How to Study Effectively for Exams: Tips That Really Work

Want to know how to study effectively for exams? I’ve got you covered – because I’ve been there!

Can I just say how much I hated taking college tests and finals?!

I got that nervous feeling before I walked into the classroom on test day and seriously felt like my heart was going to beat hard enough to come out of my body.


Because those exams and finals counted for such a HUGE portion of my final grade. I specifically recall one test that made up 50% of my grade… cue panic attack!

That’s why knowing how to study and prepare for exams is such an important thing to master early on.

I’ve covered study tips in some of my previous posts (check out 10 Study Tips for College Students and My Secrets for Getting A’s in College), but I wanted to specifically address those daunting tests you’ll have to face.

*Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning I will receive compensation if you purchase a product through one of the links (at no cost to you). Please note that I only include products I personally support and recommend.*

Step 1 for How to Study Effectively for Exams: Map Out the Schedule

Most professors are going to place all of the exam dates in your syllabus at the beginning of the semester. This is your opportunity to plan ahead and make sure that you don’t have to pull an all-nighter right before test day (trust me… avoid all-nighters… they suck).

[RELATED] 5 Things You Should Do on the First Day of College Classes

I HIGHLY recommend getting a desk calendar or academic daily or weekly planner so that you have those dates in your eyesight at all times. I would have been lost without my planner because there were so many different assignments and due dates to keep up with. Trust me – this is a must-have item when it comes to acing your college exams and finals.

Pencil in Your Study Time

This part may take some adjusting, as well as a big dose of discipline. I’ve encountered so many students (myself included) who have said, “I’ll just study when I have a break.”

That’s great and all, but are you really going to follow through on that?

Probably not as often as you think.

I found myself watching TV, browsing Facebook, and playing random games of beach volleyball instead of hitting the books like I should have been.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take breaks, because you definitely deserve them after sitting through hours upon hours of lectures, but you also need to remember that test day is eventually going to come and you need to be prepared.

You literally need to pencil in your study time on your calendar and planner as a reminder. Get in the habit of studying each day until it becomes as routine as brushing your teeth. I promise that you’ll still have time to hang out with your friends and do all those awesome college things!

My recommendations for how to study effectively for exams: If you have a break after a class, use at least half of that time for studying and reviewing the material you just covered. This will promote better recall and it also allows you to absorb the information you just took in. When I did this, I typically rewrote my notes so that the material really sunk in.

[RELATED] Best Study Tips for College Students to Help You Get Good Grades

Keep a Vocabulary and Key Terms Journal

If I would have known how many definitions and key terms I was going to have to remember on my college exams and finals, I probably would have done a better job of organizing them into their own space.

That’s why you need to keep a vocabulary and key terms journal.

I guarantee that at least half of the college classes you take are going to require you to memorize some type of key term or phrase. When I say memorize, I’m talking ‘fill-in-the-blank’ style.

I speak from experience – I had one professor simply  list the terms and we had to write the definition. It was intimidating and so so hard.

This is also something to add to your list of Must-Have Items for Your College Backpack.

Get Your Mind Engaged By Doing This…

Now that I have you SO excited about keeping a vocabulary and key terms journal (ha), I want to present you with this idea:

I found that whenever I had supplies I actually enjoyed using, I was much more likely to engage with them on a daily basis. Case in point, this fun quote notebook:

When I actually like and enjoy my school supplies, I find myself more engaged with the work I’m doing. Call me crazy, but I have a thing about filling up journals and just feeling the new pages between my fingers. I like the feeling of jotting words down and looking back at them to see what has changed or how far I’ve come.

Enough about me… let’s talk about why this method might work for you!

Imagine walking around your college campus with something you actually enjoy writing on. It’s like a good book… you open it frequently to look at the beautiful artwork and then you find yourself reading the material inside.

It’s kind of like a mind trick.

Try it. See if it works!

Nourish Your Mind and Body

Although studying and scheduling are important steps in knowing how to prepare for exams, the truth is that you must take care of yourself first.

Seriously, do not overlook this part!

If your body and mind aren’t feeling refreshed or nourished, then you are not going to have a productive study session. Even worse, your test scores may suffer because you failed to take care of yourself in the days leading up to the exam day.

