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How to Study for Finals & Midterms in High School (and beat every exam)

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The semester, or perhaps the school year, is ending soon and you have one last hurdle: final exams.

Amongst your other responsibilities and the time-consuming college application process, it’s easy to brush these aside.

However, it’s imperative that you take these exams seriously and study for them.

Finishing school with a strong transcript will also give you a leg up in scholarship applications, which use academic merit as a qualification.

Whether you’re suffering from fatigue, seniorities, or general laziness, we got your back.

If you’re ready to ace your final exams, keep reading to find out how you can proactively and effectively study for your final exams.

(Hint: These are also great tips for studying in college.)

Begin Studying Early

Many students make the mistake of cramming all of their studying for 4+ classes into the week before exams. Not only is this stressful, it’s not the most helpful (or healthy) method of studying.

To increase your retention of information, you should plan to study for exams early.

Studying in small chunks throughout the semester will also prevent the all-consuming panic and Red Bull-fueled sleep deprivation that may be your current norm.

What does studying early mean?

  • If you’re reading this at the beginning of the semester, it’s not too early to prepare for exams. Keep a running list of “main topics” covered in your courses. Add an asterisk (*) next to the ones that you struggle with the most.
  • Keep your work organized chronologically. Don’t throw away old quizzes, tests, and homework assignments, as they may be useful in studying for the final exam. If you have created study documents or flashcards for a unit test, save them.

Whenever you have a unit test in a class, carve out a half hour to an hour to review old concepts.

While you should also be studying for the upcoming test, these concepts often build upon each other. Reviewing both old and new helps to internalize information over time.

More focused study should start at least a month before exams. This will allow you to break studying tasks into manageable pieces that will leave you feeling confident and not overwhelmed.

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Create a Study Plan

Once exams are on the horizon, it’s time to create a study plan. This is a plan for when, where, and how you will study for your classes.

If you commit to studying ahead of time, you will be much more likely to follow through.

Your study plan does not need to include that every waking moment need be spent studying. Instead, think about how to best manage your time.

  • Does American history take you longer to study than calculus? If so, schedule study time to focus just on American history and a different time to study calculus and French.

Do you get bored easily from studying one topic? Plan to study a smaller amount of time, but include several courses to study for during your time.

A study plan might look like this:

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday
Review literary elements flashcards during breakfast

Play Practice 3:30 PM-4:30 PM

8 PM-9 PM Study art timeline and answer practice questions

Soccer Game Away (all evening)

Complete homework and study history flashcards on the bus

Review French vocabulary flashcards during breakfast

Play Practice 3:30 PM-4:30 PM

8 PM-9 PM Study poetry terms and complete calculus practice questions

6 PM – 9 PM study for an hour on History, Calculus, and English (each)Family Bowling Night

(Study Break)

10AM -12 PM: Study Calculus equations and review plot of Hamlet

7 PM-8 PM: Study American History timeline

7 AM – 9 AM: Work on final art portfolio

4 PM-5 PM: Work on homework

6 PM – 6:30 PM:

Study by completing history practice questions

In the above example, this student is mindful of the fact that they have school, play practice, and a soccer game all in one week.

  • Therefore, they carve out two lengthier study sessions on each weekend day and keep their activities in mind on the weekdays.

On days when they have play practice after school, they only study for one hour in the evening and use breakfast time to review flashcards.

On Tuesday, they choose to study what they can on the bus but don’t stress themselves on carving out study time.

It’s a busy day and they planned ahead of time for their soccer game. On Friday, they have planned to go out with their family and allowed for a study break.

Creating a study plan is about balance and efficiency.

If you know your schedule ahead of time, you can figure out when is the best time to study in long sessions versus short bursts of review.

Outline the Curriculum and Identify Weaknesses

Above, we mentioned that you should try to keep a running tally of major topics covered in a course.

If you haven’t done so already, you can still create this list as the semester draws to a close.

