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The Best Ways to Prepare for Exams

Written by: Megan Ho, Conference Coordinator

Before I came to university, I wish someone would’ve given me a heads up about the amount of exams that I would have to study for every semester, especially as a Social Science student. If you’re looking for study tips and ways to kill your final exams, you’ve come to the right place!

Going into fourth year now, I’ve written a total of at least 40 midterms and final exams (which I know seems absolutely unreal, but you’d be surprised how many classes have 2 midterms and a final exam). That being said, I’m excited to share some of my favourite study techniques that have gotten me through the last few years of undergrad.

As a quick disclaimer, as I mentioned in the ‘Tips for Starting a New Semester’ blog, which you should check out if you haven’t already 😉) these techniques might not work for you, and that’s perfectly normal! Everyone learns differently, so if these tips don’t fit your learning style, remember that there are plenty other resources out there as well (see Western’s academic resources HERE).

Study Tip #1: Go through your readings!!!

This tip might be more relevant to certain majors than others, but if you were given assigned readings, READ them! You don’t have to take extensively detailed notes or hyperfocus on small dates and details, however chances are that the lecture content that repeats in the readings is something that you will need to focus on as a core component of your studying.

What I end up doing is pulling up my lecture notes, and as I go through the readings I’ll add any additional details that I feel like are important. As a general rule of thumb, professors usually don’t focus on specific dates and statistics (however a general idea of what the statistic is common; ex: more than 50% as opposed to specifically 60.5%). This can also depend on what your professor says, so it is best to make sure you ask them beforehand.

Readings are also another way to read through the concepts in a different perspective, which has been proven to increase understanding and processing. Generally speaking, studying only lecture content is usually enough to attain a passing grade. However, if you really want to excel on your exam and the readings are mandatory, chances are that it will be pretty difficult to attain a higher grade because of the questions that will be testing textbook material.

Study Tip #2: Pomodoro Technique (and variations…)

Once you’ve completed the actual exam content material, it’s time to start studying! The Pomodoro method is one of my favourite study techniques to pace myself, especially during a really long day of studying. There are variations, but usually you would study for around 25 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break. Every 4 cycles, you get a 15 minute break instead of 5 minutes. There are variations that double the time (ex: 50 minute studying, 10 minute break) and I find that the longer cycle usually helps for writing final papers where you have to think through the concepts in more depth.

The pomodoro technique allows for you to provide short breaks for yourself to incentivize studying, and it’s also designed to space out studying in chunks because our brains aren’t meant to repeatedly cram information in for long periods of time. When I’m in the ‘work’ proportion of the pomodoro, I like to (quite literally) throw my phone on my bed, or put it under all of the stuff in my bag so that it’s not within reach when I have the urge to look at it. I’ve found that this technique is the most helpful in minimizing distractions and it’s helped me get through extensively long study days through giving my brain breaks throughout my study session.

Study Tip #3: Cue Cards

The dreaded cue cards. Truthfully, I resent making these every time an exam comes up. However, cue cards are (unfortunately) proven to be one of the most effective forms of studying because of a concept called active recall. This is when you have to actively retrieve information from your brain, instead of doing passive studying such as reading over your lecture notes. Active recall involves fully reciting or ‘recalling’ something from your memory, as opposed to recognition which is when something is seen as familiar. Active recall enhances retention, and also mimics the same pattern that your brain engages in during an exam.

There are many different ways to make cue cards. For example, for shorter, more fact-based concepts, I like to make my cue cards on Quizlet where my ‘questions’ or ‘definitions’ are relatively short. However, for longer more conceptual-based courses (for example Statistics or theories), I find that making more detailed cue cards helps a lot. The way I like to do this is to use the ‘Cue Card’ function on Goodnotes on my iPad, and on the ‘definition’ side I’ll write a broad question or a broad term. In the ‘answers’ section, or the back of the cue card, I will put all of the relevant information (~5-6 bullet points) instead of a single answer.

I found that this helped me a lot more compared to individual cue cards based on definitions because it helped to put all of the relevant information together.

Study Tip #4: Creating ‘Cheat Sheets’ and Fill-in-the-Blanks

Another variation of active recall is to create cheat sheets, which is where you summarize and condense your study material into the main points. This technique ensures that you understand what the key points are in your study material, which is usually what professors are testing for as opposed to the smaller details.

Creating ‘fill-in-the-blank’ worksheets are helpful as well, where you go through your notes and take out key words (preferably in a new document so you have your original notes still in tact). I like to create these and then come back to it in a few hours or a few days, and try to fill in the blanks of my own notes. Fill in the blank questions are common on exams, and they are also another form of active recall where you have to test yourself to make sure that you understand the material.

Study Tip #5: Free Recall

Once you’ve started your studying, one final technique that I find helpful is to come up with a list of topics (or use the provided study guide by your professor) and recall all of the information that you know on those selected topics. This is a way to test yourself to see what you remember without being provided any key words that might trigger the answer.

This technique works really well if you’re studying for a short answer or a long answer question exam where you’re provided limited information about what the answer might be (as opposed to a multiple choice exam where the answers are there for you to choose from). This technique is great for multiple choice questions as well because you’ll be more familiar with the information and will likely know the answer before you see the listed options.


At the end of your studying, or at the end of your exam, it is also crucial to take a break. Reward yourself! Get yourself dinner, or go out with some friends, and make sure that you’re taking the time to recharge. If you need a few tips on how to reset for next semester, be sure to check out our other blog in this 3-part series!

Best of luck on exams, and remember that all you can do is control your mindset, as well as the amount of time and effort that you put into studying. Try not to stress too much, and go kill those exams!

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