Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC)

Community College of Allegheny County

Exam Study Strategies & Tips

Work Smart not Hard* 

No two people study the same way and there is little doubt that what works for one person may not work for another. However, there are some general techniques that seem to produce good results. No one would argue that every subject that you have to take is going to be so interesting that studying it is not work but pleasure. We can only wish.

Everyone is different and for some students, studying and being motivated to learn comes naturally. If you are reading this page, it's likely that you are not one of them, but don't despair, there is hope! So read on, think about what you read and prepare to become a successful student!


Study Strategies



Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review

One Word

Key word in question dictates answer

Examiner’s Want

Identify examiner’s expectation

Exam Approach

Read directions – don’t panic

Study Space

Select the best environment for you

Time Management     



Set your daily schedule


Take control of your time

Study Habits

What to do - when


SQ3R stands for survey, question, read, recite and review. This is one of the study strategies that's been around for awhile and is pretty much accepted as a useful way to approach the large amount of information that you need to process.

  • Survey - gather the information necessary to focus and formulate goals.
    • Read the title. This will help your mind prepare to receive the subject you're focusing on.
    • Read the introduction and/or summary. This will help you orient yourself to how the author intends to cover the chapter and what are the most important points.
    • Be aware of each heading and subheading. This helps to get organized before you begin to read and will give you a structure or skeleton for the information you're about to cover in more detail.
    • Be aware of any graphs, maps, charts or diagrams etc which will help with your overall approach.
    • Look for reading aids such as bold face print, italics, end-of-chapter questions etc. These will all help you to understand and remember.
  • Question - keeps you actively engaged and helps you to concentrate.
    • Turn the headings and sub-headings into as many questions as you can think of and record them. This stimulates thinking and will improve your comprehension. When you're actively looking for questions and possible answers, your mind is actively learning. Click here for another study strategy that uses this technique almost exclusively and with amazing results.
  • Read - fill in the information around the mental structures you've been building.
    • Read each section with all your questions in mind and look for the answers. You will probably be able to make up lots of new questions.
  • Recite - train your mind to concentrate and learn as it reads.
    • After each section, stop, recall your questions and see if you can answer them from memory. If you can't then look back again (as often as necessary) but don't go on to the next section until you can recite the section you're focused on.
  • Review - refine your mental organization and begin building memory.
    • Once you've finished the entire chapter using the preceding steps, go back over all the questions from all the headings. See if you can still answer them. If not, look back and refresh your memory, then continue. Students waste so much time reading without thinking, with the end result that they don't learn anything. SQ3R will train your mind to learn.

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Find the ONE WORD in a test question that you have to know the EXACT meaning of. This word is often called a key word.

If you go through all your past examination papers, you'll be able to find these key words in each question. You probably haven't noticed them much before because you didn't know how important they were and nobody pointed them out to you.

These key words are extremely important because they let you open the door to the way the answer is supposed to be given. Below you'll see what I mean when I talk about key words. I've even given you the meanings of some of these words and it's important that you become familiar with as many of these as possible.

The following are some of the most commonly used key words:

Compare - to examine in order to note the differences and similarities

Contrast - to set in opposition and show differences when compared

Criticize - to judge the merits and faults; analyze and evaluate; to find faults

Define - to state the precise meaning; to describe the basic qualities

Describe - to tell about in detail; picture verbally

Discuss - to investigate by argument giving reasons for and against

Evaluate - to ascertain or judge the value or worth of something

Explain - to make plain or comprehensible; to offer reasons for; account for

Illustrate - to clarify by use of example or comparison; to provide a text with explanatory or decorative pictures, photos or diagrams

Interpret - to clarify or elucidate; to expound the significance of; to translate; to offer an explanation; your own judgement may be required

Justify - to show adequate grounds for decisions; to demonstrate to be just, right or valid; to show to be well founded

Outline - to give a general description, plan or summary; to give the main points of; to summarize

Relate - to show how things are connected to each other and to show to what extent they are alike or affect each other

Review - to write or give a critical report on; to examine with an eye to criticism or correction

State - to present in brief, clear form

Summarize - to present in condensed form; concise

Trace - to ascertain the successive stages in the development of; to locate or discover a cause

Can you see that if you didn't know the exact meaning of one of these key words in an test question that your answer could be totally wrong? So make sure you understand these words and even practice interpreting them by putting together your own practice questions and trying to answer them.
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Pinpoint what the examiner wants - it helps to keep in mind what the examiner is looking for, or expects in your answers.

  • You shouldn't, unless pressed for time, supply only the basics of an answer. Give as much as you can, keeping in mind that your answer must be relevant to the question and not padded.
  • Expanding on the first point, don't get side-tracked and lose focus on what's required, because this is an immediate signal to the examiner that you're having trouble handling the question.
  • If the question requires a contrast or argument (see key words above), or your point of view, try to produce a balanced answer and not just your own view.
  • The examiner will look for signs of extensive reading so, if possible, draw on as many sources as you can to give an answer with a broad perspective.
  • If the examiner finds difficulty in reading your answer or following your train of thought, you may be marked down accordingly. Be legible and work out an overall approach to your answer before you start writing.
  • Avoid making vague, general comments without confirming their validity.

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How should you approach the exam paper?

You're now sitting in the exam room and the examiner tells you to open your paper... what do you do next?

