How to Cram – or, How to Ace the Exam That’s Just Around the Corner

CramSheila has an exam coming up in Advanced Biology.  It had been announced weeks ago, but she has a full course load.  She studies every night for several hours, and sometimes she gets overwhelmed with all she has to do.  And that’s the problem:  She is so overwhelmed that she completely forgot about the Advanced Bio exam until today. Now it’s tomorrow and she has to study–FAST.

Todd, on the other hand, keeps up with his studies and knows when every exam is scheduled.  There’s just one problem. Today, his Economics professor announced a pop quiz for tomorrow’s class.  This sends everyone in the class, including Todd, scurrying home or to their dorms, to find out how to squeeze some study time into their schedules.

Obviously, as different as Sheila and Todd are, they have one dilemma in common:  a test tomorrow that they have little time to prepare for.  So what’s a conscientious student to do?  Here are some suggestions for taking advantage of a short amount of study time for that unexpected test.

Spend a good amount of time making sure that you have all the information and materials you need. 

This is one of the most important cramming strategies as it saves you time. You won’t have to start and stop studying to collect additional materials—which wastes time—or study unnecessary information. Check the test information provided by your professor or teacher and make an outline of everything you need to know for your test. After creating a reliable list for your study guide, gather all the books, articles, notes, writing utensils, power points, and any other supplementary information you may need. This means you need to find that person in the class who has perfect notes, and find out if he / she can fill in the gaps in your own notes.

Determine the key concepts

Since you are studying so last minute, it is very unlikely that you will remember every little detail for the test. Instead, decide what the more important main ideas are and start with them. If you try to remember everything, including the small details, you might find yourself getting weighed down and confused. A decent understanding of the main ideas will get you a better grade than a deeper understanding of just a couple pages.

Find old tests

If at all possible, see if you can find an old test or study guide from the previous year.  While your teacher most likely changed the questions, there could still be one or two they keep for this year’s test. More importantly, if you do have access to an old test, it will highlight the important concepts of what you’ll be tested on, so you can focus in on those portions of the material. This means that you can deeply study what you know will be on the test rather than spreading yourself thin to memorize everything. You can see the format used and get comfortable with it. Focus on the larger key concepts first, and then if there’s time, you can go back and fill the rest in. Your teacher is also a good resource for the test. While they probably won’t tell you exactly what is going to be on the test, they can help answer any questions you may have or suggestions for which parts to focus on. See practice questions for all types of tests here

Tackle the harder concepts first and earlier in the day.

Your brain performs more effectively a couple hours after you initially wake up. This means you should spend the time prior, eating and preparing everything for a study session, so you will use your optimal brain time for studying. Also, there are fewer distractions earlier on in the day, and you will have just woken up with plenty of energy from full night’s rest. By saving the more difficult portions to study at night, there is an increased chance that you will be both tired of studying and tired in general, resulting in less motivation.

Find a place with zero distractions. While some distractions are acceptable when you’re studying for a test over a period of days, when it’s an unintended cram session, you have to focus.  That means:

  • -Go somewhere that you don’t have a clear view of lots of activity, noise, or people that will keep you from studying. If you’re outside studying where your friends hang out, there’s a good chance you won’t get much work done.
  • -Studying at home or in your room can also be distracting. Instead of studying in your room or kitchen—where your bed and fridge might tempt you—opt for a more suitable environment such as library or even a quiet café. Take only what you need for studying and set up an area where you can stay without having to move for a while.
  • -Place a “Do Not Disturb” sign at your study spot, and enforce it.
  • -Make sure you have all necessary supplies at your study spot with you, so you won’t have to keep getting up to retrieve items—including your computer, texts, notes, writing utensils, chargers, etc.
  • -Turn off the TV and the loud music (Some people do fine with soft music in the background). Even just using these sounds, as background noises can be distracting.
  • -Put your phone away! And avoid social media. Only use your phone or computer during designated “rest times.” While it may be tempting to scroll through your social media, it is a waste of time, and you can always do it after your test. People often get so caught up in what’s going in in the digital world that they lose time in real life! Don’t lose your precious studying time to social media.

Get an Outline

But the real key to studying on the spur of the moment is operating from an outline of the material to be covered. Make a personal study guide.  This doesn’t have to be as difficult as it sounds, and sometimes your teacher will even have one you can refer to.

