How to study for exams

When you prepare and study for exams, use these three basic exam preparation strategies:

  • start early,
  • review often, and
  • study actively.
chart showing increasing knowledge over time for exam study
Use spaced practice over time instead of “cramming”

Below we’ll look at how to study for exams in more detail, as well as some other effective study hacks and revision strategies that can help you prepare.

These effective study skills will help you understand and remember more, use ideas better, and feel more confident. Below you can also learn tricks to focus and optimise your work on the day of the exam.

OK let’s look closer…

Start early

Don’t think of studying or exam revision as something you do only days before the test. Start early so you can really absorb and use the knowledge by the time you are assessed. Plan your study in advance. Use effective note-taking or note-making strategies to make the most of lectures and readings.

Start early and have a plan

Note: If you do get behind, use our time management methods to schedule regular blocks of time for catching up each week.

Review often

Study in small chunks on a regular basis and don’t cram it all into a short period before the exam. This type of “spaced practice” helps you learn and retain ideas best. Try scheduling regular and specific activities using the time management tools we recommend.

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Study actively

Don’t “study”—that is such a vague term—so, instead of just “studying” take specific actions to practice your new knowledge. Some ideas below. 

First, make notes that are active and usable. Translate and transform ideas from lectures and readings. Make them your own, and put them in a structure or form that is visually useful for when you revise or review later.

illustration of structured note-taking
Translate and re-structure your readings and lectures.

Here are some other ways to study actively:

Use practice questions, do sample problems, quiz classmates, create games you can play. Talk about the content with classmates, form a discussion group, practice the language and vocabulary you’ve learned. Ask questions in lecture or seminar. Explain concepts to family and friends in other subjects. Do something.

Use index cards to test yourself or classmates

How to hack your study techniques

Adopt a “growth mentality”: Cultivate mastery, learn to love learning, enjoy difficulty… there are many ways to think of this. The basic idea is to learn to enjoy the process of study itself. This will help you become motivated every day as you see yourself improve and you feel more and more comfortable in your subject specialism.

Simulate the conditions of the exam: If possible, study in the actual room you’ll be taking the exam in. Or just go to a similar environment — the quiet study space of your library perhaps. You can also use timers to practice the types of time constraints or time limits you’ll be under. 

empty exam hall for study practice
Study in places that feel like the exam hall

Practice improvising: Exams often test your ability to use knowledge in new ways. This requires improvisation and creativity. Practice this in discussion with classmates, mock exams etc.

discussion group practicing improvisation for exams
Use discussion to practice improvisation

Get organised: Don’t make the mistake of thinking open-book exams are easy. Give yourself a boost by organising your materials so you know how to find what you need in the exam. If this is an take-home exam, this means tidying your work space, agreeing with others to have quiet time, and setting yourself up to focus.

On the day of the exam

Scan and plan: Put aside a few minutes to look over the instructions and questions in the exam. On a separate piece of paper, make a plan. For multiple choice your plan will be simple: X time for answers and Y time to review. For written or spoken answers, you should make a mini outline to plan the structure of you answer. Also plan how you will budget your time.


Do the best ones first: Answer the questions you feel most clear and confident about first. This will activate the parts of your brain you need for the questions you’re less sure of. It will also give you confidence and ensure you’ve gotten all the “quick wins” out of the way, giving you more time for questions you need to think more carefully about. 

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Answer everything: Even if you aren’t sure of the answer, try. Multiple choice exams give you a decent chance even if you select randomly. Written or spoken answer exams give you a space to show your knowledge, even if you aren’t sure. Use these moments as an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge around and about the topic, even if the topic isn’t 100% clear to you. Use vocabulary you know to be applicable and do your best at being relevant to the question. Sometimes you’ll get points for being slightly off topic but still showing real knowledge.