A Test Prep Study Plan That Works
Updated August 3, 2023
Many students struggle to study for tests effectively or get very anxious if they feel unprepared for a test, but studying ineffectively or insufficiently often leads to poor outcomes. When you get discouraged by your results, it can get harder to face the next exam. Here, we'll explore some common mistakes you might be making when studying.
Working Without a Plan
Studying without a plan means studying topics haphazardly, studying all potential testable material equally, or focusing only on areas of weakness. This strategy can lead you to miss out on key information.
If you review without a set study schedule, you might end up studying inconsistently, realizing shortly before the test that you still have a lot of material to review. This can lead to a stressful cram session, anxiety, and burnout.
Missing Out on Self-Reflection
If you fail to make any adjustments to your study plans based on ongoing self-reflection, this can result in poor time management. Without gauging your comfort level with each topic, you could spend valuable time on unnecessary information and have less time for topics you're less familiar with.
Great Alternative Study Habits
Fortunately, there are alternatives to these scenarios. Self-regulated learning is a three-step process that can help you better understand your needs and achieve your academic goals.
"The ability to self-regulate is one of the most powerful tools a student can have in their study toolkit, and the research shows that it consistently separates those who perform well academically from those who do not," says Dr. Ashley Bruckbauer, Lead Learning Designer at Study.com.
These steps are:
- The forethought phase: students set realistic goals and make a concrete plan to reach them.
- The adjustment phase: students evaluate their learning so far, consider their feelings about their test preparedness, and decide what to do next.
This article will help you learn how to integrate self-regulation into your study habits for a more effective process that leads to better test performance.
Making an Effective Study Plan
The first step in your test preparation involves making a personalized study plan that targets individual efforts. Targeted studying works because its personalized nature helps with effective goal setting to meet a particular student’s needs. It maximizes a student’s time and effort so that studying becomes an enriching experience instead of a frustrating one. It also helps students ensure that they have no blind spots, or unexpected areas of weakness, on the test’s subject matter.
To make a study plan, you will need to:
- Understand the test’s structure and content
- Determine your target score
- Assess your current abilities relative to the demands of the test
Study the Test
Whether you are preparing for the SAT or ACT, the MCAT or the PSAT, a short science quiz or a major math exam, looking at the test format is step one. Is the test multiple choice, short answer, or a mix of formats? Does it include one or more essays? How many sections does it have? Most importantly, which topics will be on the test? Answer these questions to gain invaluable insight into what kind of challenge this test or exam will pose.
It is a good idea to explore how the test topics are distributed and weighted, as some subjects might be given much more importance than others. Each test will have its own rules, including time limits or penalties for wrong answers. Some math test might allow calculators, while others might forbid them or only allow certain kinds. Talk to your teachers about upcoming tests to get a strong sense of what to expect.
Working with tutors is another great way to get familiar with a test. An SAT tutor or an ACT tutor is an educational specialist who will be prepared to answer any questions you might have about how those tests work. The best tutors will be able to help students prepare for tests even if they have not seen them before. For instance, math tutoring experts can guide students as they prepare for an in-class exam, provided they are familiar with the material in question. If you are interested in getting tutoring help, you can find premium online tutoring tailored to meet your needs before any important test.
Set a Goal
Preparing for a test can feel less frustrating and overwhelming when you have a particular goal in mind. You might be aiming to be at the top of your class or in the highest percentile in the nation on the SAT, or you might be aiming to meet program requirements for their desired college on a major exam like the MCAT. On the other hand, you might just be aiming for a passing grade on a French test. Some tests have score bands, or aggregate scoring categories that students can aim for. On these kinds of tests, a score of 155 might fall in the 150-160 score band, for instance. For certification exams, you should make sure you know the minimum scores needed to obtain your desired credential.