For starters, many textbooks already have fairly good outlines. The text will often start the chapter with one, or the section headings themselves make good outlines.  Either way, copy it out into your notes in a way that is suitable for you to understand. And by copying, you should physically be writing the material down, not typing it. Also, try to eliminate any filler material in your notes that will distract you from the main ideas. The writing helps you to remember it, plus, it keeps all of your study in one area:  your notebook.

Even if your textbook is not a great place to start for outlining, some people take very organized notes.  These notes, when well done, are a good source for your outline, or in many cases, are already done in outline form.

You can either make an outline as you make your notes, or use the textbook outline. Add any additional material that you struggle with or definitely know will be on the test.

Chunk the information. Group your information and definitions that you need to remember together. Learning the different pieces and how they comprise the larger pictures will help you retain information at a more efficient rate.

Once you have your outline completed, your study time can begin in earnest.  Read through it once, just to get basic information. After that, reread it to make sure you understand all of the terms.

If you have time, use the outline to make some questions and put them on flashcards. Put the answers on the back.  To truly understand the material for most tests through flashcards, you need at least 30 cards. Some teachers will provide a study guide or set of questions for a test. If that is true in your case, then use them!

Read through the outline once, just for basic information. Then, read it again and make sure you understand each term. If you are studying with someone, you can quiz each other by using the outline; make each heading into a question and try to answer them. While studying with a partner can be helpful for quizzing each other’s knowledge, it is only truly effective when both of you know most of the material. If you are cramming for an exam, I would suggest studying solo instead of with a partner or group as they can slow you down, and be distracting.

After you’ve gone through your outline thoroughly, it’s time to work on a point-wise summary.  To do this, make up a brief summary of the chapter or material that you’re studying.  Do this in such a way that all contents are in the form of points, and arranged in a logical order.  This means that you’ll have a main title first, followed by subtitles, and then points that illustrate the main point.  Assign numbers to these points so that it’s easy to remember them.  It might even be smart to make another set of flash cards, with each point, in order, so you can quiz yourself with them.

Make no mistake:  This method will take several hours of intense study.  But it will help you ace that test that comes up on the spur of the moment.

Change it up!

While study guides are extremely helpful to gather and learn all the required material for a test, try different methods. With different types of cramming, you are breaking up what could be a monotonous and endless study session. Try reviewing your notes, reading out loud, quizzing yourself, or even talking about ideas with a prepared classmate. This will keep you engaged in study and is more effective than just staring at one guide over and over again.


As tempting as it is to pull an all-nighter, cramming for tomorrow’s test, this method is not the answer. You will be a more effective test taker if you rest rather than forgetting everything because you are so delusional from sleep deprivation. Your brain needs to be rested in order to function optimally. Coffee can be an aid during studying and right before the test, but it is NOT a substitute for sleep. Neither are prescription pills that will keep you up all night. Lack of sleep can affect your concentration, and ultimately cancel out all the cramming you did for the test!

Eat! And drink plenty of fluids.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but while you are studying and even right before the test, you should nourish your body with food and water. If your stomach is growling, you won’t be able to focus on anything that you are studying.


While preparing last minute for a test may be stressful, don’t let it get to your head! You need to remain calm during both studying and testing as the stress will do nothing but distract you from success.

Also, take breaks when needed. Of course every minute in cramming is crucial, but you also have to stop every once in a while as well. Set a timer, so that you can take breaks for getting up and stretching, eating, or even just to close your eyes for a minute. This will help you de-stress, so you don’t end up with a fried brain.

While cramming isn’t usually a top suggested method for studying, sometimes it is a necessary one—and the only one. Try to find more time to study and avoid waiting until the last minute. If you do however find yourself in a position where cramming is your only option, then try these tactics to ensure that you will pass your test. Every test can be passed. Though you may not remember all the information you crammed in the future, you are working on studying skills that will effectively let you get through your test. With good organization, dedication, and most importantly, sleep, you will be able to take on any test.


Rote memorization is based on the idea that looking at material long enough and enough times will finally store the information inside the brain.  The rapid learner’s strategy is different.  He or she stores information by linking together ideas.  They don’t rely on repetition; they rely on connections.  Through these connections is created a web of understanding and knowledge that will succeed, even if they forget one part of it.  More on memorization.

