Exams? 10 key test-taking tips from top students

Wyatt Ong
Exams? 10 key test-taking tips from top students
Four top students from different schools share their best study tips and share how to get through those cringe-inducing exams and all-nighters

MANILA, Philippines – A cold feeling in your gut, butterflies in your belly, a complete mental blackout – many students know and understand the test-taking experience all too well. 

From preparing for a test to actually taking the exam and dealing with the aftermath, we’ve explored the process and spoken to 4 top students who shared their best tips to help you ace that major exam. 

Grades aren’t everything and they certainly won’t be the only thing employers look at when you’re looking for a job – but it can’t hurt to do your best while you’re in school, challenge yourself, get the best possible marks, and make yourself proud. 

Retaining large volumes of information

As a UP Medical School student who had to juggle long hours of work and study, Krisha Borromeo understands the challenge of having to internalize a large volume of information.

In those cases, she says: “Repetition is key. Try to integrate concepts across chapters/across books. Make a story out of concepts. Make mnemonics (the raunchier, the better!)”

“Use as many senses as you can – your brain will retain more info if more connections were used in the process. Read aloud, draw concept maps, try to explain things to friends/little brothers.”

Paoloregel B. Samonte, the Class 2015 valedictorian of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, has this to say: “Understand more than memorize. Given a limited time to study, it is more important that you understand concepts than memorize terms.” (READ: UPLB valedictorian to graduates: Fight inequality

“People who memorize are prone to forgetting, but people who practice and apply tend to remember.”

For the busy student with tons of activities 

Krisha, who graduated magna cum laude from UP Diliman before med school, not only had to juggle med school and her personal life – she was also class president of the UP College of Medicine from 2011 to 2015. 

It’s a familiar struggle for many students – the need to keep one’s grades up while continuing to participate in extracurricular activities, hobbies, and projects, all of which also contribute towards a diverse and impactful resume.

“For the student leader: keep a journal/organizer detailing your goals for the day, or post-its that you can satisfyingly crumple after you’ve completed them. When you set meetings, be on time for them and start after reaching a quorum,” says Krisha.  

Output, as well as input 

Filipino Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) summa cum laude graduate Carmela Lao summed it up quite well when she spoke to Rappler about the benefits of a more “active” style of learning, rather than passive. (READ: Filipina top MIT grad: ‘We are all Filipinos’

“Reading, listening, watching lectures, and other ‘input’ activities are useful for learning, but actively thinking about, discussing, teaching or applying a topic, i.e. ‘output,’ is crucial for mastery,” says Carmela. 

Here’s an anecdote from Ateneo de Manila University 2015 valedictorian Ryan Yu: “This is a tip I got from Ken Abante, the Ateneo 2011 class valedictorian. In each class or subject you take, try to find at least one thing that genuinely interests you, and hold on to it.”

“Allow your curiosity to drive you, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself interested in that subject as a whole. I find that it becomes much easier to study if you’re actually intrigued by the topics you’re learning instead of considering them as school requirements.”


From the number of top students we talked to, all of them stressed the importance of getting enough sleep. And when those extra hours feel like a luxury you can’t afford, try to squeeze in a few naps. 

“Don’t deprive yourself of sleep. Sleep is important, so if your head starts to throb from studying and you know your brain can’t take it any longer, rest,” says Paoloregel. 

“Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to finish everything that you have to do, yet you can’t seem to focus on what you’re doing because you’re too tired. The solution: take a quick nap! You’ll wake up recharged and feeling ready to get back to work,” says Ryan. 

It might also do its part to quell that rising sense of panic that comes with an overwhelming workload. 

Understandably, it sometimes feels counterintuitive to rest when there’s so much to do. And sometimes one just can’t help feeling guilty about giving in to sleep when the requirements are overwhelming. But sleep can help you reset, and studies show that naps can help with memory processing and information (for more, take a look at this report on io9). 

But don’t just rely on naps – on the whole, try as much as you can to be well-rested. “Sleep is key for me. I find that I retain and process information and solve problems much better on 7 to 8 hours of sleep,” says Carmela. 

When cramming is unavoidable 

Most would caution against cramming, but when there are just too many things to do, isn’t it sometimes inevitable?

“I cram when it’s unavoidable, i.e. when there are, for example, 3 exams on top of job interviews the next day,” says Carmela. “However, I sincerely advise against it, as I don’t think one retains knowledge very well that way, and while it might work momentarily for the exam, one just forgets everything after and it defeats the purpose of learning.”

If there’s very little time, Paoloregel suggests fitting small study sessions within smaller windows of time. “Even a 10 to 15 minute review during break time can make a lot of difference,” he says. 

You might also want to preempt later tasks by getting them out of the way before you forget.

“Always have a notebook on hand. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget things that you may have to remember weeks or months in the future, so while it’s fresh in your mind, write it down! It’s crucial to bring a planner around as well,” says Ryan. (READ: Ateneo valedictorian: ‘UP summa cum laude, a brilliant Filipina of our time’

“Requirements and deadlines can pile up quickly, and I’ve found that writing down all the things you need to do and finishing them one at a time can greatly ease stress.”

If you must cram, you’ll need a game plan. Choose the topic for cramming – ideally, it won’t be the topic you’re struggling with the most. Hopefully, it’ll be a last-minute once-over of the most important concepts tackled over the time period, lingering once or twice on the most complex terms. It might even give you a nice boost before the test. 

Taking the test 

No matter how well prepared you are, taking a test can be nerve-wracking, and circumstances of the day come into play – maybe you were late to class, weren’t feeling well, or missed a chapter for review. All of those things can make for a perfect storm of awful test-taking conditions. 

