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7 Last-Minute Exam Tips for Students

For most people, success is the result of working steadily toward a goal. For college-bound students, the college application process begins early on, and preparing for critical assessments like Advanced Placement (AP) tests is one step on the road to an acceptance letter. With AP exam season fast approaching, you may be searching for ways to milk your year of hard work for every possible ounce of benefit. Here are seven last-minute tips that can help you finish your prep strong and perform at your peak:

1. Sleep

This piece of advice is listed first because it is one of the most important and most frequently overlooked AP strategies. Our brains are at their best when they are rested. If you sit for an AP exam while exhausted, you will have a much harder time recalling the information you need to earn a high score. AP tests are designed to assess knowledge and skills that you accumulate over months of study, so frantically reviewing your notes the week before the exam will not help you. You can study an hour or so a day to keep yourself focused and on-topic, but avoid working late into the evening.

2. Rest your hands

AP tests are not yet computer-delivered, and this means that you will be doing quite a bit of writing by hand. It may seem strange to think about, but tired hands are one factor that can affect your performance. However, there are ways to minimize the likelihood of aching fingers. On the day of your exam, bring a stress ball or other stress relief toy that will help your hands relax from their pencil-clutch posture. You can even bring a small tube of moisturizer or Tiger Balm to rub into your fingers. (Note that these items may only be used during breaks between tests – not in the exam room.)

3. Use your downtime wisely

Part of entering AP exam week rested and relaxed is feeling mentally refreshed. If your high school has large numbers of AP students, your teachers may have already taken test schedules into account when assigning homework/project due dates. If this is not the case at your school, ensure you create a work schedule well in advance of your AP exams, and aim to finish any other academic tasks before your first test. This can minimize possible stress and distraction.

Make time, too, for an activity that is fun and relaxing. Go for a walk, play a favorite video game, or invite your friends over. The specifics of what you do matter less than ensuring that you do not spend the week before your exams tense and anxious.

4. Review class content, but do so selectively

As mentioned above, avoid entirely abandoning your test prep. Taking a high-stakes exam “cold” is guaranteed to leave you stressed come test day. Instead of broadly reviewing, however, study several points that are essential to earning your intended score: a novel or play that you would like to cite in your AP English Literature and Composition essay, those tricky bits of math that tripped you up in AP Calculus AB review sessions, or essential dates and events for AP World History.

5. Practice your editing

As you study for your exams, include a bit of practice with editing essays. This advice is particularly useful on AP tests that heavily value writing, such as AP United States History and AP English Language and Composition. Before you take your first exam, locate several essays that you have written for class (perhaps even your AP classes) and edit them for clarity. On test day, you will not have time for extensive rewrites of your free response answers, so it is well worth knowing where to focus your energies. Include this practice in your daily study hour. While you cannot add much information to your store of knowledge at this point, you can improve your test-taking process.

6. Rest between back-to-back exams

Many students who take AP tests report feeling worn out after just one – let alone back-to-back exams! Unfortunately, because the AP schedule is set by the College Board, you may face this very situation. If you must complete back-to-back tests, plan ahead to ensure that you will have some quality rest time between exams. For example, bring music to listen to, and eat a healthy meal (one including complex carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables to nourish your brain).

7. Schedule recovery time

If you have multiple AP tests on multiple days, do your best to clear your schedule in the evenings. You will need to relax and sleep in order for your brain to recharge, and a busy night can interfere with this process. Do indulge in light exercise (you will be amazed at how effectively it can reset your mind) or a favorite activity. Continue to eat well, and – as has been mentioned many times – get your rest! You will be well on your way to success if you do.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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