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How to Prepare for Exams Like A Pro: The Exam Prep Cycle

This is another excellent guest article from my good friend Tom Miller. Tom runs WTF Professor and creates some of the most in-depth, well-researched content on studying and learning I’ve ever seen.

If you’ve got an exam coming up, I think you’ll find this post in particular to be very helpful. After you’ve read it though, I’d highly recommend checking out Tom’s other work as well.

Take it away, other Tom!

Let me know if this sounds familiar…

You’re a few weeks into your shiny new semester and the buzz and excitement of starting fresh is starting to ebb away. The initial days of chillin’ out, going to class, learning for the sake of learning, and then hanging out with friends afterwards is over, and the workload is starting to pile up…

Maybe you’ve had a few homework sets, quizzes, and late nights trying to get project assignments done. It’s starting to feel like work. All in all though, nothing too horrible. Not as fun as before, but still manageable.

And then you get to class and hear it…

Innocently enough, at the end of lecture as you’re packing up…

“Okay so quick reminder for you guys, problem set due next class, and the first midterm will be in 2 weeks.”

Your heart drops.

Here come the butterflies…

Oh god, here it comes… I always feel like I can learn the stuff okay but the tests always screw with me…

With that short little reminder from ole’ prof, a million negative thoughts are set into motion, and the semester difficulty dial has now gone well past “tough” and is rapidly approaching “OH HOLY CRAP I’M SCREWED.

Semester Difficulty Meter

Just the thought of having to do a few short problems within one 50-minute class period is enough pressure to make you feel like you have to throw up and have a brain aneurysm all at the same time…

“How is it that I find it so easy when I’m at home doing my homework or reading through notes, but then it’s so hard on the one thing that counts the most towards my final grade?”

And the problems…

Ugh! It’s like 3 freaking problems, with 50 steps each, that are almost impossible to finish within the time limit, and if it’s on the one concept that you don’t know you’re totally screwed.

How is that fair??

How does that actually test what we’ve learned??

Is this all just part of a conspiracy to make college students live in constant fear of being disowned by their parents, relatives, and friends because they’ve never seen a test grade so embarrassingly horrible before!!??!?!?

The “I thought I knew it but blanked on the exam” Phenomenon

The sad truth is, most of us look at exams in all the wrong ways…

We associate them with our identity as a student. A 97 and we’re on Cloud 9, whereas a 64 can send us into a deep depression. This type of thinking promotes a Fixed-Mindset, which prevents us from doing what we should be doing after any type of exam performance: reviewing our mistakes, working on our weaknesses, and getting better.

We put a ton of pressure on ourselves to be perfect, leading to procrastination and self-sabotage…

“Well if I hadn’t waited until 5 hours before the exam to study… then maybe I would have done well…”

And finally, and most importantly, we think that exams test our knowledge of what we’re learning…


Isn’t that the point of having exams in the first place?

Yes, in an ideal world that would be true. But the reality is, what we’re looking at here is not a test of how much we’ve learned, but instead our ability to PERFORM

Our ability to apply what we’ve learned to a very specific type of problem that our professors have decided reflects a depth of understanding of the topic that they deem appropriate.

Think of it like this…

Let’s say you’re a car mechanic. You’ve been training for years. You have a garage full of every specialty tool known to man. You can replace suspensions, do brakes, align steering, and you’ve even done full engine rebuilds.

But then one day a friend calls up and you agree to help.

“Should be a quick job,” you tell him.

He has his 2008 BMW X5 towed to your garage, and it won’t start. Even though you know it’s probably battery-related, you’ve never worked on BMW’s before, and spend the first hour just trying to figure out how to get the battery out.

Then you find out there’s some special wrench you don’t have.

The saga continues late into the night. Turns out the battery is okay, but from what you can read online you think there’s something wrong with the CPU. After 24 hours of struggling, you give up, and have it towed to the nearest BMW dealer, where they quickly have the CPU reset, and your friend drives his car off the lot in a matter of minutes.

So what happened here?

Yes, you’re embarrassed, but is it because you’re a crappy mechanic? No, of course not. You’ve got a huge body of knowledge, and had that been any other make or model you were used to, you would have had it back to your friend in a few hours.

The problem was, you didn’t have the specific and practical knowledge necessary to provide the solution that was needed in that particular context.

And this is what happens when we’re faced with exams.

This gap between our knowledge and our ability to apply that knowledge to perform under a very specific set of circumstances is what leads to what I call the…

“I thought I knew it but blanked on the exam” Phenomenon


Somehow we’re fooled into thinking that we know enough to solve exam problems in the absence of our notes and review materials, under pressure, and the result isn’t always what we want it to be…

The “Perform Like An Athlete” Metaphor

That’s great… but how does this help me??

Well, by thinking about exams in this way, we set the stage for developing a more effective strategy for preparing for them.

Think about it for a sec…

What do we usually do to study for exams?

  • Review our notes.
  • Go to review sessions.
  • Do tons and tons of practice problems.

