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Studying for finals? Take a tip from our tutors.

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

It's the second week of December, and for those of you who will be taking your finals in 5 days, you should definitely start studying. However, before you go racing off in your ugly Christmas sweater to re-read your textbook, let me tell you a thing or two about studying.

1. Re-reading your textbook is the most inefficient way to study for a test.

2. See above.

Students will frequently re-read a chapter, say to themselves, "ya, I remember this," and then stop studying. This creates a false sense of security by fooling students into thinking that they truly understand the material when all they've done is merely recognized it. So, if you're looking to up your game, boost your grade, and study more effectively, here are some tried and true tips on studying gleaned from our very own learning experts: our tutors.


4 Types of Study Tips From Our Tutors

1. Develop a visual approach to understanding the material

2. Implement time management strategies

3. Be mindful of your physical study space and body

4. Engage more deeply to maximize retention

(For a pretty infographic on various study methods developed by cognitive psychologists, the, click the pdf link below).

Download PDF • 351KB

Ramzi's Study Tips

Ramzi Elkawa is one of our jack-of-all-trades type of tutor who is equally good at tutoring English as he is AP Physics or AP Calculus. Plus, he's got a degree in linguistics from UC Berkeley. His tip focuses on concept mapping, and he has a pretty sweet twist on using concept maps for studying history. Here's what he says:

Ramzi Elkawa

"One thing I like doing is concept maps. Inevitably a lot of the ideas on a test will be contingent on each other. So, what I do for math or history, is I'll write out some of the basic concepts on the top of the page and then will have those concepts radiate out to more specific facts. This can help a student identify what they really need to learn, or conversely, help a student develop mnemonics.

For example, suppose I was asked to explain the spread of late 19th-century nationalism. In that case, I could see (from my concept map) how liberal nationalism spread was a reaction to the Napoleonic wars (which were popular in France first).

For math, by connecting the concept of rational functions to polynomial functions, I can see how function composition is essential to understanding rational functions and applying the rules of polynomial functions to understand rational ones.

BONUS TIP: Make a concept map that parallels a real-world map to see how events through time correspond to physical spaces for additional parallels in history.

Graeme's Study Tips

Graeme Stage - tutor

Graeme Stage, a math wizard who does in-person tutoring, provides a great tip on creating an optimal study space with music (which, coincidently, is one of his favorite hobbies):

"I put jazz or other instrumental music in the background while I am studying. I don't listen to music with actual lyrics because it scrambles my brain, and I lose focus on studying.

However, my biggest tip is to space out your studying!!! Cramming an entire semester's worth of topics in one night before the final is both stressful and less effective than comfortably spreading the study load over a week."

Ashley Royce

Ashley's Study Tips

Ashley Royce, our Chemistry tutor, gives us her favorite tip on how she organizes her study materials and what she did at UCLA to study most effectively:

"I usually rewrite my notes by reorganizing them by topics, then going back in and adding information from the book, including practice problems and examples, as well as equations and constants with written explanations.

Also, I do anything I can to make my study sessions somewhat social, and at UCLA, my friends and I would bring a snack, chill, and encourage each other to do our best. It always made finals a little less stressful."


Joseph's Study Tips

Joseph Tafalla, who recently took the MCAT and is a killer Biology tutor, gives us his studying routine with the tip:

Joseph Tafalla

"First, I warm up for studying with light reading or by reviewing my flashcards. Then I use the Pomodoro technique. I set a timer and study intensely for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and then do another round of intense studying for another 25 minutes. I do this about 4 times and then take a 30-minute break. Afterward, I give myself a reward at the end of my study session."


Amanda's Study Tips

Amanda Merrifield, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, tutors a variety of subjects and is also one of our College Counselor and SAT/ACT experts. She gave us some useful psychological insight into the best places to study in:

Amanda Merrifield

"Due to a thing called state-dependent memory, studying works really well if you find your dedicated "study place." Your brain actually remembers things better if you're in the same physical state when learning a concept that you are at the time of recalling it (in this case, reviewing it). This concept works even better if you can take the test in the same place as you studied! Awesome for those of us studying and taking tests at home. My study space is always somewhere that inspires me, like a library or my desk!"


Josefine's Study Tips

Josefine Borrmann, the founder of Strive to Learn, gives us 3 excellent tips on chunking, processing levels, and reviewing notes before sleeping.

Josefine Borrmann

"Chunking - taking big concepts and breaking them down into smaller pieces. Don't study lengthy definitions; instead, break it down into several small chunks and use shorthand whenever you can to make it easier to process for your brain.

"For example, instead of trying to memorize the sentence 'A cell is the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism, typically microscopic and consisting of cytoplasm and a nucleus enclosed in a membrane,' write 'Cell Definition' on the front of a flashcard and then write this on the back:

"By breaking each concept down to its smaller chunks, you are processing and engaging with the information - step one to long-term memory formation. By then writing it down on your card, looking at it, reading it out loud, and quizzing yourself, you are engaging with the information through different senses (writing = muscular; reading = visual; saying it out loud = auditory).

