How to Study the Night Before a Test

Studying at night
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There's no need to feel completely frightened if you've procrastinated until the night before a test to study. Although you won't be able to commit much to long-term memory in a one-night cram session, you can learn enough to pass the test using these techniques.

How to Study the Night Before a Test

  • Eat a nutritious meal and prepare a few healthy snacks so you won't need to get up later
  • Set up in a comfortable spot with your study materials (pencils, note cards, highlighters) and class materials (notes, quizzes, tests, handouts, study guides)
  • Focus for 30 to 45 minutes, then break for 5
  • Take notes and use mnemonic devices to improve recall
  • Aim for comprehension over memorization
  • Explain concepts and ideas to a third party
  • Get a good night's sleep

Prepare for Your Physical Needs

The brain and the body are linked, so before you sit down to start a study session, it's a good idea to take care of your body: go to the bathroom, get some water or tea, and be sure you're dressed in a way that won't distract you (nothing scratchy or stiff). Focus and calm are crucial to studying seriously; to get your body on the same page, try doing some deep breathing and yoga stretches to help you get your mind off any other concerns. Essentially, this prep is meant to get your body to help you, not distract you, so you have no excuses to break your study focus.

Snacking during or before studying can be helpful, but choose wisely. The ideal meal is something without a bunch of sugar or heavy carbs that can lead to an energy crash. Instead, grab some high-protein grilled chicken or scramble up some eggs for dinner, drink some green tea with acai, and follow it all with a few bites of dark chocolate. It's always easier to stay on task and process information when your brain has been given what it needs to function properly.

The other upside is that by eating something before you begin studying, you'll be less tempted to get hungry (and distracted) and quit studying early. To further head off any distracting snack attacks, be prepared ahead of time. When you go to your study area, bring a snack with you. This should be something high in nutrients and mess-free, like mixed nuts, dried fruit, or a protein bar. Avoid highly processed foods like chips, and beware of sneaky foods like granola bars that are full of hidden sugar that will leave you stranded in an hour or so.

Take It One Step at a Time

Start by getting organized. Get all the materials that relate to the test you're taking—notes, handouts, quizzes, book, projects—and lay them neatly out in a way that makes sense to you. You might organize them by topic, in chronological order, or in some other way that works. Perhaps you like to use color-coded highlighters or stacks of notecards. The point is that there's no one way to organize: you have to find the system that helps you make connections with the material.

By the night before a test, you should already have a good baseline of knowledge on the test topics. That means that your goal here is to review and refresh. If your teacher gave you study guide, then start out with that, quizzing yourself as you go along. Refer to your other materials if you can't remember an item on the guide, and then write it down. Use mnemonic devices to help you remember bits of information that you wouldn't otherwise, but try to avoid just memorizing everything: it's harder to recall straight facts than it is to have a network of connected ideas that you can rely on.

If you don't have a study guide or if you've finished going over it, then prioritize notes and handouts. Things like dates, names, and vocabulary words are likely to show up on tests, so study those first. After that, review the bigger-picture stuff: material that covers cause-and-effect relationships within the topic area and other ideas that could show up on an essay question. For these, memorization is less important than having a solid enough understanding to explain it back on a written answer.

It can seem overwhelming, especially if you have a lot of material to review, so take it slowly. A good rule of thumb is to focus for 30 to 45-minute increments followed by 5-minute breaks. If you try to cram all the info the night before the test, your brain will overload and you'll have to work to regain your focus on studying. This is why it's also useful to review for a few days before the test, not just the night prior, so that you can spread out the material and review everything multiple times over the course of a few separate sessions.

Use the Buddy System

If you really want to test your understanding of the material, try explaining it to someone who isn't in the class. Go get a family member or friend and "teach" them as much as you can remember. This will let you see how well you understand the concepts and how well you can make connections (to prepare for short-answer or essay questions).

If you have a partner or a family member to help you, have them quiz you on the material. As you go, make a list of anything you get stuck on or can't remember. Once you've been quizzed, take your list and study that material over until you've got it.

Finally, write down all your mnemonic devices, important dates, and quick facts on one sheet of paper, so you can refer to it the morning before the big test.

Final Preparations

Nothing will make you do worse on a test than pulling an all-nighter. You may be tempted to stay up all night and cram in as much as is possible, but by all means, get some sleep the night before. When it comes to , you won't be able to recall all the info you learned because your brain will be functioning in survival mode.

On the morning of the test, make sure to eat a healthy breakfast for plenty of energy. Throughout the morning, run through your review sheet: while you're eating, while you're at your locker, or while on the way to class. When it comes time to put the review sheet away and sit down for the test, you can rest easy knowing that you've done everything possible to help your brain get through the test with flying colors!