The Complete Guide to Emergency Cramming

Image shows a black and white photo of a student poring over a textbook.Nobody wants to end up in a state of panic with an exam looming, but it can happen to even the most organised of students, because sometimes, the unexpected happens.

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You might, for example, fall victim to illness during the revision period, meaning that you don’t have as much time to prepare as you wanted. Your exam timetable might suddenly change, leaving you with two days rather than a month to prepare (unlikely, but not beyond the realms of possibility). Should the worst happen, what do you do? You could get into a mad state panic and admit defeat – or, more constructively, you could follow the advice in this article and get cramming.

Ban procrastination

Image shows a lawnmower sitting on a garden.
Your chores will never seem so tempting, but resist the urge to procrastinate.

To be successful at this late stage, you have to be fully focused on what you need to achieve. This means that any form of procrastination – such as tidying your room or checking Facebook – must go out of the window. Switch your phone off and lock it away somewhere, disconnect your computer from the internet (unless you want to look at revision sites, in which case you should deactivate your Facebook account if you think you won’t have the willpower to stay off it). Find yourself a study zone, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door and knuckle down.

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Take stock of what you need to cover

You should start by assessing the scale of what you need to cover. Compile a complete list of every topic that might come up in the exam. Identify which topics you were strongest on in class and which you struggled with. You might be surprised by how many topics you actually do feel confident in, and this could help minimise the feelings of panic you’re probably experiencing. If this list of topics doesn’t inspire feelings of confidence, the next step is to prioritise certain topics. One way of doing this is to do some guesswork to try to figure out which topics are most likely to come up in the exam. You can do this by looking over past papers.

Scan through past papers

Image shows past papers strewn on a floor.
Use past papers for fast revision.

This isn’t a foolproof method, and should never be completely relied upon (you should still try to cram all the potential topics that might come up, if you possibly can), but it can at least help you select which topics might be worth prioritising. Look over the last few years’ past papers for the exam you’re cramming for, and look for patterns in the questions and topics. See what questions and topics come up pretty much every year and which haven’t come up for a while. It’s a fairly good bet that the recurring ones will come up again, and it’s going to be worth revising the topics that haven’t come up for a while just in case they make an appearance this year. To give yourself the best chance of scoring the most marks, you could prioritise the recurring topics and then move on to the topics that don’t tend to come up so often. Don’t spend too much time trying to assess the probability of different topics coming up when you’re already pressed for time; but you can use this time as productively as possible by taking note of what the questions are going to be like – the styles of question, difficulty level and so on – at the same time as guessing which topics might come up this year. Don’t forget that it’s just a guess, though.

Revise the bare bones of each topic

Once you’ve identified priority topics, break them down into their key elements by making a list of the important concepts within each of them. It might help you to do this as a diagram, such as a spider diagram, so that you can visualise what you need to do more easily. This process will help you quickly identify which areas you aren’t already confident in, and you can circle or highlight the concepts that you need to spend a bit more time on. From there, you can hone in on the areas that need attention. Skip the detail for now; you can come back to this later if you have time. For the time being, just make sure you understand the fundamental ideas for each concept so that you could write about them if necessary. You’d be surprised what knowledge comes flooding back to you when you’re in an exam room, so if you’ve crammed the basics, the chances are that you might remember more of the details from when you first learned the topic.

Time management

Image shows a sundial.
Time management is vital if you’re working to a short deadline.

With so little time available, effective time management is even more crucial than usual. Make a timetable, and make it quickly, as you don’t have all the time in the world. Doing this helps you feel more in control of the situation and allows you to ensure that you have enough time to cover everything. Make sure you schedule in time for each of the topics you’ve identified that you need to cover, and allocate timings for each of them within the space you have available. Work out how long you can spend on each topic and stick to these timings, even if you feel you haven’t quite mastered a topic – if you spend too long on one, you won’t have enough time for another.
It’s important to find a balance between spending time on your stronger subjects and your weaker ones; sometimes, you can spend so much time focusing on your weaker subjects that your stronger ones get neglected, and you end up not doing as well as you thought you would in the topics you should have excelled in. Try to spread your time evenly between the two, so that you get up to speed on a wide range of topics. You’ll probably still do better in the subjects you’ve traditionally been stronger in, but keeping your mind fresh on these will enable you to pull in more marks from them.