And the more the better right? The more stuff I can cram into my head the better off I’ll be…

But that’s where our mistake lies… Because instead of focusing on a wide breadth of understanding (knowing a little about a lot), we need to focus on depth of understanding (knowing a lot about a little), honing in on a very specific understanding of how to solve problems likely to show up on the exam.

If we can switch our mindset here, we can put in more effective practice that’s going to pay off on game day.

In many ways this is like an athlete preparing for a performance.

There are a million plays that the Patriots could have studied and prepared to run against the Seahawks in last year’s Super Bowl….

But that’s not what they did, because it would have taken time and focus away from the SPECIFIC plays that they determined would be MOST EFFECTIVE against that Seahawks team. By doing this, they were able to invest the large majority of their time in preparing to run those most effective plays well, when it would count the most.

And we should adopt a similar attitude when it comes to preparing for tests.

Ever wonder how some students barely spend any time preparing for exams, and don’t really seem to know that much more than you do, but for whatever reason come away with a 95 when you’re stuck with a 72?

This is why.

They tightly hone in what they think could show up on the exam, and then practice solving those types of problems.

Simple enough to say, but tough to execute.

The Exam Prep Cycle: The 5-step process to making the actual test a mere formality

A big part of overcoming the procrastination involved in studying is breaking it down.


Instead of just writing “STUDY” on the calendar and proceeding to do everything BUT studying, by being specific about exactly what we’re going to do we increase the chances that we’ll actually get started instead of simply getting overwhelmed and continuing to binge-watch Netflix.

When we know what we have to do (i.e. we plan everything out), the “doing” part actually becomes easier. Because instead of this nebulous looming “studying” that we need to do for an exam we’re already nervous about (big time fear of the unknown), which quickly stops us in our tracks with overwhelm, knowing that I have to do X today, and Y tomorrow, in order to get Z result the following day makes the problem we’re facing more cognitively manageable (a. la. The “Goldilocks” Principle).

So that’s what we’ll do here with what I call the Exam Prep Cycle: a systematic 5-step preparation sequence designed to fit nicely within the 1-2 weeks leading up to each of your exams.


It’s the formula for executing on the “Prepare Like An Athlete” principle.

Step 1: Pre-Exam Notes Consolidation and Practice Exams

Timeframe: 6-10 days before the exam
Duration: 2 hours


First, back in this post, I talked about how consistently taking notes on the right things, and consolidating that information on a weekly basis can help set the stage for understanding the concepts you need to when exam time rolls around.

So now is the time to “cash in” and condense all of THAT information down to 1 pre-exam summary sheet. If you can wrap your head around getting all of the information covered over a 4-8 week period onto one sheet of paper, it’s a good bet that that information is nicely and efficiently stored in your memory as well, allowing for quick access during exams.

Don’t worry if you haven’t done this, though. Just a quick organization of your notes should do the job if you haven’t taken advantage of consolidation up until this point…


Practice Exams.

One of the biggest problems with the way we typically study for exams is that we don’t ACTUALLY STUDY WHAT’S GOING TO BE ON THEM.

Here and here, we covered how to use sites like to pull problems from old exams, and organize your study efforts around solving them. So now we want to use the same methodology to build a collection of problems you suspect could show up on the exam, organized in as similar a format to the actual exam as possible.

For example, let’s say we’re taking a Calc exam on derivatives, and the professor says there will be 3-4 short answer problems and 2 long-answer problems.

So we might find and copy over problems like this:


And this:


From old exams and paste them into a Google doc.


Make sure to find problems with solutions. You’ll need these to go back and check yourself after you take your practice exam.

You’ll need to create at least 2 different practice exams for each Exam Prep Cycle, the first for your initial Exam Rehearsal (see Step 2) and the second for your second rehearsal following your exam study sessions (see Step 4).

And use your detective skills. If the professor drops hints about what might show up during class, or puts specific emphasis on a particular type of problem during lecture or discussion, make sure it include it. It’s your job here to put yourself in your professor’s shoes, and build exams that cover a diverse set of problems you think he or she could reasonably expect you to solve.

Step 2: Exam Rehearsal #1, Evaluation

Timeframe: 5 days before the exam
Duration: 1.5 hours


Just like Tom Brady wants to see the practice squad defense imitate what he’s going to see with the Seahawks defense during the Super Bowl, we want to set ourselves up to experience the actual “game-time” conditions of the exam we’re about to take.

And that’s exactly what Exam Rehearsals are for: study sessions specifically designed to train you to perform at your best under test conditions.

These make each of the following steps you take during “studying” much more targeted than simply “reading through everything,” and “doing practice problems.” After your first Exam Rehearsal, you’ll know EXACTLY what you need to spend your time on next.

So for Exam Rehearsal #1, you’ll use the first of your practice exams to get a “lay of the land.” Here, what we’re doing is getting into test mode, and identifying the gaps in our understanding and problem-solving abilities. We’ll then use this to gauge where we’re at and how much time we need to spend studying before the exam itself.

First set yourself up right.

Like Thomas covers in his 10 Study Tips for Earning an A on Your Next Exam video, you want to simulate the test conditions as much as possible in order to get a realistic assessment of how you might perform during the actual test itself.

