8 Essentials of Cramming for an Exam

If by chance, you're one of the thousands of students that fall into the trap of leaving everything to the last minute, you've landed on the right blog post. You certainly won't be alone in this struggle and since urgency is going to a part of this, I've narrowed down the solution to 8 essential tips to cram effectively for an exam. There is a strategy to making the most of cramming, so I hope you still have time!

This chap in the picture, looks happy, doesn't he?

He's studying for a test just like most of you and he has a huge grin on his face because he's ahead of the curve and he's going to ace the exam...like really hard.

Though he isn't... he's actually that one person in your study group who has reached the point of irreversible madness because they know they haven't prepared enough for the exam and to be quite honest, damn what follows!

If you've reached this point too, I invite you to read this post carefully and match it to your situation, there's still a strategy and opportunity for increasing your mark.

I'm going to be making a lot of assumptions in the hope to draw a parallel with your actual exam/teaching 'structure' - try to make the connection as we go, you'll see what I mean when we get into it.

Your reason for not studying throughout the year could be down to a million things, some genuinely understandable, others not, but regardless of that, every student from the start of High School to Russell Group Institutions sometimes have to deal with a scenario like this.

It's a scenario where the feelings of guilt, pressure, and intimidation really set up camp and linger around for weeks, even months.

The one emotion you're missing though is confidence - it would be better if this 'confidence' could be matched with the competence gained from revision but instead, we're going to match it with strategic optimism and hope!

Now, I'd love to say that this is the how to cram for an exam in 1 day post - it just might be, if you get it right. But ideally, this will require that you have a few days free to make this exam-cram work.

The best ways to cram for a test are the study tips that are concise and allow you to learn for next time, these methods below should nip that in the bud, pretty easily.

Exam preparation is strategic, methodical, and even political on some levels. We're going to be taking full advantage of all that to turn this situation around to get those marks on that paper and those grades on your scorecard.

Right, in the name of ‘cramming’ I suppose we should get a move on!

Past Papers for Exam Cramming is key

You're probably onto this one already, but we're going to get a bit more forensic about it.

Doing past papers is great, but if you're' struggling to find answers that are irrefutably correct - they are probably buried within your notes provided by your teacher.

This is where the concept of Alignment and Prediction begin to make their debut.

The past paper provides you with the template, structure, division of questions/topics, and weight of marks per question, and more!

Hugely valuable right? the very act of getting familiar with these is important in and of itself, this will grant you the ability to navigate your exam.

So let's start making some assumptions to draw a bit of a picture. Let's say... you're exam is 2 hours long and you'll be met with 4 sections, each section holds 25 marks to give a total of 100 marks for the paper.

Now, although you haven't studied as much as possible - you should have a bunch of notes/resources close by - these may be written by you or provided by your teacher.

Your next step is to align the content of the notes to each section in the exam. It's likely that each exam section generally tests on the knowledge of one topic or a few topics.

But the point is that each section relates to each particular 'chapter' in your notes.

If your exam allows you to pick the sections you answer, you're in luck! This structure might allow you to bank on topics and choose the ones that are most 'passable'.

Choose the sections which have the questions that you gravitate toward the most, this probably isn't the time to learn new content, unless you know from a friend that that's super easy and it's worth knowing.

Though if you're stuck with the 'four sections, answer all' structure, the exam 'minefield' will include the entire syllabus (minus anything that your teacher plastered with the "this won't be in the exam" label)

Anyway, alignment...

Alignment Can Help you to Study Faster

Alignment is the act of matching up these chapters/questions in your notes to the respective sections in the exam.

So you may have 12 chapters, where chapters 1-3 match Section 1, 4-6 match Section 2, and so on. This is 'usually' how teachers align them. If yours is different, I at least hope it's kind of similar!

Before we get 'cramming', we need to organize ourselves because if we're going to regurgitate answers into the exam we better know where to put them and when we're going to be asked the question that warrants the correct 'barf' of answers.

Doing this will probably 'up' your confidence quite a bit too, which should increase your momentum to study and ultimately, give you a better shot!

