How to best prepare for a difficult exam

Dreadful as they may seem, exams are unavoidable. The good news is that the mention of the word “exam” does not have to cause anxiety. With the right amount of preparation and the correct mindset, you can overcome any studying hurdles and pass your exams with flying colors!

Understand the nature of the exam

Truthfully, not all exams are the same. Some are easier to pass, while others require an ample amount of preparation. For most of this article, we will focus on the “difficult” examinations – the kinds that require reading voluminous texts, answering complex questions and retaining a lot of information. The good thing is that the tips we have outlined here will also be very helpful even when you are preparing for a simple aptitude test.

Passing a difficult exam requires adequate preparation, the kind that you begin weeks before the exam approaches. Adequate preparation is the secret to success. However, when it comes to exams, many students get the preparation wrong, whether by not starting early enough, by not focusing on the right things or by using the wrong techniques. All of these can lead to futile efforts that can make it seem like you never prepared at all.

This comprehensive article will teach you how to approach studying for a difficult exam. Divided into several parts, it includes tips for how to achieve successful results.

Part 1: Studying the right way

While the trick to doing well on an exam is studying, not everyone knows how to study the right way. This is why even though you devote time to studying or reading, you may not actually pass the exam. Here are some things to keep in mind the next time you need to study for an exam:

  • Start early

This is the one tip that everyone already knows, but it still cannot be emphasized enough. As a student, it is possible to give yourself excuses not to study at the beginning of the term: the term is still early, you haven’t accumulated enough notes yet or there is a nice party after class.

Instead of adopting this attitude of procrastination, you should remind yourself that there is actually no time that is too early to start studying. You should start as soon as your classes begin. As the term continues, constantly assess the amount of study materials you need to review and set aside a generous amount of time to study them. Again, it is important not to procrastinate. It is better to devote two hours a day to studying over two months than to spend eight hours studying for an exam in three days.

  • Understand yourself

Understanding yourself goes a long way to help you structure your studying. Ask yourself questions like: Do I study well under pressure? How fast does it take me to assimilate things? Have I had a hard time understanding concepts in this course? Asking these questions will give you an insight into how much time you’ll need to set aside for studying. Don’t compare yourself with your friends and fellow classmates, as everyone learns at their own pace and has their own unique methods.

  • Study the entirety of your notes

While you may be tempted to skim or even skip sections of your notes, remember your teacher wouldn’t have gone through the effort of including those sections in the lecture if they weren’t important. Examinations are a test of knowledge, and that knowledge is inclusive of everything you’ve learned since the beginning of that course. It’s an unhelpful approach to regard certain topics as too “insignificant” or “unrelated” to be part of the examination questions.

Studying the entirety of your notes and other materials way ahead of the exam will also help you when the exam date is close. You will become familiar with where each topic is in your notes, and you’ll be able to easily scan through your notes and texts for important details.

  • Get your notes in order

Be an active listener and take thorough notes in class. However, when it comes time to study, you should still confirm with your classmates that you haven’t missed out on important details. If you missed some classes or dozed off at some point, ensure you get the notes. Leaving a blank space for such notes can always notify you that you’ve missed out on some important information.

At the same time, you should also consult texts, handouts and other study materials that have been recommended. In most cases, your notes alone will not be enough to study for a difficult or comprehensive exam.

  • Read to understand

While it is important to keep the examination in mind, you shouldn’t review your notes just for the sake of an exam. The essence of studying is to obtain knowledge, and that knowledge becomes applicable in real-life situations after graduation. If you don’t study to gain this knowledge, you may find yourself just cramming your notes and not really assimilating a thing.

Rather than cramming, truly understanding your notes and the concepts they describe can help you feel more confident on exam day. You’ll be able to approach the exam critically and analytically and put the right answers down irrespective of how an exam question is worded. You’ll also be able to retain the information for longer. With cramming, the information often leaves your brain the moment the exam ends, which isn’t helpful for your long-term study goals.

Part 2: Dealing with the information volume

Without mincing words, some courses are voluminous and so are their exams. This is also true for accelerated programs where you have many of the courses for a typical four-year program condensed into a shorter period of time.

For example, when it comes to a traditional vs accelerated BSN program, certain schools such as Elmhurst University offer an accelerated nursing program. This program is beneficial for students who are interested in nursing but already have a previous degree in a relevant program and do not want to go through the conventional four-year stretch for a traditional nursing degree. The accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program can be completed in two years or less. However, these may require students to take comprehensive courses and deal with a higher volume of information.

So how do you prepare for an exam when you have so much information to take in?

  • Review the syllabus

The syllabus gives you an overview of all that will be covered in the course. This can provide you with an idea of how voluminous the course will be, and you’ll be able to determine how thorough the course will take you into each topic. This will inform you of how far you should go when exploring textbooks and external materials. That way, you can wisely invest your time in the right areas.