Learning methods

When you’re cramming, it’s best not to try to revise from dense academic textbooks. All this will do is overwhelm you, as the language and presentation of such material is not conducive to rapid learning. What you need is quick-fire summaries: pithy one-liners, diagrams that explain concepts more simply, and information presented in easy-to-read bullet points. If you can, get hold of a revision book, as these summarise topics and are easier to skim read than textbooks. If it’s too late to find a revision book, try reading the summaries at the end of chapters rather than entire chapters. If you’ve kept organised notes during your studies, you could instead skim-read these. Whichever source of information you choose to revise from, don’t just read it and hope for the best; test what you’ve learned by covering up your book or notes and trying to summarise each topic aloud, without looking. This will help you commit the information to memory.

Try some questions from past papers

Another method of cramming is to work from past papers. We mentioned them earlier because you can use them to look for recurring topics, but it also makes sense to have access to a bunch of them so that you can get used to the style of questions you will be asked. Be careful with relying solely on past papers, as this won’t prepare you for a new question that might come up, or a topic that hasn’t been covered recently. It’s best to try to do this right at the end, if you have time (try to factor in time for this in your timetable), once you’ve already revised as much as you can.

Memory aids

Using scents can help stimulate your memory.

It’s probably too late in the day to start using complicated memory aids to help you remember the vast amount of information you need to absorb in such a short space of time, but there are one or two that could help you memorise tricky formulae or dates that may be crucial to your exam. You can find our full list of exam memory aids here, but a couple that spring to mind as being useful at such short-notice are simple mnemonics and perhaps the ‘smell’ trick, whereby you wear a certain scent while revising (or cramming) and wear it again in the exam, to trigger memories via your sense of smell.

Get together with a friend

If you’ve missed out on valuable revision time due to illness, you may have a friend who’s better prepared. If you’re the kind of person who works better with other people than on your own, you could perhaps offer to be your friend’s “student”, so that they can benefit from explaining things to you (which consolidates their knowledge) while you revise or learn the information first time round. Don’t expect sympathy or help if you’re cramming because you didn’t bother to do the work in the first place or haven’t bothered to revise; but if you’re cramming due to no fault of your own, you may be able to find a friend who’s willing to help. Just don’t expect them to say yes – your friends are busy revising too and they need to be able to do this in the way they find best for them.

Learn a last-minute quote or fact for each topic

Image shows a portrait of the war poet Isaac Rosenberg.
You could quote a lesser-known war poet like Isaac Rosenberg.

If time permits, try to learning a more detailed quote or fact for each topic you might write about in the exam. Dropping in little snippets of detail in this way gives the examiner the impression that you know the topic in more depth than you really do, provided that you deploy these carefully rather than shoehorning them in for the sake of it. For example, if you were taking an exam on war poetry, you could commit a line or two of a lesser-quoted poem to memory (rather than the same lines everyone will be quoting, such as “If I should die, think only this of me”); make sure you also learn an intelligent point to make alongside it! This will help your answers stand out from the crowd and suggest to the examiner that you know what you’re talking about.

Look after yourself

You’ll need plenty of ‘brain food’ to keep you going while you’re cramming. Avoid sugary foods, and instead opt for foods that keep you going over a longer period of time, such as porridge, which releases its energy slowly. Allow yourself a five-minute break from time to time, as this allows your brain a moment of rest so that you can stay focused.

Don’t pull an all-nighter

Image shows a young woman asleep on a sofa.
Pulling an all-nighter might result in you dozing off during the day.

Tempting though it may be, because it gives you more time, pulling an all-nighter – that is, staying up all night to revise – is not a good idea. You’ll do much worse in the exam if you approach it having had no sleep, and your brain needs sleep to convert all the information you’ve crammed the day before into long-term memory, ready for you to recall it in an exam. You don’t need to try for the full recommended eight hours, but do at least get three or four hours (a couple of sleep cycles).

And finally…

If you’ve read this article and think that all this advice sounds so useful that you might as well not even bother with months of organised revision, think again! Cramming is only to be used as a last resort, when things have taken an unexpected turn for the worse and prevented you from carrying out diligent revision – for which there is really no substitute. Cramming will help you get the best results from a bad situation, but you’ll still do far better if you are able to plan months in advance and cover everything in sufficient depth. When you do get to the exam room, whether you’ve had to cram or not, you can maximise your marks by trying not to make these common exam mistakes.


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Image credits: banner; lawnmower; exam papers; sundial; lavender; Rosenberg; asleep