Setting a goal puts students on a tangible path to success. Premier tutors can help you learn how to set goals and how to follow through. SAT tutoring or MCAT tutoring might start with a detailed look at the scoring system and a discussion about what target score is realistic and necessary for your long-term goals. A science tutor or a math tutor can tailor their methods to help you ace a test or pass a mandatory class. Each student is different, and the best online tutoring experts will be able to help you reach the goals that are right for you.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of studying, you will need to figure out your current level of understanding. A good place to start is to ask, “If the test were today, what score would I get?” To answer this question, try examining the topics that will be on the test and estimate your current familiarity with the content. This self-reflection exercise can make it easier to target areas of weakness and focus studying in an efficient way. Some of the best SAT tutoring and ACT tutoring experts will create diagnostic exams for their students. These tests help students see their current proficiency levels. Diagnostic assessments can be useful in any subject; you can ask your PSAT tutor or MCAT tutor about what kinds of resources are available for you.
Prioritize Studying by Return on Investment (ROI)
After examining the test, setting a goal, and diagnosing your strengths and weaknesses, it is time to make a study plan based on this information. To make this plan as good as it can be, you will want to optimize for return on investment, or ROI. That means ensuring that study time is as efficient and effective as possible given the parameters of the test and the time available.
You can start by asking yourself what the potential ROI is likely to be if you spend time and effort studying a particular topic or problem type. Perhaps studying something else would provide a greater ROI. With practice, you will start to understand what effort will likely offer the greatest ROI for a given test situation. Another way to look at this question is to see what kind of studying will yield the greatest results in the most manageable time frame.
- Topics more likely to appear on a test
- High-value topics worth a lot of points
- Areas of difficulty with lots of room for improvement
Essentially, the distance between your current performance and your target performance (based on your targets score for the test) is the most straightforward metric for determining the return on investment for a particular subject.
Students who are pursuing PSAT tutoring, science tutoring, or any other form of academic assistance may want to discuss ROI with their tutors as they prepare for a test or exam. By focusing on studying smarter, you can improve your studying motivation and get the best ACT tutoring or best PSAT tutoring outcomes for your unique goals.
Making a Study Schedule
A study plan is different from a study schedule. A plan focuses on what you should study, while a schedule focuses on the timeline and process for getting that studying completed. A schedule will allow you to build smaller milestones into your overall plan, helping you stay motivated and on track. Creating a good schedule can help you understand why goal setting is important: it makes a task that initially seemed huge and overwhelming feel much more manageable.
To begin with, you can try breaking your study plan into smaller parts. This means setting incremental, measurable goals that are easy to track. Small goals can help prevent you from getting overwhelmed and allow you to maintain your motivation. Reaching each milestone, however small, becomes cause for celebration.
A schedule should also be clear on timing. Try to set intentions for when you will study, how much material you will try to cover, and how long each session will be. Writing this schedule down is a good way to ensure personal accountability. It is vital to be realistic when creating a study schedule. Preparing for a test, even an important one, will never be your only day-to-day responsibility. You will need to budget your time and potentially make changes to your daily routine to make time for studying.
Whenever possible, studying should be spaced out to avoid cramming.
"Studying too much, too fast overloads our working memory, and we usually cannot retain much of what we study in this way, at least not for very long," according to Bruckbauer. She recommends spacing out shorter study sessions over a longer period as a more effective way to study. "Spaced studying with breaks in between allows the brain time to encode the information you've just learned into long-term memory and will lead to stronger, more durable knowledge and skills that will better serve you on test day."
Sticking to a Study Schedule
Creating a schedule is one thing, but sticking to it can be quite the challenge. Some students get bogged down in the details, struggle with procrastination, or realize that their initial study schedule was too ambitious. These challenges are common, and they are also possible to overcome with proven strategies.
As you enter the learning and adjustment phases, you will need to self-regulate by monitoring your progress and carefully controlling your study activities.
"Students should consider what tools can effectively help them control and monitor their learning, like reminders, to-do lists, and a study space free from distractions," says Bruckbauer.
To monitor learning effectively, students need time for self-reflection to ensure that they are on the right track. Most importantly, controlling learning involves proactively adjusting your schedule and process as needed.
When studying gets tough, try to return to your initial goals. Doing well on this test, or at least passing it, is likely a priority. Remembering why it is a priority can help put the importance of studying into perspective. For instance, the test might be a part of a larger goal, like school admission, scholarship funding, or professional certification. When studying starts to feel difficult or boring, try to ground yourself by keeping these goals in mind.
