How to Cram when You’re in a Jam

Last updated on November 15, 2017

Yep, you did it—or rather, you didn’t do it. You put it off just one more day. Now it’s the night before a big exam, and you haven’t done any of the reading or studied any notes. Holy-moly, Batman—what do I do now?

Take a nap. WHAT? Seriously, a rested brain—even just a one-hour nap—can do 3 to 4 times the work of the average brain at the end of the day. If you are already tired, take 2 hours. Trust me. BUT MAKE SURE YOU GET UP!

Okay, you’re awake, but still a little groggy. Do one of 2 things: go for a quick walk or jog around the block, (ladies, especially—only if you live somewhere where that is a safe option), or bring on the stimulants. Coffee. Rockstar. Red Bull. Whatever. Get your brain hitting on all 8 cylinders before you hit the books.

Next, turn off the television or radio. You may need some stimulation to help stay awake later, but for now, you want as few distractions as possible. Here’s why: your brain processes ever signal of data your senses send to it. So 4 or 5 hours of listening to music, or even worse having the double whammy audio-visual stimulation of television along with studying is almost twice the processing work for your brain. It will wear you out mentally faster, so turn it off.

No, really—go turn it off.

Yes, that means your iPod too.

Now, we are good to go.

If you don’t have a list of all the pages you will be tested on, then make one. Having a reference list will save time. Next, if you don’t have a study guide, go through your syllabus or course outline and look for the themes the teacher pulled out of the unit you will be tested on. For example, try not to think of it, as Chapters 4-6. The teacher will have focused lectures or your reading around a body of information. Pull that idea out, it will help you congeal what you study into information groups that will tie into each other and will be easier to remember.

Now, think back to your writing classes. What makes a good paper—more specifically, what is every paragraph supposed to have? A thesis statement. This should be what that paragraph is going to be about. IF you are in a real jam with a lot of material and not enough time, then go through your pages first by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph—except for the beginning and end of chapters. These are thesis and conclusion paragraphs and usually are quite dense with information on the chapter they are referring to.

If you have time, you can go back through the pages and identify which passages merit a more in-depth reading. How will you know which ones? Knowledge is a funny thing; once you start to know a little bit about something you begin to realize what you don’t know.

For example, let’s say you are studying African American History, and you scanned the first sentences of a chapter that discussed how the colony Liberia came into being. After scanning, you know that Liberia was a colony established for free blacks, while slavery was still lawful in the United States. You know that some slave owners were in favor of it. You know that some African Americans favored it and some opposed it. Great, right? Right. Now you might be wondering why slave owners felt the way they did, and African Americans didn’t agree on the subject. The point is, once you have a handle on the material covered, it will be easier to identify the meatier parts of the material.

Now for your notes. Save yourself some time, and learn how to take good notes. Buy a book, do note-taking searches online, or ask your teacher what the best approach might be for their class. You may or may not get some guidance from the teacher, but either way, it won’t be wasted as it will make you look like a dedicated student from the teacher’s perspective, which is always a good thing.

If you are already a brilliant or at least effective note taker, then this will be the easiest part of studying. After you have done your reading, go through your notes and look for gaps in your work—perhaps a detail you missed. If you find something, use your reading to try to find the answer. It will help bring the two learning mediums together.

Finally, and this is where you might be tempted to skimp. TRY REALLY HARD NOT TO. With your reading material and your notes in front of you, go through the material and write a new outline, which pulls from the reading and your notes to form the new outline. This does not mean rewrite your notes or copy word for word from the book. Obviously, you don’t have that kind of time. We’re talking about 3-5 word key phrases per line of your outline with perhaps a few words of details for the really important points. This new outline is what you should refresh yourself with right before class. It should have key phrases of all the major ideas and supporting details.

Last, if you know you will be asked to write an in-class essay, prepare the outline for the essay the night before, and try to commit the outline to memory as best you can.

In the case of math, science and language cramming, flashcards are best. First, memorize by drilling yourself with SMALL GROUPS of cards. If you have 100 flashcards, you will learn much faster if you drill yourself with no more than 10 cards at a time. Try not to move on until you have every card in your command. After you complete a new group of cards, go back over the previous groups that you memorized. This method can get you through Latin, German, College Algebra, Chemistry and Anatomy, etc.

Good luck!