"The key rule when trying to commit something to long-term memory: process it at least 3 different times through 3 different senses. If you are a tactile learner, go to the beach and draw concepts in the sand!

"One last pro tip: thoughtfully read over your flashcards as the last thing you do before you go to sleep - don't quiz, just read over them, potentially out loud. As you sleep, your brain processes first what it saw last, and this can help you get that last little push to finally remember that particularly difficult vocabulary word."


William's Study Tips

William Giacchi, our English guru, leans in heavy on a universal studying strategy of translating materials in a way that is your own:

William Giacchi

"One of the ways that is most helpful for me to be sure that I really understand a topic or concept, and I'm not just memorizing, is to take what I've been studying and express it with my own words. If the first part of studying is "input"- i.e. reading an article or excerpt from a book, listening to a lecture, watching a video, etc.- this could be considered the "output."

"Expressing what I've learned in my own words can mean explaining it or "teaching" it to another person, whether nearby or over a phone or video call, or it could even mean writing it down or organizing it into some sort of system that reflects an understanding of how the different topics and sub-topics related to each other (like a bullet-pointed outline or mind map/graphic organizer).

"But the overall idea with this strategy is that if I can't take what I've been studying and put it in my own words (or my own outline or visual aid), I need to spend some more time on the "input"- go back and read parts that I might have skipped over hastily or still have some confusion about, or reach out to a friend or teacher who could explain the ideas that don't make sense to me.

"On the other hand, if I can express what I'm studying through speaking, writing, or visual representation with a level of comfort and confidence, I will feel pretty good about my comprehension of what I'm learning."


Melinda's Study Tips

Melinda Blackman

Melinda Blackman attended Stanford as an undergraduate and currently teaches at CSU Fullerton (while she is also one of our expert college admissions counselors for graduate and undergraduate students). Here's what she does when she studies:

"I map out each day of studying ahead of time about the hours I will study a particular subject: 10-11 math, 11-12 biology, etc...This helps me plan my day and know that I will get it all done before finals. It takes a lot of anxiety away.

Additionally, I will verbally summarize what I have learned in front of a mirror as if I am teaching a class. I find that this helps solidify my new knowledge."


Luc's Study Tips

Luc Cohen-Wannis

Luc Cohen-Wanis, who graduated from UCI with a degree in Pure Mathematics, gives us some very pragmatic advice:

"Don't forget to move your body and remind yourself to drink lots of water."


Josh's Study Tips

Josh Ragotskie

Whereas Josh Ragotskie (who is pursuing his Masters in Physics at CSU Long Beach), true to his nature, shares both practical advice as well as his love for the movie The Mummy (don't we all swoon for Branden Frasier) with his tip:

"Make a spreadsheet to dedicate time to work and play, study in chunks every day, get semi-frequent exercise, watch The Mummy (1999) as many times as possible."


Lily's Study Tips

Lily Lieberman, our Carnegie Mellon writer extraordinaire, shares this tip:

Lily LIeberman

"FLASH. CARDS. You can never go wrong with flashcards! Physical ones, not Quizlet. Being able to touch/connect physically to the words or concepts you're trying to memorize and internalize is invaluable. Plus, there's nothing more satisfying than tearing them up after a test."

For those of you who are competitive, like study buddies, and enjoy cheesy game music, try Kahoot! and compete with your friends to find out which one you should sit next to during your exam! (just kidding! Don't cheat!).


Shawnie's Study Tips

Last, but certainly not least, here are some study tips of my own:

Tip 1: If You Need to Cram

Yes, yes. I know. You should never cram. And in the perfect world, every student would have all of the time they need to study adequately. However, this is the real world with limited time constraints, so cramming will happen now and again. If you find yourself in the precarious position of cramming before a test (and you have a study guide), try this:

Find the keywords mentioned in the study guide, make a flashcard for that key term, study the page right before and after that key term.

I've found that my professor's disclaimers of "just because it's not on the study guide doesn't mean it won't be on the test" means "I want to make sure you read the textbook." So they will list a concept that is located nearby the key term outlined in the study guide.

What this looks like: I'll scan/skim the chapter (which I may or may not have read), find the keyword mentioned in the study guide, create a flashcard for it, and then intensely read the page before that concept and the page afterward.

Tip 2: Draw It Out

For those of you who are visually inclined, start drawing out your notes or your study guides. More information on "sketchnoting" warrants a more in-depth conversation in a different blog post. However, just know that the more visually pleasing your notes look, the more likely you will look at and review said notes.

That is all, folks! Now go forth and be effective. And most of all, good luck with your finals!


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