Let’s use a simple method for illustration.  If you have a list of 12 items that you need to memorize, you can either go the traditional route of reading and re-reading it until you remember it–or you can try building connections.  Assign each number from 1 to 12 a word that rhymes with it:  “sun” for one, “shoe” for 2, “tree” for three and so on.  Then assign each item that corresponds to that number a picture with the item on it that you just created.  In other words, let’s say that your list is a list of types of extreme weather. If on your list, you have to remember that #2 is a tornado, you’ve already given 2 the rhyming word of “shoe.”  By picturing in your head a tornado of shoes–a spinning vortex of nothing but Nikes and boots–you’ve made your connection. Now immediately, when you go to make your list when you come to “2,” you’ll think “shoe” and see that tornado.  Then you’ll remember r that the answer is “tornado.”  That’s what we mean by making connections–and it can be done instantly instead of spending a half hour remembering your list.

Memorization Tactics for Cramming

1) Analogy and Metaphor.  Create a different metaphor for each idea.  For instance, functions on a computer can be likened to pencil sharpeners, or calculus methods can be equated with the speedometer or odometer on your car.

2. Visceralization.  The goal with this tactic is to take an abstract concept that you need to learn and urn it into something tangible.  You don’t just imagine a picture, but you integrate sounds, feelings, smells, and textures.  For instance, if you’re trying to master the Pythagorean Theorem (which allows you to figure out the measurements on an triangle that has one right angle), put yourself in a situation where a ladder and a wall form the right triangle.  You would feel the ladder and the wall and see yourself doing the measurements with a tape measure.

3) The Kindergartener Method  This one simply says that you have to explain the difficult concepts in your class to a kindergarten –   Practice explaining it.  This process of explanation forces a person to link ideas together until he himself has mastered them.

4) Mind-mapping.  This has become a popular way of retaining information.  Through this method, you start with a main idea and brainstorm the next logical connection. For each of those connections, you brainstorm the next logical connections, and so on.  So imagine this:  What if, instead of having 20 pages of notes, you had a diagram showing how one idea in your chapter is linked to the next and to the next, and so on?  More on Mind Mapping

5) Storytelling.  This is a creative way of linking one thing you’re learning with the next In your mind, create a story that involves these elements in their necessary order.  Then practice telling the story.

These linking methods, once you master them, will have you spending less time studying, and more time truly committing the material to your memory.






Written by:
Modified: August 3rd, 2018
: May 10th, 2011

18 thoughts on “How to Cram – or, How to Ace the Exam That’s Just Around the Corner”

    1. Yes it does work – depends on the course and how much material is covered. I have done it and I got a pretty good mark

  1. i think that working with past questions is also a good way to prepare. it gives you an idea of the kind of questions to cover

  2. off course cramming works if you have the brain capacity to take volumes in a short time. some people require a length of time to learn, understand and retain.

  3. The best way is to take a timer and challenge urself to finish off one pg in 10 min. If u go in this rate u ll get enough time to revise tooo

  4. I thank u so much,u have really helped me
    Im studing mechanic,but i have a problem in terms and understanding.thanks

  5. I think study and learn old question papers is good for short term preparations. But if you start your preparation before exams, you can easily get good marks.
    If due to some reason, if you didn’t prepare for exam then these tips will help a lot.
    Study…study and study…
    Thanks a lot

  6. i started studying for psychology the night before the test, i used a lot of colors to separate the work under headings and sub-headings, and i put sticky notes next to my summaries with a very very short explanation of what that part of the summary is about, and i got an excellent mark !

    1. yes yes …..that works, i used to do that a lot and my friends thought it was childish but hey! i have got amazing marks.

  7. Im have a chemistry test all theory about 38 pages of notes in a week. If i read this stuff, like i do understand what’s written but i literally can’t remember shit after an hour. I’m lost in all that stuff. I never had to study before in school but now i’m in college and need to study for the first time. Help

  8. Okay here’s something that helped me
    I put aside reading my notes and revision sheets for if i have any excess time left.
    After that i went straight for my textbook as it has the most information out of every other. I took to highlighting the key points and then writing them down in short forms on the white small spaces between texts. then after i got through a whole page i summarise the page from those little things i wrote. keep it to a bare minimum as so it fits the white spaces. For instance i would use arrows and small sketches to get the idea! And i put sticky notes for the explanatory things.
    Then after that the notes, revision sheets and past papers flew we’re all just repetition of what i already knew!

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