  • Take notes while you study

When reviewing your course notes, don’t just passively read them. Instead, highlight or underline the important details already in your notes. You can even make more notes about them. Note the parts you have a hard time understanding, the questions you have or new insights you’ve discovered. You can bring this up during your next class or during a group study session with your fellow students.

You can incorporate acronyms, diagrams and other illustrations to help you remember your notes. This can proved especially effective when there is a lot of information to remember about a subject. 

  • Go over your notes again and again

Quite often, students feel like they can just study the night before an exam and grasp everything they need. However, this is a dangerous if not futile way to study. At the same time, reading them once and then discarding your notes for weeks afterward is also not helpful.

Because there are several layers of information to cover in a difficult and comprehensive exam, the earliest topics will naturally be less fresh in your mind. Repetition is key when there is a lot of information to retain. Therefore, you should have a plan to consistently review your notes even as they pile up. You should also utilize the study guide and summary sections of your texts for each chapter.

  • Pay attention to your weak points

Naturally, you may want to escape from your weaknesses, so you begin to avoid them. Of course, this is never a good idea when it comes to studying. Devote time to learning about areas that you feel are difficult. Ask questions in class, seek guidance from a colleague or consult other study materials. Do not ignore them.

On the other hand, it’s also important to not take your strong points for granted. While you are doing your best to review and understand difficult topics, do not ignore the areas you think you know well. You may discover during the exam that you’ve actually forgotten them.

Part 3: How to study faster

When there is a lot of information to cover, you’ll want to maximize your time as much as possible. There are certain steps you can take to speed up the assimilation process. While all of these tips are effective, you may not need all of them to pass an exam. As you go through the studying process, you will figure out which ones work best for you.

  • Do practice questions

Practice questions are the lifeline of quantitative courses, but they can also be very helpful for any type of course. Practice with the questions that were given in your homework and class exercises. If there are practice questions in your recommended texts, you should also attempt them. Most importantly, never forget to practice with past questions. It is not uncommon for your teachers to repeat questions already asked in previous sets. Even if they don’t, practicing past questions over and over again will help you remember your notes and will also get you familiar with the style of the exam. You will also find quizzes for virtually any topic or subject online.

When practicing with past questions, make sure to follow the standard amount of time given for the exam and ensure you adhere to these limits.

  • Study with friends

Generally, you should have moments when you study alone and moments when you study with friends. When you study with friends, you can review each other’s notes, discuss topics, share views or practice quizzes together. Sometimes, the jokes you crack in between your group studies can help you remember important details in the examination hall.

However, when studying with a friend or a group, it is important to maintain discipline and not get off-track. Studying with a friend who is not taking the same course as you may not be very helpful with discussions on class notes. However, if you don’t have anyone from the same course to study with, just the presence of someone else who is also studying can serve as a motivation to hit the books.

  • Make flashcards

Although they may seem childish, flashcards are an effective and fun way to remember things faster when there’s a lot of information to review. When studying, make a note of details you consider very important and details you tend to forget easily. Make questions out of these details, then write them out on square-cut cards or paper. Include the answer to each question on the back of the card. Use the flashcards to practice alone or with friends by picking a card and attempting to answer the question correctly. You can always confirm the answer on the back of the card. Flashcards can help you remember important details without having to go through your notes.

Other tips

  • Factor in the nature of the course

Each course is different, which you’ll need to factor in when preparing for your exams. For example, the way you would study for an arithmetic exam would not be the same way you’d study for a grammar examination. For the former, you’d want to review lots of examples and memorize formulas. For the latter, you’d want to thoroughly understand the principles and rules of grammar.

Simply put, preparing for two exams the same way may result in failure. If the course is research-focused, then the exam may require you to be more critical, and you may even need to complete practical sessions, conduct presentations or defend a thesis as part of the examination requirements. Some exams will require you to be more analytical and compose long essays. Still, others may require you to be more calculative and engage your qualitative sense of reasoning.

  • Mind your health

It is very easy to get carried away with the heat of approaching exams that you forget to pay attention to your health. However, with early preparation, you can avoid the rush of the exam period and be better able to cater to your physical and mental health.

It is important to stay hydrated. If you are leaving your room to study for a couple of hours, make sure to bring a bottle of water and maybe something to snack on. While it’s a non-physical activity, reading does consume calories, so it’s important to keep yourself well fed. Nevertheless, exam time should not be an excuse to live on junk food, nor should it be a reason to go hungry for the whole day.

You should also endeavor to rest well. Take short breaks in between study sessions and allow enough time for sleeping and doing other activities aside from reading.

  • Avoid staying up all night

Staying up all night before an exam is not a good habit to resort to. It is important to get enough sleep so that your brain is not stressed in the exam hall. You’ll be able to retain information better and apply it during the test.


A difficult exam is not an impossible task; it only means you will have to put in lots of effort to achieve success. It is also important to prepare the right way by understanding the nature of the exam and focusing on techniques that will help you retain information faster.

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