Crunch time: How to study if you have one week, one day, or one hour

College Study Tips

By Valerie Willis

We’ve all experienced that nauseating anxiety after realizing an exam has crept up on us. Perhaps our doodle-filled planners failed to remind us or we were distracted by a Cops marathon on FOX. Whatever the case there’s no time to panic. Scratch the crusty Easy Mac off your textbook, locate your highlighter collection and get to work.

If you have one week:

Create a study guide. This is your checklist for what you need to know and it will help you gauge your progress over the next week. Write down the important points, terms, formulas and major concepts you know will appear on the test and cross-reference these with where they’re mentioned in your textbook or notes.

Make a study group. Get together with other students in your class and talk through the information you don’t understand. Explaining concepts to each other will help the info sink in and it isn’t as intimidating as asking a professor or TA. Be smart when choosing a study group and avoid all-friend study cells. They can easily turn into all-night social sessions.

Make flashcards. Write terms or questions on one side and an explanation on the other. Then quiz yourself, being sure to occasionally shuffle the cards to make sure you aren’t just memorizing the order. Keep these cards with you all week so you can flick through them during workouts or downtime.

Visit your professor. As scary as it seems, professors and TAs are often more approachable than you think. They can answer questions and fill you in on lectures you may have missed (or dozed through). Have your questions prepared before you go so you don’t waste their time.

Summarize your notes. Read through your class notes and summarize them on a separate sheet of paper. Many of us take notes using choppy phrases, which can be easily overlooked while skimming a notebook during a study session.

Draw it out. Create spider diagrams of major concepts with lines connecting to related terms or information. You can also make a storyboard or timeline for historical data and scientific processes. Putting the facts in a drawing will help you visualize and retain the information.

Read the assigned text and highlight important points. Then summarize the highlighted material in each section on a Post-it note and stick it to the page. Summarizing the information in your own language will help you to understand and remember wordy text.

If you have one day:

Make a few flashcards. You won’t have time to create a card for every term but it will be helpful to make some for the most important concepts. They’re great to have on hand during a limited test prep time because you can whip ‘em out while you’re waiting in line, in between classes or at a stoplight.

Review your notes. Highlight major points your professor emphasized in lecture and write down a quick summary of each class period. Recalling the lectures will remind you of the information and putting the info in your own words will clarify cryptic notes.

Study what you don’t know first. You’ll be much more motivated at the beginning of your study marathon, so use it to your advantage. Work out tricky concepts and review complicated chapters in your textbook before your attention span goes south.

Find a study buddy. A duo can be helpful when last minute questions arise. You can work problems out together and keep each other accountable when you’re itching to be distracted.

If you have one hour:

Focus. You’re going to need some hard-core concentration for this cram sesh so shun distraction with a quiet study spot and a Red Bull.  

Locate your notes. Skim them for the major points your teacher stressed in class. Highlight or underline important info to remember so you’ll be able to find it quickly right before class.

Scan the assigned reading. Look for highlighted portions and take note of section headings. Refresh yourself on the information but don’t spend too much time poring over minute facts.

Get to class early. Listen to what the people around you are talking about and try to absorb the information they’re throwing around. Don’t focus too much on the details; just try to grasp the big picture.  

Pray to your deity of choice. If worse comes to worst you may need to enlist supernatural help.