Learn My Winning Study Method (Part 2)

Now you’re ready to roll. You’ve prepared well for your exam (using what you learned about my winning study method in my last post) and are supremely confident in your ability to perform. But wait—there are still a few pointers that will help during your exams!

 Often you’ll have essay tests where you answer several preassigned questions or where you’ll have a choice in answering some subset of questions. If you’re given the potential questions ahead of time, keep them in mind while you review. On the night before the exam, identify which questions you’re most comfortable with and develop a bullet point list of answers. I often used acronyms of key terms to help me remember the main points.


 The next key step happens when you actually receive your exam. Peruse the essay questions. Answer the easiest one first and the hardest last. Many students answer the questions in same the sequence provided by the professor but panic when the first question is difficult. By answering the easiest questions first, you’ll be able to contemplate the more difficult questions in the meantime. It’s multi-tasking at its best! By the time you answer the most difficult question, you’ll have had the maximum amount of time to consider it while you wrote your answers to the other questions.

 Finally, when answering essay questions, be aware that professors look for key words or phrases when they grade. I always made it a point to include as many key words/concepts as I could in a given essay. If the test asks for you to list five key aspects, I’d give them at least eight. This gives you an extra cushion in case your terms don’t exactly correspond to your professor’s.


 After your exam, you’ll want to analyze your performance and make mid-course corrections for next time. Study your wrong answers to see what you could have done differently. Then, modify your methods accordingly.


 Be sure to ask the professor for help when necessary. If I struggled with exams or concepts, I made a beeline to his/her office. Remember, you and your parents are paying big bucks to attend college. You’re perfectly entitled to take your professors’ time! This is especially important in cumulative subjects like math. Otherwise, you’ll be digging a deeper and deeper ditch.

 College academics are tougher than those in high school, but they’re not impossible. Perhaps the biggest adjustment is the need for better organization and discipline. Whether or not you adopt this study method, the basic principles do work. Good luck!

Are you disciplined and organized when it comes to your study method?  What works for you? In what areas do you need to improve? Share your ideas and questions with us; we’d love to hear from you!


Learn My Winning Study Method (Part 1)

Are you—or is someone close to you—going off to college soon? It’s a big step that requires careful planning because it’s a whole different world than high school.

I want to tell you about a study method that took this 2.85 first-year college GPA to a 3.97 Valedictorian GPA at graduate school. Seriously! (And I don’t say that to brag, only to say that if it’s possible for me, it’s possible for anyone.) As I progressed through my academic career, here’s what I learned: How you prepare is just as important as your innate intelligence. (I have no other explanation for my academic transformation.)

This study method primarily involves test taking and preparation and is more applicable to courses that are more exam-oriented than papers-oriented. It’s designed to help you become supremely confident as you enter and take exams. Here are the elements of my approach:

1.    Know your audience. In college, your audience is the professor who will be grading you. Many college students fear their professors and hesitate to seek help when needed. Don’t be that way. They’ll appreciate your visit.


      A key topic to know is the relative importance of lecture content versus assigned readings. Professors vary widely in this area. Many focus their exams on lecture content (almost to the point where you wonder why you did your readings!) while others focus on the book (making you wonder why you bothered attending class!). It also pays to talk with other students who previously had that professor, to get their input. There’s no substitute for having the “inside scoop.”

2.     Take detailed notes. I experienced a rude awakening while taking my first Cultural Anthropology exam. I bombed it because I never expected the professor to test in such detail. Unfortunately, until you take your first exam from each professor, you really don’t know how detailed the test questions will be. I learned my lesson the hard way and radically changed my note taking to become excruciatingly detailed. I ran through more notebook paper that way, but rarely missed a question on account of detail!

3.     Highlight while you read. One of the secret ingredients of my study method is the generous use of highlighters, so much so that I call my approach the “rainbow highlighter method.” As you read your textbook, start with a yellow highlighter and highlight everything you feel is important that you would probably not remember after just one reading. Don’t bother highlighting a sentence or point if you’re confident that you understand it and can recall it on an exam. After your first pass, you might have as much as half a page highlighted, but that’s okay.

4.     Complete all assigned reading four days before the test date. This will enable you to spend the ensuing time reviewing your material and preparing for the test. No last minute cramming allowed!

5.     Develop your study schedule. This involves estimating how many study hours it will take to achieve an excellent result. Determining the amount of hours is an inexact science, but the bottom line is you’re better off overestimating than underestimating.

Once you’ve estimated your required study time, assign review hours into your daily schedule. Generally speaking, for midterms and finals, you should plan on studying over a four-day period for each exam. In building my schedule, I would work backwards from the exam date. My objective was always to complete my review by the night before the exam. For example, if my test was on Friday, I would start my review on Monday. That would give me the four days of review I required. Then, it was simply a matter of assigning my study hours to those days, taking into account my class schedule, activities, and the like.

6.     Review your study material (textbook and notebook) using the “rainbow highlighter method.” Here’s how it works: Let’s assume your exam covers five chapters of material. Start your review with the first chapter, rereading the yellow highlighted portion from your initial reading. Because this will be your second reading of that material, your ability to understand and recall it will be twice as good (remember, it’s all about reps!). However, there still may be detail or concepts you might not feel totally confident in “regurgitating” if you took the exam tomorrow. In other words, you’d feel more confident with at least one more look. Simply take a different color highlighter (e.g., lime green) and highlight those sentences you would like to review again tomorrow.

Repeat this process again the next day using yet a different color (e.g., orange), but only reread the yellow-green section. You’re now reading this information for the fourth time, highlighting in orange any sentences you want to read again tomorrow. This will be yet a further reduction in the amount you need to reread.

You can see how your confidence grows and grows as the amount of material you highlight shrinks and shrinks. At the end of your review period, you’ve used several different highlighted colors and seen the most difficult material four to five times. This degree of repetition has a powerful impact on your ability to recall the material—not to mention your confidence as you enter the exam! Confidence is king!

How would you describe your study method? Does it prevent cramming and allow for greater focus on material you don’t understand as well? Are you able to efficiently prepare for multiple exams in a short period of time?