How to Prepare in the Week Leading Up to an Exam

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Being one week away from a major test or exam, such as the SAT, LSAT, MCAT, or USMLE Step exams, is a critical time. This is when you should alter your study strategies, prioritize your wellness, and not make any drastic changes. It’s the final stretch, and these final few days will dictate your health and mindset going into the test.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind the week leading up to a major exam.

 

1. Zero in on High-Yield Information

The week before your exam is when you should dedicate all of your study time to the most high-yield information. What are your current weak areas based on practice tests? What will produce the greatest result in the time you have left?

Take a practice test a week before your exam, but do not take any practice tests during the week before your exam. Your score on a practice test in the days before a major test will become all the more magnified and affect your mindset, either making you overconfident or paralyzed with stress. Taking a practice test during the final few days before your exam simply isn’t useful to you.

Focus on your weak areas and high-yield content.

AMBOSS has a feature where you can use a button to trim down the content to actually focus on the most high-yield information. If you don’t have a resource like this, focus on question banking and simulating the real exam environment. While spaced repetition content review is essential to effective studying, it’s less useful in the weeks leading up to the actual exam. Dedicate your remaining time to completing practice questions within a simulated test environment.

Practice questions will always be high-yield because they are designed to simulate the real thing as much as possible. When you’re doing questions, you have the dual benefit of honing your elimination methods and test-taking skills while training your brain to look at the way the information is presented.

You can read that strep pneumonia is the leading cause of meningitis during content review, but until you understand how the questions are worded, you may not be able to recognize the answer.

As you get closer, focus on your weak areas by utilizing practice questions, real scenarios, and high-yield content as opposed to content review.

Learn more: 7 Evidence-Based Study Strategies (And How to Use Each).

 

2. Minimize Social Activities

Minimize social events and obligations in the week leading up to your exam. As soon as you have a date booked, block off as much of the week as you can leading up to your test.

As social opportunities come up, say no to as many as possible. Let the people you see on a regular basis know you’ll be busy during this time.

Avoid social situations or places where you could catch an illness, especially during flu season. Your immune system will also be repressed by the stress of the upcoming exam, which makes you particularly susceptible to catching something that could hinder your performance or make you unable to take the test.

Say no to parties or late night events. Save those for after the exam. Guard your time. Let the people you live with, such as a roommate or spouse, know your exam schedule so that they can support you as best as possible the week leading up to the big day.

 

3. Prioritize Your Wellness

It is imperative that you don’t wear yourself out. Don’t make your final week of studying your hardest one. Think of it like practicing for a marathon. You wouldn’t jog for six hours straight right before a big race. Test-taking is the same as physical exertion. Your brain is mostly fat, but it’s also a muscle, and you need it ready for game day.

If you have a regular exercise routine, continue it. If you don’t exercise regularly, consider light walks in between study sessions. Make time for mindfulness to clear your head, such as breathing exercises, meditation, walking, drawing, coloring, sitting in nature, etc.

During the final week, your time resting and sleeping is just as important as studying. You must be as rested as possible. Your only focus should be on studying high-yield information, eating healthy and well, exercising, relaxing, and sleeping.

At the very least, get seven hours of sleep every night, but when you can, lean closer to eight or nine. Students often prioritize studying over getting a good night’s sleep, but sleep is essential to consolidating memories.

Pulling an all-nighter is the absolute worst thing you can do before a test.

If you study all night without sleep, you won’t retain much of the information because a great deal of memory consolidation happens during sleep. The facts you need to remember in order to excel on test day are a type of semantic memory stored in the hippocampus. You need both non-REM and REM sleep to strengthen the neuronal connections and memory consolidation there.

Lack of sleep also massively diminishes your alertness, attention span, and overall performance. Staying awake for 17 hours straight is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, and staying awake for 24 hours straight is the same as a BAC of 0.10%. You can be charged for drunk driving with a BAC above 0.08% in the US.

If you wouldn’t dream of showing up to a test drunk, don’t show up sleep deprived.

 

4. Don’t Make Drastic Changes

Continue the routines you’ve built, don’t change your resources, and don’t experiment close to your exam.

Getting a practice question wrong before an exam is okay. Of course we want to get everything right, but it’s important to view each wrong answer as a learning opportunity. You’ve gotten it wrong now so that you won’t get it wrong on the test.

You may be tempted to search for another resource if you’re getting some questions wrong, but this will only overload you when you should be zeroing in on your weak areas and prioritizing your health and sleep quality.

You’re going to keep getting questions wrong until the moment before your test. Each wrong answer is a learning opportunity. Utilize the final week before an exam to comb through these wrong answers so that you can get them right on the real thing.

Keep all of your routines in place, unless you have an early exam and are not used to waking up early. Start getting up early two weeks or more before the test and answering practice questions at the same time as when your exam will be. It’s essential to simulate the real thing as much as possible so that nothing throws you off come test day.

If you don’t think you’re a morning person, learn how to wake up early and not be miserable.

 

5. Manage Your Mindset

Mindset is essential. When you’ve been studying and studying and you’re only a few days away from the test, each wrong answer can feel like a gut punch to your self-esteem and cause you to spiral into self-doubt. “How could I forget that strep pneumonia is the leading cause of Meningitis? I’m only a week away! If I can get that wrong, what else will I get wrong?”

These feelings can easily grow exponentially. Since you got a few questions wrong, suddenly you feel like you’re going to get everything wrong. If you’re not careful, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of feeling bad and then doing bad.

Manage your mindset by refraining from taking any practice tests during the final week before your exam, and stop studying earlier than you think you need to to give your brain the break it needs. You can still look at some content review, but use the final day or two before your exam to recuperate.

If you have a condensed studying time, at the very least, give yourself a half-day off to manage your mindset and recover. If you feel compelled to study, do not make it excruciating or overly challenging, as if you get questions wrong, you’re going to psych yourself out.

For the most part, take your mind off the test with a relaxing activity like going on a hike, playing an instrument, journaling, painting, watching a movie, or whatever hobby you find most enjoyable.

 

Ace Your Next Test

It is vital that you are as rested and refreshed as possible come test day, so take care of yourself!

When you study during your final week, focus exclusively on your weak areas and only on the most high-yield information. Minimize your social activities to ensure you don’t catch anything that could hinder your performance or prevent you from taking your test. Prioritize your wellness during this time so that you’re as physically and mentally fit as possible, and don’t make any drastic changes to your diet or habits. And finally, manage your mindset and energy level by not taking any practice tests and focusing on relaxing hobbies to ensure you don’t psych yourself out.

Following these tips will help you ace your exam come test day.

If you need help dialing in your active study strategies or planning out the ideal study schedule, Med School Insiders offers tutoring services for the MCAT, Shelf exams, and all USMLE Step exams.

For more test-taking strategies, check out: What to Do the Day of an Exam and The Worst 9 Study Strategies Ranked.

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