Adding an asterisk (*) beside troublesome topics is a crucial part of this process. When you are creating your study plan, you need to allow more time for the topics you struggle with most.

  • It doesn’t make sense to study literary devices every week if you’ve had them memorized since the 7th grade.
  • Instead, focus your time on differentiating between rhetorical strategies used in persuasive writing or on memorizing equations that will not be provided on a math exam.

As you study, add a check next to the topics you cover each day. You’ll quickly realize that you’re spending too much time on early American History (which has four checks next to it) and not enough on the Great Depression (which you haven’t studied at all).

Create Flashcards: Old School vs. New School

Flashcards are still one of the most useful tools for studying basic concepts. Not only is a pack of cards fairly cheap, but they’re easy to carry around.

  • There is also evidence that writing out information by hand is a more effective way to retain information than typing.
  • You can use flashcards to write a word on one side and a definition on the other. You could also write a question on one side and the answer on the reverse.
  • You can draw diagrams, charts, and even make your cards colorful. For easy access, hole punch the top left corner and add a small ring that snaps to close.

There are also digital tools like Quizlet, which allows you to make flashcards online or on your phone. You can access your cards as long as you have an Internet connection.

You also have the option to create your own cards or search a database of thousands of sets of cards for the topic you need to study.

You can even have your cards automatically sorted so that the cards you miss frequently are separated from the cards you are comfortable with.

Be careful when using another person’s cards – ensure that the information is accurate. For example, when studying a foreign language, don’t forget that many words contain accent marks.

Play Study Games

Study games are also an effective and fun way to study for an exam.

If you’re using Quizlet, your cards can be automatically turned into a variety of games.

Some Quizlet games ask you to drag a word to the correct definition or type out an answer before a card disappears off of a screen.

Teachers often use Kahoot! as an in-class platform to study concepts. There are thousands of Kahoot! games that can be accessed for free and played on your phone or computer.

  • Create a free account and use the search tool to find a Kahoot! on a particular topic. You can also create your own game to play. The process of creating questions for a game will help you to think through the decisions you make as a test taker.

You can also search the Internet for general review games for any topic. For example, the American Chemical Society has created this list of chemistry puzzles & games for students.

Take Practice Tests

Before any final exam, it’s helpful to take practice tests to review concepts.

This is true for both teacher-made and state exams.

If your teacher allows you to keep tests that you have taken, review the concepts you missed.

  • It’s worth asking your teacher if you can have a clean version of the test to take at home.
  • Then, compare your new answers with your original answers. Did your score improve?

You can purchase study books and even find practice tests on almost any subject online. Do you know if your test will be online or on paper?

Try to mimic your actual testing environment as closely as possible when you are practicing at home. This will help you to practice stamina and anticipate problems (such as computer restarting) before the actual test day.

It’s helpful to both complete practice problems in small bursts of time and to also take a few full-length and timed practice tests.

Pay attention to the format of practice questions. If you miss a problem, ask yourself: Did I not know the answer to the question or did I misinterpret the questions because of the way it was written?

Oftentimes test questions can be tricky and it’s important to have a complete understanding of what is being asked of you.

Taking practice tests also allows you to practice eliminating answer choices on questions which you are unsure of the answer.

Form a Study Group

Forming a study group can be a useful tool for studying for final exams.

However, when you gather together peers, be sure that studying is your number one priority. If a serious tone is not established early on, a study group can quickly turn into a social hour.

  • As a group, identify a plan to meet and decide on which topics to cover. Talk through answers to problems and major concepts.
  • Often this leads to an argument about an answer/idea that, once resolved, creates a powerful memory in your brain.
  • For example, your study group recently discussed whether Shakespeare lived during the Renaissance or Medieval period. After a thorough perusal of notes and coming up with two definitions for the Medieval Period and Renaissance periods, you had your answer: Renaissance.

