Science-Backed Study Tips to Ace Your Exam + Checklist

As we are getting closer to the final season, a lot of us would frantically search for exam study tips and skills to help us better prepare for finals. I have previously covered quite a lot on how to prepare for exams (and I have also got a free email course on how to study for exams effectively. Sign up if you haven’t already), but there is always more tips to add on it! In this post, I am going to talk about the following things (with science-backed tips!) that would help you to ace your exam!

  • The attitude that you should have for exams (and studying)
  • How you can best prepare and study on the day before the exam (and why you shouldn’t pull an all-nighter)
  • What you should do the morning of the exam

Sounds great? Now let’s get started!

[This post is part of the Exam Series]

Get the Free Printable Checklist on things you should do and how you can study and prepare for your exam - it covers everything from how to reducing stress to science-backed exam skills for high school and college students! Download it now on Students Toolbox!


Your attitude matters (probably more than you imagine)

Do you find the situation where top students often get better grades as the year goes, and students who are getting dissatisfactory grades may have a tendency of getting worse results than before? That’s likely because of the person’s attitude. If students think that they are able to make it, and believe in their abilities, they are likely to be successful students and will put more effort into learning because they believe that their effort will pay off. Alternatively, if people think that they are unsuccessful and not smart enough to do well, then they won’t be able to believe themselves. As time goes, they will be motivated to study believing that nothing will work out for them anyway.

Remember, what you think and believe will become your subconscious thoughts. If you are telling yourself that you are going to fail anyway, your subconscious mind will tell you this constantly. And eventually, your subconscious mind would form your personality.

So what should you do? Believe in yourself and tell yourself that you can make it. If you are not good at positive self-affirmation, here is what I recommend you do. Every day you wake up, think about three things that you would like to do for the day, and how you are able to do it. Having a concrete plan and motivating yourself to finish the three important tasks can empower you. Since you have a clear plan on how to accomplish the tasks, you will know that you can do it – and this will be a huge encouragement and motivation for you to be productive.

Next time you have an essay that you don’t know how to do, try telling yourself that you are definitely able to finish it beautifully. Similarly, before an exam, don’t tell yourself that you are going to fail anyway. Walk in with confidence, and instill the thought that you are going to ace your exam into your mind. Don’t let one or two questions bring you down. Skip them if you don’t know them, can keep that positive attitude throughout the exam. (I will talk about more test-taking strategies in the coming days!)

To sum up, you should have the following attitudes:

  • Believe in yourself and your ability – tell yourself that “I can definitely make it!”
  • Know your goals 
  • Tell yourself why your goals are important, and what you can get out of it. (e.g. I want to get a 4.0 GPA because I want to get into my dream college)
  • Love and respect yourself. Don’t look down on yourself and undermine your own value. You are the way that determines how valuable you are. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you make others believe in you?
  • Don’t think about giving up. Don’t say that “I am going to try and see if I can get good grades”. Instead, say that “I am going to get good grades”. The word “try” implies that you are uncertain about the prospect of your success. It implies failure. Why tell yourself that you may fail before you have even started?

Get the Free Printable Checklist on things you should do and how you can study and prepare for your exam - it covers everything from how to reducing stress to science-backed exam skills for high school and college students!


The Day Before Your Exam

On the day before your exam, it is very likely that you start to get nervous and frantically attempt to study everything. But that may be detrimental to your performance on the exam.

Focus on what you have learned already.

On the day before the exam, you should focus on strengthening your memory of what you have already learned and understood, rather than learning new information. The reasons are the following

  1. It is very unlikely that you can absorb the information well just a day before the exam
  2. You will spend a lot of time trying to understand the concept when learning – and this time could be used to maximize your output by recalling your memory of things that you have already known
  3. Learning new information may get you nervous. You may get the feeling that “Oh my! I don’t even know what’s going on!”. This will not only worry about the exam more, you will also question your ability and knowledge of other materials. You may be less confident because of this.

So what should you do?

  • This is the very reason why you should start studying way before the day prior to your exam. Exam preparation should start right from the start of the semester. That does not mean that you have to study 5 hours a day right from the start, but you should at least pay attention during lecture and review what you do not know after the lecture. It’s always good to make sure that you at least have a grasp of the knowledge a week before an exam. It wouldn’t wise at all to start flipping through the lecture notes just two days before the big day.
  • Okay, I know the above tip may not be helpful to some of you who are having your exam in a few weeks or even days. If so, find out if you actually have to go through all the topics. If you are doing an essay type question, and you can pick 3 questions out of 10, you may only have to know 3-5 topics very well. In your exam preparation, then, focus on these 3-5 topics that you are already familiar – this is way better than knowing a bit of all 10 topics.

Don’t just memorize the information, apply them.

How can you answer questions well when you have never seen them before? That is what differentiate top students and average students. Average students may be able to memorize everything and just write them down when the see a question they are familiar with. Top students, however, are able to make use of the knowledge they have learned, analyze and organize them well to solve the problem.

How should you develop such skills? The answer is simple. You have to:

  1. Understand the materials well
  2. Actively learn and think about the information
  3. Practice applying the knowledge

What an exam is really testing you is not how well you can put that knowledge into your brain, but how well you can use the knowledge to your advantage and answer the questions. The principles and theories you have learned are fixed, but how you apply them to a problem really depends on you. This is when you can show your ability in analyzing the question and solve the problem.