  • Read very carefully all the instructions on the exam ie. how many exam questions do you have to answer, whether you have any choices or must answer all questions and whether some questions are worth more than others.
  • If you have a choice of questions, read through the whole exam paper to identify those questions which you feel you can best answer.
  • Proportion your time for each question depending on the marks each is worth. If all questions are of equal value, allocate your time equally between the required number of answers.
  • Before answering the question, read it through very carefully, noting the key words.
  • Make sure you don't spend too much time on your first question only to find you have no time for the last question.
  • Choose an easy question to start with to allow your thinking processes to warm up.
  • Make sure you include only information relevant to the question and avoid padding any answers.
  • Make sure your answers are legible, grammatical, punctuated and spelt correctly. Answers produced in this way will unconsciously appeal to the examiner and may influence the final mark.
  • Take the trouble to have a quick look over your answers before handing in your paper. It'll give you an opportunity to pick up any errors and to make last minute changes. You can often pick up a few extra marks in this way.
  • If you find that you've missed out a question or run out of time, don't panic. Write outline notes showing how you planned to write your answer if you had the time. You'll also pick up a few extra marks doing this.

Test Taking Tip: For essay examinations, try the "memory dump" technique. If permitted, write down everything you've memorized - facts, names, dates, ideas, events and so on BEFORE you do anything else. Sometimes reading through the essay questions can distract you from what you've studied. The "memory dump" technique requires that you write down everything possible BEFORE you begin writing essay answers. This way, you are less likely to forget something important.

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Time Management:

If you want to be successful as a student, you need to be aware of time management and how to budget your time according to priorities. Every student has to live on 168 hours each week... no more, no less. This has to be one of the most important study skills you need to know.

Obviously there are a lot of things which take up our time which have nothing to do with studying. So the first step in effective time management is to decide how important school and college is in your life.

The importance of this will determine how much of those 168 hours you're going to make available for this part of your life. If sport or socializing is more important then you'll have less time available for studying!

So... focus on the future and the reason why you're studying in the first place and this might convince you to allocate more time to study.

A good way to work this out is to make a list of all the things you do in a week and how much time you spend on each activity.

As an example of the first day...

  • sleeping [8 hours]
  • eating [1 hour]
  • sport [1 hour]
  • part time work [2 hours]
  • relaxing [2 hours]
  • studying [2 hours]
  • classes [7 hours]
  • traveling [1 hour]

Do this for every day for a whole week.

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Time management tips 

Here's a whole bunch of tips that will help you take control of your time:

  • Know the time of day you study best - Some people are "night owls" and others are "morning people". You probably already know what you are so use it to your advantage.
  • Break big things into small pieces - If you have a big assignment that you've been avoiding because you don't have the time or don't know where to start, break it into smaller chunks and do it one piece at a time.
  • Get someone else to do things - For example, if someone else can help you out with a low priority task and free up more time for an important assignment, don't be afraid to ask.
  • Do more than one thing at a time - If you're going to the library, don't just do the research for one subject. You could also collect all the references you need for that assignment in another subject.
  • Change your routine - You might say you always get up at 7:00 a.m. and set your alarm clock accordingly. Try setting it for 6:45 a.m. instead. An extra 15 minutes a day will give you 105 minutes a week to do something else.
  • Learn how to say "No" - You may be able to say "no" to those things that are low on your list of priorities and don't advance you closer to your goals. Remember... you won't have the time to do everything you want to.
  • Be flexible - Don't be too strict with your time management schedule. Unexpected interruptions will occur. Just remember to do things in order of priority.
  • Use all your available time - Small amounts of time add up so always have something with you to read or study. Waiting for the bus or an appointment can be made useful.
  • Review your study material periodically - You should review information often to help you remember it over a long period of time.
  • Study difficult subjects first - You can leave routine or easy tasks until last when your concentration levels may be lower.
  • Decide your goal when you start studying - Work out exactly what you want to achieve when you study something and the work toward that goal.
  • Schedule your study to suit your concentration span - Some students lose concentration after studying for only 30 minutes. When you start to lose concentration, take a break for 10 - 15 minutes and then go back to it.
  • Prepare before lectures - You'll get more out of a lecture and improve concentration if you do some preparation before the lecture such as review the text book and supplementary material.
  • Make a study schedule - Get yourself a weekly planner and schedule your study time to make sure you have enough time to meet your goals.

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Study Space                                               

  • Your study space should be as quiet and comfortable as possible.
    Avoid studying in noisy places such as cafeterias, recreation rooms, or lounges.
  • When studying, keep a waste basket handy.
  • Have a consistent place for everything and above all, keep it there!
  • Have everything needed for study handy beforehand.
  • Don't waste valuable time looking for books, notes, of other information.
  • After you have assembled the items you need, put them where you can reach them easily.

Study Habits

  • Begin study no less than 30-90 minutes after a meal.
  • Never study within 30 minutes of going to sleep.
  • Prioritize! Make a list of what you intend to study, prioritize the list and stick to it!
  • If possible, study no more than 30-40 minutes at a stretch. Many students retain more by studying for short periods with breaks in between. It all depends on what you're trying to study, but generally, after a period of study, take a break.
  • Take study breaks away from your desk or wherever you are studying. Let the break be a time to think about other things. Use some break time to reflect, not constantly review what you have just studied.

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* Dr. Bob Kizlik is the primary author of this content. 

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