Studying for an exam can feel like an individual or isolating experience. After all, students cannot typically rely on the help of others during a test. One of the best study tips for students who are struggling with this isolation is to lean on your community. Talking to friends and family about your overall goals and how this test fits into those goals can help loved ones better understand how to support you. A community can encourage a student to keep studying or facilitate much-needed breaks.
Another great way to rely on community is to find accountability partners. Someone who is going through the same studying process, or at least a similar one, might be prepared to form a study group or provide mutual academic support. Premier SAT tutoring or premier ACT tutoring experts can also be an invaluable source of support and encouragement, no matter what kind of test you are preparing for.
Keeping on schedule is a crucial strategy for avoiding last-minute panic. When students are careful to keep track of their progress, they can anticipate problems before they arrive. Learn to get in the habit of checking how you are doing against your target plan and schedule. If you are ahead of the game or right on track, there is likely no need for concern, but if you are falling behind, it may be time to make an adjustment.
Self-reflection can also help students to look back on their progress and see how far they have come. Try using this practice to boost your motivation and maintain your momentum for studying, especially for big exams that require weeks or months of review. Metacognition is another useful tool when tracking your progress. Essentially, metacognition is thinking about thinking. Metacognitive strategies involve considering what you know well and where you might still be struggling. What metacognition can be especially helpful for is figuring out why certain concepts are proving more difficult.
“When learners reflect on their experience objectively, rather than internalizing that specific content is too difficult for them, they realize that some study strategies are just better suited for their needs than others. From there, learners can ask themselves why an approach isn't working and seek out a different one,” advises Trisha Mitra, M.Ed., Content Generalist at Study.com
Although sticking to the plan is vital, students also need to be aware that plans can change. It is okay to adjust a study plan if needed as new information arises. Life is unpredictable, and even the most meticulous study plan can go awry. For example, you might get sick and miss a whole week of studying, or you could encounter a family emergency that causes delays. In these cases, it is better to adjust the plan, perhaps adding new study sessions to cover missed materials or spending less time on areas of strength to instead focus on challenging subjects.
Even in the absence of a major delay, try to get into the habit of regularly self-assessing and using metacognitive strategies to ensure that you are still on track. A really good study plan will often build in some flexibility to the original schedule with the expectation that some things may not go according to plan. Developing this kind of flexible schedule takes time and practice, but it is something that premier science tutoring or premier PSAT tutoring (or any other subject) can help students achieve.
"Metacognition allows learners to evaluate their own performance so that they know for themselves what they do and don't know instead of waiting for exam results to show them," says Mitra.
When an upcoming test feels particularly challenging or important, it can be tempting to simply spend all your time studying. It might not be intuitive, but taking breaks can help your brain absorb information. Small rewards for meeting studying milestones help many students maintain momentum over time.
After hitting your study goal for the day or week, consider taking a break to do something enjoyable. Spending time outside, seeing friends, or unwinding with a book or TV show can all help you maintain your mental, physical, and emotional health during a challenging studying process. Taking a break is not a waste of time; in fact, it may be a crucial way to avoid burnout and have more success down the line.
After the test, it's a good idea to celebrate your achievements. Even if it takes a while to learn your test score, just the act of completing a difficult test or exam means that you have worked hard to accomplish something significant.
It’s time to start studying!
Have your targeted plan and schedule? Before you start studying, check out our article on effective study strategies to supercharge your test prep.
Ashley Bruckbauer, PhD is the Lead Learning Designer for Study.com, an education technology company dedicated to making education accessible for millions of learners. In this role, she combines learning science research and instructional design best practices to help create effective, efficient, and enjoyable learning experiences that improve learner outcomes. Before her career in EdTech, Dr. Bruckbauer spent over a decade working as an educator and researcher at various museums and universities. She holds a PhD in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her scholarship has appeared in publications by Routledge, Bloomsbury, and Smarthistory.
Trisha Mitra, M.Ed., is a Content Generalist at Study.com, an education technology company focused on creating educational breakthroughs for all learners. She holds a Masters degree in Education from Boston University and has instructed international students in higher education since 2015. She has presented her research at K-12 Educator conferences in New England, and currently serves as an Adjunct Professor of English at Menlo College, a private college in Atherton, CA. Trisha utilizes her expertise to design high-quality test preparation material that fosters the development of learner motivation and autonomy.