What happens when you aren’t sure about an answer or simply forgot? “Narrow it down to at most 50% then make an educated guess,” advises Krisha. 

She has a few more tips, too: 

“If you can make marks on your paper – do it. Make full use of your time, it’s not a race.”

“Do spot checks to make sure you are answering the right question with the right number on your answer sheet. It’s an absolute nightmare to be caught in a domino effect that’s started because of one wrong move.”

You might also want to get some things out of the way as soon as you get your test paper. You might want to make sure you write all the formulas down, practice with your scientific calculator and get used to the different modes you’ll need to use, or write down little notes and reminders about things you know you’re prone to forget. 

Make sure you read the directions more than once, too – you wouldn’t want points to be docked for small offenses, like forgetting to box a final answer or not writing on the back page. 

Note the test type 

Different types of tests have varying requirements. You may be able to retain concepts or develop solutions quickly, but a face-to-face exam or graded recitation, for example, would also require you to think on your feet and quickly outline your answers. 

Will the formulas be provided? Is it essay, multiple choice, or fill in the blanks? Is the test written, or oral? Adjust accordingly, preparing not only for the material or possible questions, but also for your plan of attack when it comes to tackling the type of exam. 

For graded recitation exams held during class, for example, take nerves and speaking in front of an audience into account. If you’re not comfortable with this, you’ll have to practice. 

Oral exams where you have to answer a question on the spot (as opposed to having plenty of time to craft an answer in a written exam) can be tricky. Even if you can’t predict the questions, try to practice your delivery when it comes to explaining some key concepts. This will help you get used to the type of exam and help prevent that awful deer-in-the-headlights feeling – or worse, unintelligible word vomit. 

One professor in college had exactly one requirement and some change – a single long research paper to be worked on in the semester, and a little percentage set aside for short quizzes here and there.

You could have aced all the pop quizzes and it wouldn’t have made a difference if you messed up the paper. That meant I had to spend a lot of time in the library early on in the semester, chipping slowly away at it. And by the time finals week rolled around, the paper was done and that was one less subject I had to worry about.

If it’s an exam where you’ll have to demonstrate an equation, solution, and final answer, try to break the material down into types of problems, and take as many practice tests as possible. 

If you identify the patterns of the various types of problems and train yourself to spot them (and expect them), you may find that they aren’t as overwhelming. And when you encounter them, you’ll know what to do. 

Afterwards: dealing with disappointment 

And through it all, sometimes, things just don’t go your way, and you must deal with a grade you didn’t want, often accompanied by a crushing sense of disappointment. 

Everyone goes through it – and remember, there’s always a next step, something to help you make up for a rough exam, a high-ticket project where a high grade could be a game-changer. 

“Don’t talk about the exam right after with smart friends – they will make you feel worse. It’s not the end of the world, lots more people have it worse. Just make a pact to do better next time,” says Krisha. 

“Keep things in perspective. It’s cliche, but 5 to 10 years down the road, that low grade will be a distant memory. There is always a tomorrow, and as long as you strive to do better tomorrow than you did today, then it is a success,” adds Carmela. 

If you’re really gunning for that A, you might need to check if the teacher is offering any extra credit projects you can take on. And after the test, you’ll have to evaluate the work you’ve already done (can’t change your marks for those projects), and the work that’s left to do. 

If the test you bombed was a long test or a midterm, you’ll have an idea of how well you’ll need to do in the finals or major project in order to maintain a certain grade.

Sit down and compute your goal grade, filling in goal scores for future exams in order to help you keep your class standing. You’ll soon have an idea of what to aim for in your next exams. 

If you’re really struggling in that subject, you’ll have to try and gauge its impact on your overall average. You may have to work much harder at another subject to make up for a projected lower grade in a tough class. 


Another tip from Carmela is to seek help when you know you need it. But before that, drill down into the specifics of what you need help with and be able to communicate that clearly. 

“Know what you don’t know. People are the best source of knowledge. Collaboration fosters better results,” says Carmela. 

“In my opinion, the reason why the student body at MIT is so intellectually stimulating is the absence of the hesitation to collaborate. And discussion with peers and professors is a positive feedback cycle that generates rich and enlightening insights.” 

Besides, some of the best bonding experiences at college stem from those long days and nights toiling away with your friends. 

Note the best way you learn 

Everyone absorbs information differently, but perhaps you might find that you’re more of a visual learner, or maybe more auditory or tactile.

There are several models that explore the way we learn, which you can read about online. One thing to keep in mind is that what works for one person might not work for you – and don’t forget that instructors’ teaching styles vary, too. And then there are just some topics that become more memorable depending on the way it’s presented. 

Back in college and struggling to finish Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I took my teacher’s advice and listened to the audiobook version while reading along with the book. I stopped whenever I needed to stop, but hearing it in my head the way it was intended to be performed put everything in context and helped me better understand what the characters were trying to say. 

When I took a more advanced class later on in college, I employed the same tactic with The Iliad, and to my relief, found that it worked just as well.  

One way to start is to observe how you review. Do you learn better if you read key notes aloud? Or are you the type to create long and complex outlines? Do you like to work intensely on a single solution, or do you prefer quickly trying out different methods? 

Find what works for you and embrace that learning style. Explore it, and don’t be afraid to try what your classmates and friends are not.

Good luck! – Rappler.com

Wyatt is the Lifestyle and Entertainment editor of Rappler and is the creator of Rappler’s Career section.


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