My Guide to Studying Efficiently in University

February 27th, 2017

Hey Guys! So today I'm going to change a few things up on this post. Rather than talking mostly about myself and my experiences, I'll focus more on some tips for University students that can help them maximize their efficiency while studying for tests and exams.

A lot of first years that I've come across do struggle with not just the material for tests, but how to go about preparing for tests in general. It's not entirely their fault; the high school system focuses on rote memory rather than actual resourcefulness and efficient study habits. Many of them end up with a pretty big surprise when they start their post-secondary education.

However, I've found that by following a few principles, you can both drastically cut down on your study time and also perform better on tests. These principles have allowed me to continue maintaining averages in the 90s while also keeping a good work-life balance. Based on my experiences, here are the biggest tips I would have for you guys:

Follow the 80/20 Rule

This is more of a guideline than a specific tip, but if you've ever heard of the 80/20 rule or variants of the rule, it also applies to studying for material on tests and exams. Essentially, the 80/20 rule in this case means that in general, 80% of the content can be learnt with 20% of the studying effort, and the 20% remaining takes 80% of the study effort. In other words, 80% of the course content taught generally takes up 20% of the class time, while the remaining 20% will take up 80% of the class time. Too often I see students trying to remember everything that was taught, leading them to soak up too much information. You have to remember that only a small portion of what you're taught will actually be tested. It's better to know 80% of the content perfectly than to attempt to learn everything imperfectly. Of course, it's hard to pinpoint what you'll exactly be tested on, but i'll also write a few tips on that too later on. Generally, this guideline is what you should follow when approaching your studies.

Focus on the Lectures Rather than the Readings

In your classes, the most important material you will be tested on is what will be discussed in lectures. Make sure you go to all the lectures and take detailed notes on what is discussed. Readings are sometimes helpful, but I oftentimes find that readings provide more background or in-depth information that adds on to what is discussed in the lecture. You don't need to slave hours away on your readings to be honest. Most of the time, all that is required is a quick skim over the readings and sometimes you can totally skip them. Ask the professor whether the readings are important or not. A good question to ask your professor is whether there will be any content from the readings and not from the lecture that will be tested on. If the professor emphasizes that one should focus on the lecture, then that's a good sign that you only need to skim through the readings content. Even if you didn't do the readings, you can often make educated guesses on questions that you don't fully understand just by using your knowledge from the lectures. For example, in my ECON 101 class, around 85% of the questions were directly from the lecture. The rest 15% were sometimes from the reading, or were covered a bit in lecture but not fully discussed. However, since I had some background knowledge of the content from attending lecture, I managed to guess correctly about 2/3rds of that 15%.

Know What You Will be Tested on

Another very important tip is to know what topics you will be tested on. So many times I've seen people mindlessly going through their readings or notes in a effort to remember every single small detail. More often than not, this is actually counterproductive. You're filling your mind with tons of jumbled ideas, instead of a small set of concise and accurate material. The reality is that you won't need to remember most of the information. You only need to remember the key ideas and content. For example, if you're taking a course on sociology, you don't need to take notes on really specific statistics or historical dates. The professor is not going to ask you for the birthday of Karl Marx or the city he was born. He's going to ask you something about how Karl Marx approached the idea of communism. If you're taking a course in law, the professor won't ask you something like what section of the criminal code would first-degree murder be under; you would be asked to define what first-degree murder means and perhaps provide an example of first-degree murder. If you're taking a calculus course, you don't need to care about who created your theorem or why it works. You just need to use it to answer the question. In terms of content covered, it's always good to know which parts you can omit from studying. Oftentimes, professors will make midterms non-cumulative, which means that you would only need to review a certain portion of the course. Exams generally have more content from the latter portions of the course, which means you should focus your studying on those portions. Studying efficiently is not about being at the books for 10 hours a day. In all honestly, you could probably accomplish the same results in 2 hours as long as you know what to look for and how to prepare appropriately.

