Eight Tips for Exams at Berkeley

How to Do Well on Exams at Cal

It’s no secret that U.C. Berkeley is an academically challenging place. As arguably the most prestigious public institution in the world, Berkeley has its pick of the best and brightest. But those best and brightest need to be challenged to reach their potential and Berkeley meets this need with difficult classes along with stressful midterms and finals. With most classes being graded on a curve, the competition exams bring can add even more pressure to perform. This can drive rational students to take completely irrational actions in regards to their test preparation.

Look, we’ve all been there. All-nighters, last-minute office hours for the professor whose class we’ve barely been to, and a notes sheet with nearly the entire textbook copied onto it. It’s a lot of work and suffering that at best is nearly worthless and at worst is detrimental. But what can you do? Quite a few things actually, and we’ve pulled together this list of tips (from real alumni experience) sure to make for a more successful and less stressful exam season.

Tip #1: Get Some Sleep

You hear this one all the time. You get to class a little early to find a seat before the test and it seems like everyone around you is talking about how late they were up studying. It seems like everyone else was hitting the books while your head was hitting the pillow. You start to wonder if you didn’t take this test seriously enough. You start to think that all these people must have stumbled upon some big secret in the middle of the night that you missed because you went to sleep too soon.

It’s not completely unreasonable to think this way. If you spend more time studying for an exam you should expect to know more and perform better. If you sleep for eight hours while someone else studies then shouldn’t they do better because they spent more time preparing than you? Not exactly.

They’re going to be exhausted (even if they don’t look it). Your brain just works better when it’s getting the right amount of sleep. When you’re up all night you’ll find yourself thinking slower in both solving problems and recalling important concepts. You find it hard to focus and you get stressed by difficult questions easier. You become a mess. It doesn’t matter how late you study if you can’t recall all that information when the test comes around.

The fact of the matter is that those few hours of studying instead of sleeping are a total waste. You get far more value from being fully rested when going into an exam than filling those last few hours with facts and figures you’re guaranteed to forget immediately. This goes hand in hand with our next tip.

Tip #2: Don't Cram

Seriously, it’s pretty worthless. In those last few hours, minutes, or seconds before the test begins cramming isn’t going to help you. The number of times someone has done well on an exam because they read just the right section of their textbook or notes before the tests went out is near zero.

If you’re cramming it likely means you’re making up for work you should have been doing before the exam. There’s a reason semesters aren’t super short. People need time to discover, absorb, and process lots of new information. Each of those steps requires time and is why your professor didn’t give you an exam your first week (hopefully). Cramming accomplishes none of this for you. You don’t know what you need to focus on for the exam so you’re basically looking over a lot of information (so you may not even discover the topics you need to care about). Because there’s so much content and such little time you end up spending an insufficient amount of that time on each topic so the odds of you absorbing it are nonexistent. Finally, if you’re quickly moving from topic to topic you get no time to process and apply this information. You don’t learn anything by cramming.

But what should you do instead? Studying is better than not studying. Right? Yes, but cramming is not studying. Studying requires the absorbing and processing part of learning. Cramming is just a chaotic mess of reading, writing, and (probably) crying. What you need to do is take it easy. If you put yourself in this stressful situation before the exam you’re going to go through the exam in the wrong state of mind. You won’t be able to focus or stay calm and that will work against you. The best thing you can do is take some time for yourself. Meditate, take a walk or just relax. Accept that you know as much as you know and go into the exam with the understanding that you’ve done all you can to put yourself in a good position to do well. You’ll find the whole experience more manageable and quickly notice how much easier it is to focus on the task at hand.

Cramming isn’t necessary. If you feel like you absolutely need to cram it means you haven’t been doing the work you should have. Keep up with your reading.

Tip #3: Make the Most of Office Hours

Sometimes a class is really hard. That’s fine. Even if you feel like you’re the only one that doesn’t get the material don’t let that discourage you. However, if you are struggling please take advantage of office hours. They exist for exactly this purpose. It can be hard to drag yourself to them for a few reasons. You might be afraid the professor will think you’re an idiot because of your questions, you don’t want people to see (or you don’t want to admit) you need help, you don’t have time, or you’re too lazy to be bothered.

Regarding the first two reasons, the absolute stupidest thing you can do is avoid asking for help. If you’re afraid of your professor thinking less of you in office hours they will eventually think less of you when they get your exam. Also, don’t worry what other people think about you going to office hours. Odds are almost 100% they should be going too but are too afraid (or too lazy) to be bothered. You’re at Berkeley to learn and learning means asking questions. If anything, your professor will take notice of your office hours attendance and admire your determination to improve (some have even boosted grades for the effort).

If you don’t have the time, you need to make it. This might require missing a class or a social activity but if you’re struggling it’s a fair trade. If you absolutely can’t make the time work, talk to your professor to see if they can make an exception for you. Most of the time they will.

And if you’re not going because you’re too lazy or can’t be bothered you really should take a moment to evaluate your priorities.

The best thing you can do before an exam is to make sure you understand what you’re learning. If you get stuck or are confused the best thing you can do is get that worked out in office hours so you don’t get stuck on that problem during an exam.