There are tons of great resources out there getting your mind and body in shape, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Running
  • Meditation
  • Pilates
  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing
  • Taking a long bath or shower

[RELATED] Practicing Self-Care in College

Study in a Comfortable Environment

Light Up the Living Room Pillow

I’m just gonna come out and say it… I HATED the library.

My mind pretty much went into meltdown mode when I stepped foot in that building. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful and there was plenty of space, but there was always something in my brain that just shut off and said, “Nope, this is all wrong!”

I found that I did my best studying when I was in a space that I could feel relaxed and comfortable.

That’s why I learned to turn my college dorm room into a retreat.

I needed natural light, soft colors, and a space to sprawl out in order to get focused. Once I figured this out, I noticed that learning came easier for me because my mind and body were much more relaxed.

Get the Lowdown From Your Professors

This is one of my favorites!

Surprisingly, I think this tip is probably the most overlooked by college students. When you are preparing for an exam or your finals, who do you think the best resource is? Your textbook?


Or maybe not.

I actually think that your professors are the best resource for you when getting ready to study for exams.

But my professor doesn’t tell us answers or provide a study guide.

That’s pretty typical. Most professors will give you a very basic overview of what the test is going to be like (i.e. cumulative or not, multiple choice, etc.).

That information renders itself pretty much useless in most cases.

That’s why you need to go straight to the source and get more information. Now, that DOES NOT mean that you ask your professors for the answers or try to pry questions out of them. They will probably look at you like you’re crazy and think you are trying to one-up everyone else.

Preparing for College Exams and Finals: Tips that Really Work

How to Study Effectively for Exams: Talk to Your Professors

Here’s What to Do

Although you aren’t going to get the answers written out on a sheet of paper for you to simply memorize and regurgitate on test day, you can get some very valuable insight if you ask the right questions and show your professors that you really are trying.

It helps to establish a relationship with your professors at the beginning of every semester so that they can get to know you better. This shows them that you are taking the class seriously and are there to learn.

Remember, professors are there to help you succeed!

To get some extra insight into your exams, try asking these questions:

  • What are some of the things I can do to be successful on this exam?
  • How do I best prepare for an exam in your class?
  • Are you able to provide any information on the format of the questions (i.e. multiple choice, essay, matching, etc.)?
  • For essay questions, are you looking for an answer to be a specific length?
  • Are there any key elements I should be putting extra focus on?
  • I’ve read the chapters and have completed all the activities, but I still feel like I’m struggling with ______. Can you help me understand that better?

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

I think the ultimate key to preparing for college exams and finals is to keep your eyes on the prize ahead: GRADUATION.

This is your opportunity to start a career in a field that you are passionate about. Yes, the road to success can be tough and you may find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated with college at times, but that’s why you have to keep your goals in mind.

Use whatever motivational tool you can think of to keep yourself focused and moving forward. For me, that came in the form of writing down little goals in my planner every month.

I’ve Got More Tips for You!

Check out some of these posts for other great college tips that can help you study effectively for exams:

How to Study Effectively for Exams - college student tips for getting your best test grades possible.

Previous Story
Next Story
  • Ash
    January 20, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    These tips are so helpful! Getting insight from professors is such a great way to use your resources. Great advice, I will use this for my next exam!

  • Sonya (Omega)
    August 19, 2017 at 6:26 am

    I’m having an exam week in two weeks and this post is just what I needed! Love the overall feel to it, definitely should’ve found your blog sooner!
    -Sonya (Omega) ||

    • Tori
      August 19, 2017 at 12:31 pm

      So glad you found it helpful, Sonya!

  • Sophie
    May 25, 2019 at 12:56 pm

    I wish I saw this post last week. It would’ve been so helpful when I was taking exams.

    • Tori
      May 27, 2019 at 8:26 am

      Hopefully you can use these tips for any future exams you have!

  • niraj
    August 21, 2019 at 3:57 am

    Hello Tori,
    Amazing tips and very helpful information for people like me who are preparing for the college exam. Am sure this Tips would help us a lot. I always Make a Study schedule that fits my way of studying and I leave nothing for the last minute.