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Articles / Applying to College / Testing: 1,2,3,4: Testing!

Testing: 1,2,3,4: Testing!

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Dec. 13, 2012
Testing: 1,2,3,4: Testing!

Why is it that some high schools and colleges choose to hang the Sword of Damocles over students' heads during the holidays? I'm talking about tests. Finals, and in some cases even mid-terms, looming right after year-end holiday break can cause the acid to churn in students' stomachs. Things have gotten better recently for some colleges (Harvard, for example now tests before holiday break), but others (Princeton, for example) still set The Sword over their students' heads. High schools get in on the act, too, causing indigestion during those delicious Christmas dinners.

So, what can you do to optimize your test-taking skills (and attitudes) in the face of this kind of pressure? In fact, to rephrase, what can you do to optimize your test-taking attitudes, period?

Our friends at Campus Grotto sent out an outstanding list of test-taking suggestions that I'm going to excerpt here, with their permission. Even if your college or high school exams fall before the holiday break, you'll find some good tips here to maximize your performance.

Ace your exams: Finals Week Preparation

Finals week is a test of endurance on your brain and body. For some, it will be hell. So to make sure you don’t end up like this during finals week, we offer some tips to get you ready and prepared for a week full of exams.

You need to be mentally ready to take on finals week: A sharp brain starts with proper sleep and a healthy diet.

Step 1: Get Proper Sleep

The amount of sleep you get has a major impact on your academic performance.

No all-nighters here: Your best bet is to get a full night’s sleep when studying before exams.

Researchers at UC Berkeley found that when we sleep we boost our ability to learn. Much of this brain boosting sleep happens in the second half of the night, so if you sleep six hours or less, you are shortchanging yourself and might not be able to learn as much.

Research has shown that brain waves during the latter part of the sleep period promote our capacity to store fact-based memories. “This discovery indicates that we not only need sleep after learning to consolidate what we’ve memorized, but that we also need it before learning, so that we can recharge and soak up new information the next day,” says Bryce Mander, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at UC Berkeley who led the study . . .

Take a nap after long study sessions

When it comes to napping, power naps actually work. Naps under one hour long can dramatically boost and restore brain power. Anything longer can make you feel sluggish when you wake back up. Even a 20 minute nap will greatly benefit anyone who feels they need a recharge as it will improve overall alertness, boost mood and increase productivity. Therefore, after a long study session, it may be beneficial for you to take a quick nap so your brain has time to “file away” all the information you just took in and give it time for a quick recharge . . .

Getting Alert

After a good night of sleep it can be a good idea to start your day off with a nice cup of coffee. Indulging in a caffeinated beverage of your choice will make you more alert. You don’t want to overdo the caffeine and become jittery, but a nice cup or two should help get the brain spinning.

Have a Study Plan

Take the time to plan out a study schedule for finals week. Decide how much time you will set aside, what tasks you will complete in this time and the order in which you will complete the tasks. When creating your study plan think about the times when you are most productive. If you find it easiest to study in the morning but hard to concentrate at night, schedule as much of your study for the mornings as possible. Be realistic when developing your game plan, otherwise it will be useless . . .

Block out All Distractions

When it comes time to study you need to be 100% focused. This means blocking out all physical and mental distractions, including facebook and your cell phone. Always study in an environment that you are comfortable in that allows you to do your best work. You probably already know what sort of environment you are most productive in so try to recreate that environment where you choose to study.

Bonus Tip: Try switching around your study environments rather than using a single location to study. Studies show the environment you choose helps you remember things better. Simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention as the brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time . . .

Make Effective Use of your Study Time

It is important to make the most of the study time you have to maximize the results from the effort you put in. Know where you currently stand grade wise in your classes so you know how well you will have to do on the final to get the grade you desire. This will also help when it comes to prioritizing what class you need to study for the most.

Take Regular Breaks

As finals week looms, you might start getting the feeling that you need to work for hours on end, but in doing so you are actually doing yourself a disservice. Retention of information is best when your mind is fresh, so take short breaks regularly and remove yourself from studying so you can come back refreshed and ready to absorb more information. Maybe even consider exercising as a break . . .

Preparing for Test Day

Make a checklist of things you need to bring to the exam and consult with it on exam day to make sure everything you need is on hand.

Review Previous Tests

Go over previous tests that have been given throughout the semester. Spend most of your time learning what you got wrong. You should also take the time to [learn] the format of the final so there are no misunderstandings later . . .

Study Time: Make flashcards for review

Flashcards are an excellent way to learn material and learn it quickly. It works in two parts because you are learning while you write the information down on the flashcards and then when you test yourself later, the information is reinforced. Run through these cards as much as possible to help the information stick in your mind . . .


So, you can see that there are plenty of ways to defeat Damocles, so to speak. Sharpen your approach and dull his Sword!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.


Admit This

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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