Set a timer for the time allotted for the exam and replicate the conditions in the exam room as much as possible.

Once you’ve got the setup correct, take the exam as if you were doing it for a grade. Do the whole thing, start to finish, and don’t take breaks or stop to reference your study materials. You want an honest assessment of your current “test-preparedness” and what things you need to spend your subsequent study sessions on.

Once you’re finished, review and grade yourself. You want to be BRUTALLY HONEST here, and use your best judgment to grade yourself as your professor might. Address each and every small detail, go back and correct your mistakes, and note specific concepts or problems that you need to go back and spend some practice time on during your test prep study time.

This gives you a nice dose of reality a week before the actual exam, eliminating any false illusions you have about what you think you know how to do vs. what you ACTUALLY know.

NOTE: Do NOT obsess about your score here.

If it’s good, GREAT – you’ll have less you need to worry about over the next couple of days.

If it’s bad (like… real bad), GREAT – you’ve just prevented a disaster from happening on the actual exam, and identified exactly what you need to work on before you do take it. So don’t let fear of a bad score stop you from executing this step.

Step 3: Exam-Specific Study Sessions

Timeframe: 2-5 days before the exam
Duration: 2-8 hours depending on confidence level and Exam Rehearsal #1 score


Here’s where that initial rehearsal really pays off: when you actually have to put in the work to study for your exam.

Now like we talked about, studying for an exam usually consists of sporadic marathon-style sessions locked in the library a day or two before the test is given. But during these super-targeted study sessions we’re not “just studying,” but instead putting in a very specific type of practice.

First, block off a few hours of time to solve problems from scratch a. la. Active Recall. This means problem solution only, no notes, no studying beforehand, and just going to town. Active Recall is your secret weapon to deeply entrenching the problem solving steps you’ll need during your exam.


Then, as needed, make time for what I call Reverse Learning. When you hit a sticking point during a practice problem, it usually means that you’re not all that solid on either the problem solving method, or the actual concept itself. This is an indication that you need to go back and dissect a problem solution similar to the one you’re working on. Give yourself a private Q&A session until you understand what’s going on. Then you can jump back into Active Recall mode and really solidify what you just clarified for yourself.


For both of these types of study sessions, use the problem types you identified for additional work during Step 2 to practice during these sessions. You know from your first Exam Rehearsal what areas you’re weak in, so we want to focus here first.

Then, you’ll also want to hit some additional problems that may not have shown up on your first practice exam, but you expect are likely to be on the exam and/or be especially challenging.

By the time you’ve finished this step, you’ll have covered the big gaps in your knowledge and improved on your weak areas, and should be ready for…

Step 4: Exam Rehearsal #2, Getting Comfortable

Timeframe: 2 days before the exam
Duration: 1.5 hours


This one (if you’ve done your work correctly up until this point) should be more a confidence-booster than anything else. Here our focus should be on getting familiar with the exam so that it’s like a “familiar old friend“.

We’re getting comfortable in the test environment and we’re solidifying our test strategy. This is where we take all the work that we did over the past couple of days and put it to the test.

Exam Rehearsal #2 should happen a couple days before the actual exam, just in case it doesn’t go well. That way, instead of freaking out and staying up all night panicking when you’re still getting half of the problems wrong, you’ll have some extra time the day before to tune up whichever areas you’re still struggling with.

Focus on not only taking the exam, but doing so intelligently. This is the perfect time to practice your test strategy (if you have one), and get as comfortable as possible with the test format.

Step 5: Quick Refresh and Pre-Exam Mental Rehearsal

Timeframe: day before the exam
Duration: 1 hour


Ah yes, the day before… The exam is right around the corner, and if you’ve followed this process you now have the luxury of doing some light refreshing of the material, while at the same time getting yourself mentally prepared for the test tomorrow – all while your classmates freak out, pound Red Bull, and try to absorb information from the textbook by way of forehead contact…

Here, all we’re doing is a little bit of light Active Recall, just to keep yourself fresh with the material. Just do a quick refresher here, so that the information you’ll need to use is at the tip of your tongue.

Also, if you can, take advantage of visualization (back to our athletics metaphor) to “see” yourself working through potential challenges and obstacles you might encounter during the test, and ultimately coming out successful.

Now, with this visualization, it’s not enough to just think happy thoughts. It’s not like we’re saying, “Oh, just imagine yourself doing well on the exam and then you’re going to do well.” Instead, it’s about using this mental rehearsal to prepare yourself for every conceivable scenario, and work out what the next steps will be once you hit that obstacle in your head before you actually get to the exam itself… Because as we all know, it’s rarely the case where you get to the exam and everything goes perfectly.

When doing this, you want to go through a sequence of different situations that you could imagine happening:

  • Completely blanking on a problem
  • Making a mistake halfway through a page-long solution and trying to back-track to fix it
  • Forgetting your calculator or equations sheet
  • etc.

This mental preparation will help to calm any test anxiety you’re carrying with you, and get you as ready as possible to perform at your best when it counts.

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