someone else.

  • You can do this with a study partner or in study groups. It will become clear whether you understand the concepts or not.
  • Work with others to generate questions. Critique responses and add information to improve responses. 

Take practice exams.

  • Take an old exam and note what types of skills and techniques are tested--practice these.
  • Time yourself and use only the materials you will have at the exam; don't refer to "solutions" or a study guide--you won't have them on the actual exam.
  • Review your answers and focus on filling gaps in your skills and knowledge.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • If after reviewing, you still don’t understand something, take advantage of office hours or review sessions to ask questions about the material.
  • Sharpen your study skills for an exam with help from a peer coach. A peer coach can help you develop a strategic approach to learning the material. Sign up for a free appointment.

Lastly, remember to eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep on a regular basis.  You’ll study and perform better.


This information has been provided with permission from Nic Voge, Associate Director of the Undergraduate Learning Program at Princeton.

"Preparing for Exams." Accessed June 12, 2017.

"Preparing for Princeton Midterms: Practice Performing, Don’t Just Review." Accessed June 12, 2017.

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