If a similar question appears on the final, your brain will likely review this conversation and you will select the correct answer.

Establish Rules of Study Time

Unless you are explicitly using online tools to study, remove your phone and laptop from your study area.

Every ding from a text message and each scroll through Facebook take away from valuable study time.

When your brain is constantly switching back and forth between social and academic spheres, you’re also losing a chance to work on your focus and stamina during a test.

A study session can easily turn into 10 minutes of studying and 50 minutes of social media if you are not careful.

If you are studying for a lengthier amount of time, such as three hours, it’s okay to give yourself a break.

However, set a time limit and make sure that you refocus when break time is over.

Snacks and drinks are okay during study time so long as they are not a distraction.

If you have cheesy fingertips from chips, you might spend your time scraping dust off of your papers and lose study time.

Advice From the Experts

To get you even more advice, we asked outside experts about their best studying tips:

From Adam Cole, co-director of Grant Park Academy of the Arts:

The most important thing for effective studying is to be proactive. The goal is to learn the material, not to study, and if what you’re doing isn’t teaching you the material, it’s not worth doing at all.

If you want to learn something you have to discover the best method for yourself and be constantly improving in your ability to deliver the material.

That doesn’t mean you have to ignore all methods and advice. It just means you may have to create a way of studying based on pieces from lots of different sources, and invent what doesn’t exist.

This is harder than “just studying,” but anyone that’s ever done really well in school has either made themselves miserable until they knew it or has gotten really excited about learning the subject.

From Elizabeth Malson, president of Amslee Institute:

Study Tip #1 – Learning Style. Understanding your learning style is important when looking at online and self-paced programs.

If your learning style is collaborative and you like talking through ideas with peers, then you want to schedule or attend study groups. If you learn through reading, make sure the classes have study guides or textbooks in addition to live lectures or on-demand videos.

Study Tip #2- Know Your Pace. For those who like to get ahead, they can move forward in the program and complete the requirements early. For students who need a deadline, they can wait until they gain the right amount of motivation to work on the program requirements.

Whether early, moderate, or last minute, set the pace that is realistic for your schedule. Having control over the timing creates a greater feeling of ownership and often leads to a greater sense of empowerment.

From Romonia Dixon, a doctoral student and recipient of over $100,000 in scholarships:

– Read before class to be prepared, take notes during class, and re-read notes as soon as possible after that class to start retaining and understanding the information. At that point, a student would have come across the same information 3 times!

– Break studying up into sessions before testing. Don’t try to cram all at once, and especially not just the night before.

– Use games such as Jeopardy and Kahoot! to make studying fun in a group!

From Sara Nesbitt, CEO of Coastal Carolina Soap Co.:

1. Take really good notes in class, writing almost everything the professor says with a pen/pencil. This limits distractions (i.e., pop-up notifications on a device) and engages more parts of the brain.

2. Take those notes and rewrite them, filtering out the unnecessary stuff. These can go on notecards or paper. These are portable for studying/reviewing on-the-go. (I realize pen/paper is “old school,” but using them engages more parts of the brain than keying into laptops or tablets: The feel of the pen and paper, the sound of the scratching on the paper, forming the characters, seeing them in your own handwriting, and even the subtle smell of the paper and ink.)

3. Prepare for every exam as if it were all essay questions, even if it is multiple choice. This helps ensure that the student has all the information pertaining to the material mentally sorted and organized.

Finally, Take Care of Yourself

In the days leading up to an exam, remember to take care of yourself. Try as often as you can to get a full 8 hours of sleep.

If you’ve been studying long-term, there’s no need to cram the nights before an exam.

Drink plenty of water and eat a good breakfast. Pack everything you need for school the evening before, including your lunch and No. 2 pencils.

The morning of your exam, do something that will make you smile: watch a funny video, read your favorite poem, high five your kid brother.

Following these study tips will set you up for a successful exam season and establish important habits that will be useful for studying in college.

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