How to Study for Tests When You Aren't a Natural Test-Taker

Hi, I’m Jenny. For most of my life, I had no idea how to actually study for tests, and for a long time, I just assumed that this was my destiny and that I would never do well on any test ever in my entire life (I was also very dramatic).

In my first few years of high school, I would just scroll through my teachers’ PowerPoints, reread my notes, roll through a Quizlet or two, and watch a couple of YouTube videos the night before, then hit the hay way too late. In the morning, I’d grab a Red Bull (I know) and take the test.

So obviously, my grades in high school weren’t awesome. My last hope was the ACT. I studied my ass off for that test, and it ended up paying off. I eventually learned how to study for any test and how to digest material instead of memorizing. So, for my fellow non-test-takers, here’s what I learned the hard way.

  1. 1. You need to start studying about a week in advance.

    The Lalagirl Reading A Book Outside

    I know everyone tells you this, but it’s true. A lot of people are overwhelmed by doing a lot of work at one time, so starting far out from the test date will ensure that you can break up the work into manageable time slots. Obviously, this varies based on the test, but generally speaking, you need a lot more time than you think to actually understand the content. My study schedule usually goes a little bit like this:

    7 days out: Get notes organized and know where everything is.

    6 days out: Write the first half of your study guide (we’ll get to this in a second).

    5 days out: Write the second half of your study guide.

    4 days out: Review the first half of your study guide 5 times (I know this seems excessive, but you got to trust me).

    3 days out: Review the second half of your study guide 5 times.

    2 days out: Review your entire study guide 5 times and other materials (Quizlets, YouTube videos, studying with friends).

    1 day out: Final review day – go over your study guide 3 times.

  2. 2. Make a study guide.

    This doesn’t work for math, of course. But look, I don’t take math tests anymore. Sorry. Study guides are a really time-consuming, painstaking, and wonderfully effective way to get all of the information in one place. I HIGHLY recommend hand-writing these. It ends up being anywhere from 5-20 pages, but it’s worth it. My mom, a former teacher, drilled this format into me and my siblings’ heads. She rocks and so does this format. This is the format I use:

    Main, All-Encompassing Header

    I Topic

    1. Information

    a. Details


  3. 3. Put in the time.

    apple watch

    It’s obvious, but you really do have to put in the work if you want a good grade. There aren’t any shortcuts, so you’re going to have to suck it up and study.

  4. 4. Know what helps you focus.

    phone, headphones, and coffee with foam art

    As you go on in your academic career, you’ll learn your own personal study preferences and habits. For me, I study best in my empty, silent dorm room where I can explain concepts out loud (not as weird as it sounds), with my shoes on, a full water bottle next to me, coffee, headphones in with nothing playing, and I write best in noisy coffee shops. Those are my little habits, and I’m sure you know yours. Figure them out and stick to them!

  5. 5. Eat a real breakfast the morning before.

    Breakfast food

    In the past ~5 years, I've gotten moderately into endurance racing. Something I’ve heard over and over again is to never try something new on race day. The same goes for test day. If you don’t normally drink coffee in the morning, don’t try it before the test. That being said, if you don’t normally eat breakfast, test day is a great time to start. I usually opt for oatmeal with peanut butter. Something with carbs, protein, and healthy fats. Think avocado or nut butter toast, eggs, granola – you know the drill. 

  6. 6. Dress like you know what you’re doing.

    Anna Schultz-Girl Looking Through Closet

    I’m not saying you need to channel Hillary Clinton and throw on your best pantsuit. Actually, you shouldn’t if you’re not comfortable in that. Just don’t wear pajamas, okay? Being comfortable is important, but a little bit of structure is nice to keep your brain in check. Sweats are great, but they signal to your brain that you should take it easy. Dress for success, ladies.

I hope these tips will help you improve your test-taking skills! Know that it's okay to find what works best for you, especially when college is just starting and you're not sure exactly how to go about midterms and finals. There are so many resources on campus, from the Educational Resource Center to the Writing Center, which can also help ease some of your worries and get you on track to succeed. I believe in you!

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