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How to Study for a Test in 5 Simple Steps

Alex Convery
September 01, 2020

Student smiling while studying with laptop

Odds are, everyone will study for a test at some point in their lives. From simple weekly spelling tests to big standardized tests like the SAT, it is almost impossible to get through your school days without conquering some tests along the way.

Tests can be a source of stress for many students, but knowing how to study for a test can help you to enter an exam with the right mindset. When you go into a test prepared, you are not only able to feel more confident on test day. You're also more likely to achieve a higher score. Below, we list five steps to help you understand how to study for a test.

1. Know Your Starting Point

One of the most important factors in test preparation is identifying your subject matter strengths and weaknesses so you understand what you most need to study. To this end, practice tests are always a good idea. In fact, this is a common teaching practice.

A formative assessment or a pre-test helps to identify areas for focus. As an example, some instructors give a quiz before beginning new material to understand where to start instruction.

To use this strategy at home for something simple like a spelling test, you would identify the words you need to study by taking a practice test and checking which words you got wrong.

Take a practice test and score it using the answer key or scoring rubric. If you aren't sure you can score it objectively, ask a friend or family member to help. Once you've scored the practice test, try to look for patterns in your errors.

Did you miss a lot of questions at the end when you felt crunched on time? Did you tend to miss word problems? Did you have trouble explaining your thoughts? Finding patterns in your weaknesses will help you to create a study plan that works for you.

2. Make a Study Schedule

How to study for a test: Person planning a calendar on their laptop

We've all heard the expression “Practice makes perfect,” and that's always the intent when it comes to studying. The more you practice your skills and review the materials, the more likely you are to ace the test.

Keep in mind last-minute studying can be counterproductive. Experts agree that last-minute cramming might provide temporary recognition of new skills, but it does not lead to long-term memory recall.

Instead, the best way to learn new material is through steady, repeated exposure over a prolonged period. This means you should space out your studying as much as possible.

If you have a math test coming up, try to start studying a week in advance. When you plan to take the SAT or ACT, start studying a few months in advance. The bigger the test, the earlier you should begin.

To create a study schedule, mark the test day on your calendar. Also, mark other important commitments such as extracurriculars, work, or other important events that will affect your time management.

Then, mark the amount of time that you can reasonably devote to studying each day. Even a period of 15 minutes is worth committing to. Over the course of a week, this can add to nearly two hours.

Writing your study time on the calendar is an important way to help hold yourself accountable. You might even coordinate study groups to meet on certain days to also help you stick to the schedule. But regardless of whether you study alone or in a group, building a little bit of study time into your schedule on most days is more likely to help your test scores.

3. Make a Study Plan

How to study for a test: study group sitting around a table with coffee and notebooks

Of course, deciding how to study for a test means identifying what you'll study. Use the baseline from your pre-tests to make a plan to learn and review material before test day.

Your study plan should divide the material and skills into manageable pieces you tackle on certain days. It might include specific knowledge, like historical dates or events, as well as specific skills, such as outlining an essay response or using test-taking strategies.

Once you know the material that you need to cover in your study plan, you can decide the best way to learn it. For specific information, like math facts or historical events, flashcards are a good way to provide repeated exposure. You can make physical flashcards on index cards, or you can use web and app services to create virtual ones. Practice with your flashcards regularly to get the most out of them.

Note-taking can be another effective study skill. When you take good notes on your material or reorganize or summarize your class notes, you reorganize the new knowledge in your brain. A bonus of this study technique is writing the material down can also help with memorization.

Your study plan can also include practicing common test-taking strategies like the process of elimination for multiple-choice tests or time management techniques for answering all questions in time. A study group can also help you identify effective study tips.

The best way to reinforce your study skills is through repeated practice. For example, you can use sample tests to practice answering essay questions within the time limit.

4. Track Your Progress

How to take notes: a person writing notes

Knowing where you are in your study process is just as important as knowing your baseline scores. Monitor your progress by regularly taking practice exams and comparing your scores to your previous ones.

Not only will scoring these tests help you to identify areas you still need to focus on. Taking the practice tests will help you feel familiar with the format and reduce your test anxiety.

After each practice test, set a new goal for the next test and see if you can meet it. Before long, you'll be ready for test day.

5. Practice Healthy Test Day Habits

Student locking his room to head to campus

​It's just as important to prepare for test day as it is to prepare for your test. This means ensuring you get a good night's sleep, wake up on time, eat a healthy breakfast, and make it to your test with time to spare.

The last thing you want on test day is to be tired or stressed. Both of those things can negatively affect your test performance. Instead, plan ahead. Pack everything you'll need for the test day the night before, and set a backup alarm to make sure you're up with time to spare. Aim to arrive early for your test, and be confident that you did all in your power to prepare.

Knowing How To Study for a Test Pays Off

How to study for a test: Test score sheet with pencil and eraser

Studying isn't easy, and for some students, it is an acquired skill. Luckily, if you can identify your starting point, make a schedule, and use your goals to guide your study plan, you can arrive for test day as prepared as you'll ever be.

If you need some help getting from your starting point to test day, you might consider bringing in the professionals. Online tutoring through sites like TutorMe offers on-demand test preparation help in nearly every subject. Check out our demo lesson space, review membership plans, or start a free trial to learn more.