Know How You Will be Tested

This is another important aspect of studying for tests and exams. You want to know exactly how you will be evaluated. Will there be essay questions? Is the whole exam multiple choice? Will there be computational questions? Is the exam mostly knowledge based or does it require analytical thinking? The style of questions being asked plays a big role in how you study for exams. If your exam was essay based, you wouldn't need to comb through your notes to remember every single fact because you would never be tested on them anyways. For essay exams, make sure you know the topics being tested on and then focus on collecting the main theories. What I like to do is for each topic, create a mini outline that essentially has all the main points regarding the topic. That way, you can reduce 20 or so pages of notes to maybe a 2-3 page cheat sheet that you can quickly view and memorize. If your exam is multiple choice or knowledge-based short answer, you want to focus on memorizing the material, which I call the soak method. All you need to do is review your lecture notes, making sure to SOAK in the material. You don't need to critically think about why a theory exists or its applications or arguments against the theory; you just need to know what the theory is. Multiple choice generally only tests you based on pure knowledge, so focus solely on memorization and nothing else. If your exam has computational questions (such as Math, Physics, etc.) then you would focus on doing practice questions similar to those you will be tested on. For these types of questions, just reviewing formulas and reading theory will NOT help you much. You need to be able to compute answers out on the test, and thus the best way to go about studying for these exams is to do similar practice questions. To summarize, make sure that how you're studying directly corresponds to how you will be evaluated.

Go to Office Hours for Clarification

Don't know how you will be tested? Feeling unsure about some material? Then go to your professor's office hours. This is a really important and helpful source that too many students don't use. Going to office hours and asking for clarification on things can really help you a lot in the long run, whether it helps you understand how you will be tested, or helps you understand a topic you are having difficulty with. Professors will often give you tips during office hours that they don't give out in class, and that's helped me a lot of times. For example, one of my political science professors gave us a study guide for the final exam, but the content for the first 4-5 weeks of class was mostly background knowledge material that moreso was an introductory context to the latter half of the course. This marked a contrast between what we studied and what we would be tested on. When I went to office hours to seek clarification, I was told explicitly that there would be no questions that directly ask material from the first 4 weeks, which was what I suspected. I was also able to receive clarification that the test was mostly based off short-answer questions that evaluated your knowledge of the content, rather than actual argumentative style essay questions. Thus, I was able to knock off almost half the content that I had to study for, as well as refine my study method to focus more on knowledge rather than analysis. Not only was I able to cut my study time, I was able to better retain the material as I only had half as much to study.

Cram the Material Before the Test (Seriously!)

Yup. You heard it. One of the best ways to retain knowledge is to cram material right before the test (literally up until 10 minutes before the test). I'm not saying that you should start studying the night before. Rather, I'm saying that you should quickly look over the main ideas, theories, and formulas RIGHT before the test. Short-term memory is a beautiful thing, and keeping the main ideas fresh in your head will allow you to retain the most knowledge right before being tested on it. Sure, you'll probably end up forgetting about the material a day later, but for the duration you're actually taking the test, you'll be able to quickly recall things (because you literally went over it 10 minutes ago). My exams are mostly essay based, and this method helps a lot in memorizing key ideas and arguments I will make. Oftentimes, I roughly scribble a few phrases or buzzwords for each essay question the moment I get my test to ensure that by the time I actually reach the question, I'm able to use those scribbles as the bare outline for my essay. Trust me, you want to use all of the resources you have on your mind during the test, and taking advantage of your short-term memory capabilities is one of the more underused but best things to do.

Focus on your Health (Especially Sleep)

A bit cliche, but I totally agree with this. When you're tired and about to collapse on your desk, you are certainly not in the right shape to study. It doesn't matter how long you study for, you will have trouble retaining any of the information because you're just that tired. Studying is not about how many hours you put in, but rather on how efficiently you are going about learning the material. It's better to take a break and have a good nights sleep so you can wake up refreshed and actually able to efficiently study the material the next day. The same thing goes for pulling all-nighters before exams. It's certainly possible, but you have to weigh your options. All-nighters are acceptable for exams that are mostly memory or knowledge based, as you don't require high-level cognitive function but when you have to do computational questions or essays, I would always suggest against pulling all-nighters as they will reduce your cognitive function dramatically.


The whole point of this article is to remind students at University that the key to studying well is not remembering all of the material, but to know what to actually study for. Professors don't have the time or resources to test students on everything they talk about, and students should be aware of that. Studying is not about just opening your textbook and reading every single page - it's about turning your 300-page textbook into something more manageable, such as 20 or so pages of key theories and topics that you know you will likely be tested on. It's all about knowing the types of questions you will be asked and preparing accordingly.

I hope I've helped you guys in refining your study methods. In the future, I'm probably going to write another article on how to actually approach writing tests and exams, which would be a nice complement to this article.