In an exam, nobody would guide you to how you should answer the question. In order to perform well in this aspect, you would have to constantly practice and train yourself before the exam. A very good way of doing so is to do past papers and practice problems. I have covered how you can do your past papers and quiz yourself in the right way to help you see improvements in my free email course, make sure the join the course now!

Related: How to Study for Exams in a Week


The Night Before the Exam

After talking about the attitude you should have, and how you should prepare for your exams, I am now going to talk about some trivial yet important things you should do the night and the morning before the exam.

During the night before, what you have to do is to get everything prepared so that you won’t stress yourself out the next morning. You want to keep your mind as calm as possible before your exam. Now, here is a list of things that you should.

  • Check (and double-check) your exam schedule and venue. You don’t want to be late or end up in the wrong place!
  • Get all your stationery and supplies ready. Don’t forget your calculator for your math exam.
  • Think about what you are going to eat next day. Remember to prepare your breakfast!
  • Relax, and get sufficient sleep.

Why shouldn’t you pull an all-nighter the day before your exam?

Dr. Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said that the big functions of sleep are to take information which we have learned during the day and do things with it:

  1. Strengthens the information and stabilize it so we won’t lose it
  2. Takes the information and integrate it with all other knowledge (so that you can know how does the information fit it with the rest you have learned)
  3. Picks memories to get rid of because the brain decides we don’t need it anymore

For every work that worth an hour for the brain to do when we are awake, it takes only 30 minutes when we are asleep.

If you want to learn new knowledge and skills, he said, you will have to sleep more than 6 hours on the day you have learned the information. If you don’t sleep well after you have memorized things during the day, the information won’t stay on your Temporal Lobe, and you are going to lose the information really soon.

In other words, while you are sleeping, the brain analyzes and processes the information for you, and store it in your brain. That also means that even if you pull an all-nighter after you study, the information you have learned may not be able to stay in your long-term memory. And that’s the reason why pulling an all-nighter after studying is not worth it at all. Sleeping is so important to learning, and I will talk about it more in another post in the future.

Related: 5 Useful Tips On How to Deal With Stress During Exams

The Morning of the Exam

In order to make sure your brain functions well, it needs around 2 hours after you have wakened up to get it ready. But just waking up two hours before the exam is not enough. You should actively improve your brain performance. But how can you do that?

  • Imagine how you will succeed in the exam. Boost your confidence and think positively.
  • Go through the outline of the exam in your mind once. This helps to consolidate the information one last time, and give you the feeling that you are all good to go.
  • Relax. If you are nervous, focus on your breathing and slow it down.

When should I arrive at the exam venue?

I generally think arriving 15-20 minutes is a good practice. It gives you time to just settle down and get yourself ready (and avoid the risk of getting late). But the actual arrival time really depends on the situation. But I don’t recommend arriving at the venue too early either, because:

  • You are going to get very nervous in the venue. The atmosphere is usually very tensed there, with everyone taking out their notes and cramming at the last minute. It’s very easy to be influenced by this atmosphere.
  • You may be easily distracted by others. In the venue, some may be studying frantically. Others may be very confident with themselves and talk about what will come up in the exam. You may then get worried and think if you should go through your notes again. You may also question whether you are really ready. While you are at the exam hall, some of your friends may ask you questions regarding the exam. This again will make you very stressed and question yourself.

You can try finding a silent corner and do your own preparation. You may want to look at your notes again, or you may just want to relax and get a bit of rest before the exam. If you find out that you don’t know something at this time, don’t worry about asking your friends for an answer. What you should really do now is to believe in yourself.

Confidence is so important for performing well in an exam and test. At the very last minute, all you can and should do is to tell yourself that you have already your best, and all you have to do is to do your best in the exam. Stop worrying about how you may fail or the consequences of failing. Just care about is how you can use your ability and knowledge to show your potential in the exam!


Get the Free Printable Checklist on things you should do and how you can study and prepare for your exam - it covers everything from how to reducing stress to science-backed exam study tips for high school and college students!That’s it for now!

Need a quick summary of everything I have talked about above? There you go.

  • Positive attitude determines your performance. Believe in yourself and be confident.
  • Don’t try to learn something new on the day before your exam.
  • You should focus on applying the knowledge – because that is the key to doing well.
  • Don’t pull an all-nighter after you have studied. Your brain will consolidate and process the information when you are sleeping. This is crucial to how well the brain stores the knowledge!
  • Do all the preparation you need the night before to make sure you won’t get nervous the next morning.
  • Wake up at least 2 hours before the exam to get your brain ready. Try to think positively. Perhaps go through your syllabus or cue cards so that your brain can function well when it’s exam time.
  • Avoid getting nervous and distracted right before your exam! Remember, your attitude is the most important thing!


Again, if you would like to know more exam study tips, this free email course “How to Study for Exams Effectively” is exactly what you need! If you want to read more on preparing for exams, check out Series: Top Tips for Exam and Tests!

If you find this post helpful, it would be great if you can share it with others! 🙂 And if you would like to get the printable checklist for this post (and many other useful study materials + free college workbook), sign up down below and get the passcode for ST Resource Library!

Get the Free Printable Checklist on things you should do and how you can study and prepare for your exam - it covers everything from how to reducing stress to science-backed exam study tips for high school and college students!

Let me know what is your top exam study tip! And what do you do right before your exam?


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