Study Hacks Blog

My World Famous Mechanical Exam Prep Process

April 29th, 2008 · 17 comments

Exam advice week continues here at Study Hacks. I’m posting Wednesday’s article a little early because I’ll be gone tomorrow morning and I wanted to make sure you got your productivity fix in a timely manner.

So Much WasteRobot

Finals period is tough. I can’t change that. But as I watch students slog through this process I keep remarking at the amount of unnecessary stress. The main culprit: waste.

Too many students begin exam prep without a (sufficiently detailed) plan. They have, at best, only a rough idea of how they’re going to review before they dive straight into a pseudo-work grind. Cue the red-eyes; the coffee-stained hooded sweatshirts; and, of course, the early morning competitions to see who slept less. (“You went to be at 4 last night!? For shame! I’ve only slept 18 minutes in the past 9 weeks.”) It’s tedious.

Waste Elimination (The Good Kind)

Exam prep doesn’t have to be this hard. If you’re willing to spend a few more minutes planning, and if you can put aside that childish impulse to procrastinate on absolutely everything until the last minute (it’s not a genetic trait, chief, you’re just being a lazy ass), you can eliminate most of this wasted time from your prep schedule. This elimination, in turn, will push the experience from overwhelming and terrible to hard but manageable.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

In this post I explain the simple mechanical process I used to prepare for exams back when I used to have lots of exams to prepare for. (Ah, the joys of being a senior graduate student.) Yes, it requires that you start things early. But it works. You can follow the plan more or less blindly; avoiding the ill-fated need to draw upon your limited will power to make decisions on a daily basis.

Cal’s Patent-Pending Mechanical Exam Preparation Process

I’m not usually so formal with my habits, but, for the sake of exposition, I’ve clustered the main ideas into clean bullet points. As usual, I expect you to customize, challenge, and experiment with the system until it best fits your situation:

  1. Gather and Plug.
    Spend 20 minutes on each course. Gather together all the material you need to review. This might require printing your notes off your computer. If there are any holes in this material — a missed lecture or, perhaps, an important reading you didn’t get to — make plans in the immediate future to plug the gaps.
  2. Construct Battle Plans.
    Once you fill the gaps you’ll be left with complete collections of information to review for each course. Spend some time to come up with a review battle plan for each of these piles. These plans should consist of — and only of — specific review actions with well-defined endpoints. I can’t stress the latter part enough. I don’t want to hear about you blindly flipping through your book for hours. You need to specify exactly how you are going to review and how you’ll know when you’re done.
  3. Take a Break.
    If you don’t have time to step away for a day or two, then you started too late. You need time to clear your head before the next step.
  4. Make Your Plans Less Dumb.
    Look back at your battle plans with a fresh eye. Ask yourself: where can I make this more efficient? Most likely, you’ll find several strategies that are redundant or could be replaced with something more streamlined. It’s easy, in the heat of the pre-exam moment, to get overzealous with your planning. Always assume things will take longer and your schedule will be tighter. Be prepared by cutting, cutting, and then cutting.
  5. Schedule Your Battle Plans Using the Two Day Rule.
    Assign the different pieces of your battle plans to specific days leading up to the exams. When doing so, I suggest the following simple rule which, if followed, will provide a significant stress reduction: schedule each battle plan to finish two days before the relevant exam. There is something magical about never having to study the day before the test. It’s like a whole different (relaxed) experience. I know, I know, you’re probably saying right now: “I can’t finish a day early! I’m such a wild and crazy procrastinator!” Sigh. Here’s my response: “Man up.” You’re not starring in a National Lampoon movie. No one is impressed that you can put off work.)
  6. Execute.
    Notice I’m avoiding the “s”-word here. “Studying” is for pseudo-working grinds. You’re executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress. Bonus: Kelly over at Hack College will pound one beer for every time you work the phrase “I’m executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress” into casual conversation with an attractive member of the opposite sex.

In Conclusion

A lot of this might reek of common sense. But that’s also the smell of advice that might actually work. Approach your exam prep like a robot and you’ll be surprised by how smoothly it goes.

17 thoughts on “My World Famous Mechanical Exam Prep Process

  1. Kelly Sutton says:

    That I will. Please send video footage of you using the phrase to I will then pound the appropriate number of beer(s).

    Good post on the whole. Automatronic studying habits make my robot parts happy. And it works. =)

  2. Dotty wine says:

    How do you make your study plan more effecient? All I can think of “quiz and recall” or whatever…?

  3. Study Hacks says:


    My post on the Straight-A Method (see the Important Posts sidebar) is a good place to get started in terms of figuring out how to build a customized, efficent study system.

  4. DJ says:

    Is there any way that you can clarify #2 a little more for me? I mean, form the book and this site, the way to construct a battle plan would be to do the quiz and recall method. Unless I’m not thinking of something else??

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Is there any way that you can clarify #2 a little more for me? I mean, form the book and this site, the way to construct a battle plan would be to do the quiz and recall method. Unless I’m not thinking of something else??

    The battle plan is more specific. It might contain items such as: (a) convert notes from 3/1 to 5/1 into Quiz and Recall format; (b) first pass quiz-and-recall on march lectures.

    And, of course, there are lot of other review methods that might need to be used–depending on the course. Do you have to learn dates? Label diagrams? Complicated science material? Calculus equations? You might generate different action items in your battle plan depending on the challenge before you.

  6. DJ says:

    Thanks for the reply, that cleared it up perfectly! I have just two more questions that I think will set me on the right path. First, where can I find information about different types of review methods? In the red book, I’ve only read about quiz and recall (for nontechnical classes I mean), unless I missed something. Secondly, how do I know what review methods to use for different types of classes? Is there a article on here about it or in the book?

  7. Steve in W MA says:

    @ “Here’s my response: “Man up.” You’re not starring in a National Lampoon movie. No one is impressed that you can put off work.”

    LOL. I love this!

  8. Syed says:

    I think there is a typo where you say (“You went to be at 4 last night!? For shame! I’ve only slept 18 minutes in the past 9 weeks.”)Is it supposed to be ”You went to sleep at..”?

  9. Heidi says:

    How does this translate to someone on a 10 week/quarter system with midterms starting W3-W9 and finals W10? It seems like if you prepare to study a week in advance, you are only studying half of the material.

  10. Geoff English says:

    Well you can go screw yourself. Thanks for not sending me a personal subscription request 4 years ago. Now I have a mere two semesters to implement this gold mine of common sense advice into my study.. excuse me.. execution plan before I finish. You can thank Brett Mackay from Art of Manliness by the way for getting me here.

  11. Deborah says:

    Okay i have been judiciously following through your posts on studying and i have picked up lots of helpful points.However I AM A MEDICAL STUDENT!
    That leaves me with a million and one things to cover before exams.The fun oart is,i never cover and that hurts.Is it something i am doing wrong or is there some trick i’m missing out on.I have so much to read in so little time and to think that my first professional exams is by the corner is scary.I spend nights thinking about strategies to help me scale thro’.Right now i could use some advise

  12. Neha says:

    Hi Cal, what exactly is the ‘quiz and recall’ method? How can I use it for an engineering course?

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