In our example above, Chapter 1 links up with Q1 and Q2. These questions are the lower in marks and so should be the easier ones - these should be EASY marks, be sure to learn every iteration of the question these 'could' be.

If you're REALLY lucky, your structure may look like the one below - It's when one chapter elapses an entire topic and your one section in the exam is testing you purely upon that.

This is where you can really bank on questions and condense things down with limited 'breadth', get it all on a 'One-Pager' revision cheat sheet and you're onto a winner!

The structure described here should roughly resemble yours. If you need to speed up or you need to read textbooks faster, ask people in your class who have already filtered through all of this - one good thing about contacting someone who's revised is that they are often 'full' on information and enjoy showing it and therefore...sharing it!

But the general idea is, knowing how it's built - the exam structure is halfway to knowing how it's conquered.

The trap to avoid is reading the entire course textbook back-to-back. If you want to know how to read from a textbook faster, the answer, for sure, is Alignment.


Regardless of what subject you are studying, it's time to put your detective hat on.

This applies to normal revision anyhow, but in this scenario, where you don't know the breadth of the subject well enough, you have to 'rely' more on the prediction of specific topics/questions coming up.

If you have recorded lectures, you can scan through and look for tips, but it may be quicker to speak with anyone you can talk about what 'pointers' they know, anything that can close the gap on what will show up on the exam day.

Additionally, remember you have those past papers! Within these, you may find something of a 'common occurrence', a question that continues to appear with slightly different values almost every exam period - this may be a sign of a question that the exam writer likes to put in.

This is especially true if your teacher paid particular attention to the study of this question topic.

While we're on that note, keep a lookout for what was covered throughout the year and whether any question does a good job at 'testing' a topic that was continuously talked about throughout the term/during revision sessions/tutorials or even casual chats with your teacher.

Since time is not on your side, you're going to have to rely on the 'bank on it' strategy. What this means is, take what you know and ensure you can regurgitate it well - it's probably too late to start learning new things unless... you know it's consumable and easy.

Banking on a selection of questions can of course profit really well, equally it can lead to a slap in the face moment too. Either way, it's probably better to know a smaller portion of content well than know a higher portion of content unwell, as counter-intuitive as that sounds.

So take everything you know and fortify your knowledge on it, then sprinkle on the quick and easy 1-4 mark answers in other sections that you're less familiar with, these are usually the questions at the start of any section. This is kind of a mix between doubling down and spreading your bets!

Last Push for Exam Tips

This depends on how close the exam is and how you feel about it, but it may be a good idea to contact your educator for any last effort exam tips they may be able to give you.

I've seen some pretty interesting tactics in the past, I'll show you one that caught my attention as a kind of 'oh that was an interesting reply' situation.

A friend one mine was really stuck with this one question, they were ahead of everyone in their revision so it's not that any of his peers could help, it's just they weren't up to the same place in the notes.

So they decided to get in touch with the teacher and the email communicated that this person was really struggling with a question and just can't seem to get their head around it and they are spending a lot of time, just on this one question (which was a high marker)

The reply by the teacher...guided them toward a solution, eventually, but prior to that, it mentioned that they advise spending not as much time on this topic area.

They implied that actually, this question didn't deserve the amount of attention it was getting...in response, the student perceived it as a bit of a tip toward it not coming up.

It proved true! The question did not come up - this shows that sometimes you can read into the written replies of your teachers and gather important little nuggets of information.

If you'd like to take even more of an advantage of this technique, ask them in person - because this lends to a far less restricted and more friendly exchange to be had.

I once had this teacher who would get very funny and almost jittery about helping the students who he got along with, you could see him really trying to hold back giving away too much information but in doing that you'd recognize this kind of 'jitter' in his voice and then you'd know straight away what he was implying - this is what I mean by it being a bit political.

Now, this does happen, I suppose you can call it 'being human', but some people just end up doing things like this and you end up getting some advantages that others won't - this may be an avenue for you to move into if again, you have time.

Ultimately you just want to ask for any extra tips and pointers that can help out, maybe mention you're struggling, and see what kind of response you get!

This, of course, plays into the hand of the prediction heading above - it's all about narrowing it down.