Lastly, don’t rely on office hours right before the exam. That’s the worst time to go if you need a lot of help. It’s always packed with students that waited too long. If you need any major help you won’t get it at this time. It is a good idea if you’re caught up and just want to hear pieces of useful information. Also, if your professor or TA is nice enough to host a group study session you should go.

Tip #4: Take Full Advantage of Notes Sheets

Sometimes you get lucky and your professor allows for a page of notes to refer to while you take the exam. Your first thought might be to fill it with as much information as possible. This is a waste. The vast majority of the stuff you write down won’t matter and the stuff that does will take forever to find. It may come as a surprise, but the point of a notes sheet is not to act as an exam aid.

Notes sheets serve three purposes. First, they get you to open the textbook and read through it. Second, they force you to focus on (and think about) key concepts and formulas that you’ll need to really understand. Finally, they help you identify things you don’t know or have overlooked. Sure, you could just blindly copy formulas from the book onto your sheet but you won’t know how to use them (or where to use them) when you’re taking the exam. This makes you take the time to study the concept a bit more so you can put down how it works in your notes. It’s at this part of the copying process that you’re actually teaching yourself these concepts that may have been unclear before. If you’re writing good notes you’ll end up with a better understanding of the problem and will likely find that when it comes up on the exam you remember enough of it to not even need the notes sheet.

If you do happen to realize over the course of taking notes that you have no idea what you’re doing (if your notes look like a handwritten version of the entire book that’s an indicator) then it's a sign you need help. This means you should start your notes sheet as soon as possible. Once you know there’s a problem you can go to office hours or do some extra reading to rectify it.

Note sheets are a fantastic way to prepare for an exam. They’re actually not all that helpful during the exam.

Tip #5: Know Your Exam Dates

This one is easy. When you get the syllabus take a few moments to write down the test dates. Also, write them somewhere you look every day or set an alarm on your phone to remind you a few weeks out. Missing an exam or having an exam creep up on you is a really stupid reason to do poorly.

Tip #6: Skip the Hard Problems

Over the course of your exam, you will almost always hit a problem you can’t immediately figure out or understand. This is normal. What you absolutely must not do is freak out and continue to stare at the problem in hopes that it will magically solve itself. Your time is limited and you need to make the most of it. Our brains are tricky things and sometimes they don’t work the way we expect them to. They especially don’t do well with tests when under pressure. The trick is to reduce that stress, take a step back, and give yourself a moment to process everything. If you run into trouble follow these steps:

Step 1: Take a deep breath and remove your focus on the exam. Close your eyes or look ahead (not at someone else’s exam).

Step 2: Refocus on the exam. Carefully read the problem.

Step 3: If you’re still confused, go to the next problem.

Step 4: Repeat this process as many times as is necessary until you run out of questions to skip to.

It’s that simple. There are a few good reasons for this. First, you need to get as many points on the exam as possible in the limited time you have. Don’t waste that time on problems you might not get any points for. Second, sometimes other exam questions will reveal useful hints that can help solve a previously difficult problem. It’s worth pushing forward simply because it may lead to a revelation about another problem on the test. Lastly, sometimes our brains just need a moment to absorb and process a question in the back of our minds while we do something else. If you move on you might find that the solution just comes to you. It sounds like magic but it really happens.

If you focus on the problems you can’t solve the stress can easily become distracting and ultimately keep you from making any progress on the exam. Take a moment, move on, and come back when you’re ready.

Tip #7: Do an Exam Postmortem

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you have a bad exam. This can happen for a lot of reasons and you need to identify what they were. You may need to wait for exam results to fully understand what went wrong, but once you have all the relevant information it’s time to get to work. Ask yourself why this happened. Did you not do the reading? Did you not ask for help when you needed it? Was there a problem you didn’t expect (or have been solving the wrong way)? Whatever the reason, you should set this time aside after an exam to take stock of where you’re at in the class.

Once you’ve identified all the reasons you had a bad exam it’s time to act.

Start reading, go to office hours, review a section that confused you. Just don’t shrug it off and promise yourself next time will be different (it won’t be). You’ll find that the more postmortems you do for each class the more you’ll understand where your academic weaknesses are and be in a better position to address them. The hard work comes when it’s time to address them. However, if you follow through your next exam will always be better and you’ll be in a good position to finish strong.

Tip #8: Don't Cheat

Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. If you get caught you will be much worse off than if you had just failed. You will lose all sympathy from your professor and you’ll still be underprepared for the next exam. The consequences of academic dishonesty at Cal are severe. But what if you don’t get caught? If you’re stupid enough to cheat you’re stupid enough to get caught. Don’t expect any other outcome. You’ll only be hurting yourself.

Good Luck

This advice has helped countless Cal students before you ace their exams and reach the top of the class. Seriously. If you stick with these tips there’s no reason your next set of midterms or finals won’t be a breeze. Good luck with your exams, but if you’re applying these tips you definitely won’t need any luck.

Like What You've Read So Far?

Come Join Us on Gojurn!