The One-Pager

Once you've narrowed it down to something mildly predictable and aligned which sections talk about which chapters, it's time to genuinely start to bring it all together into one page per exam section (maybe even do one for the whole exam if you feel it!)

Here's a small example I found, see how you have 'everything you need on one page? Although in fairness I used to really PACK the page out, diagrams, equations, definitions, derivations, 'notes to self' and whatever else is relevant.

Be sure to put everything you need and just allow yourself to see everything you need in front of you, just like below - again, a confidence booster and a bit of a 'mind map' to navigate the exam.

This is the kind of thing that you'd look at before going into the exam, just a quick and easy reference for you to look at to 'fill up' your mind a bit.

Alternatively, if you don't like looking at anything before the exam - that's good too, that's actually quite common!

You'll know you have this technique right when you struggle to look on the page and find anything that actually tests you or catches you out. If you can scan through and have your internal monologue fill in the answers right away - you're one-pager is effective!

Buddy Up

With panic mode in full flow, going through such a stressful period is far easier when a friend is there with you.

If you're both in the same boat, so be it, if they are in a good position to do well... fantastic, the point is...that you're not alone in this!

You can even extend this to a group of you, be sure to stick together and talk about strategy, it's common that at least one of you will have information that others don't have.

Buddying up also means you can improve confidence a bit, regardless of the scenario:

  • if you're both screwed, at least you're not the only one - so you're not going to feel totally ostracised.

  • If your friend/s are confident and you're not, they can help you out and get you into a better headspace for the exam.

Communication during a revision period is crucial, this remains true for cramming for tests or exams.

Be sure to take advantage of this resource and scout around for opinions/answers that could go unknown if you hadn't dug for them, perhaps a peer of yours had a private convo with the teacher at one point and found out something interesting.

It's important you keep everyone accountable while strategizing here, it only takes one person to 'give up' and the whole team may fall over, stay on track, keep moving forward!

Know When to Call it

Let's say it's the evening before the exam, you know sleep is important - you've heard that in every other how to cram guide I'm sure!

But it's so true, it's another useful resource in its own right. For alignment and prediction to work, the skill of active recall must work, i.e... you need to be able to remember and regurgitate things.

This skill is best after some good sleep. When you're tired, active recall really takes a hit - I remember reading somewhere that 'some' level of sleepy is just neurologically equivalent to being 'some' level of drunk - a crazy thing to do to yourself before an exam!

So you're going to have to be vigilant enough to declare a bedtime, convince yourself that there's nothing more you can do for the evening, and hit the pillow.

If you need to do more, do it in the morning, let your mind be in the 'warm-up mode' while revising instead of on the 'burn out mode' if you catch my analogy.

The morning is likely to be a bit of a rush though, so if you feel the need to shower and take time to make yourself feel a bit 'fresher', I'd probably do that... but it's up to you!

After the Exam

When the exam is behind you, regardless of how it goes, it's important to bid that one good riddance.

If it goes bad, assure yourself that there's nothing you can do about it now... continue on, if it goes well... use the same technique of cramming on the next exam (if you're unlucky enough to have one so soon and you haven't studied for it)

If... that's it, then... get out there and chill out in whatever way you feel comfortable!

This may sound obvious but it's actually super important, all of this cramming has probably caused a total overhaul in stress hormones in your body for weeks/months.

You need to get yourself into a headspace of freedom and 'feel-good' vibes, whatever it is, go remind yourself what LIFE feels like!

Though if you do have another exam, maybe chill for a few hours, have a little break, and probably get a fancy lunch or something...then soldier on, you'll be doing the above in the near future, look forward to it but keep your head in the game for now.

It might be possible to go even further in the 'art of cramming' but with the purpose of using time efficiently, I'd say the above is both the foundation and depth of technique needed to boost your mark.

One thing I can assure you, there is a time in the future where exams don't exist and you won't really ever have this feeling again.

Another factor to mention that can improve your performance - Luck, and I wish you the best for your upcoming exam/s. Confidence is the key for cramming, own your position and look for the advantage, there's still room to score well - seize the moment

All the best!

Thanks for reading


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