As an expert exam coach, I find that every year many clients ask me “but what should I really be doing the day before my exams?”. So, I’ve pulled together all my best advice on how to handle that scary last day before an exam. This is a short and sweet article, packed with practical tips for every type of exam, to make it nice and easy to absorb in just a few mins amidst a busy exam season!

the five steps you should do the day before an exam

Alternatively, if you’ve got a 15 min break coming up, we’ve also created a short video version, which you can watch right here:

So let’s get started!

Tip 1: Retest yourself

I talk a lot about the power of spaced retrieval practice.

Not sure what that is? Check out episode 66 of the Exam Study Expert podcast if you need a reminder or introduction.

But essentially, retrieval practice means pulling knowledge out of memory. So, testing yourself in some way. That’s a really, really powerful way to consolidate memory and get knowledge to stick. And “spaced” simply means spacing out that practice over time.

For some reason, people sometimes assume that when you get to the day before an exam, you probably want to stop doing retrieval practice and switch to just reading stuff through. Maybe they’re hoping that it’ll just stick in short term memory because it’s such a short time to go. Or maybe it’s something about the pressures you feel under when it gets that close to an exam. That means you sort of fall back on old habits that may be less effective.

But honestly, even right up to the day before an exam itself, I still recommend sticking to what’s most effective. Stick to doing the retrieval practice. It never stops being the best way to get knowledge to stick in memory.

So, what do you actually do?

Option A: for when there’s not too much to remember

If you’ve been using something like flashcards as part of your revision: now is the perfect time for a final round of testing.

This works great if you’re taking a short course, or one with a relatively light knowledge load, i.e. there’s not too much you need to know. For example, maybe just a short set of formulas for maths paper, and a relatively manageable stack of flashcards.

You might be able to even run through and test yourself on all the flashcards for that exam, in an hour or two. That would be a great way to spend those 1-2 hours the day before an exam.

Expert-level tips: I recommend following this up with one final round to make sure you’re really solid on all the details you need to know for that paper. And as always, if you didn’t get any right, you might do a final round with the cards you got wrong, re-testing just that handful to give yourself a little bit of extra practice and confidence where you need it most.

Option B: for when there’s loads of material to remember

For those of you with larger volumes of material, it’s simply not practical to test yourself on all of your flashcards on the day before your exam.

Some of my clients are taking advanced professional exams, for example, medics taking their specialist board exams. And for these students it might take many, many days to test themselves on all of their flashcards just once through.

So, if you having more flashcards than is practical to test in just an hour or two, I would suggest prioritising. You could pick out:

  • A topic or two that’s particularly challenging for you, and just focus on the flashcards on that topic or chapter, following the steps in Option A
  • Or, if you’ve been marking the cards you keep getting wrong as you’ve revised (for example, by folding over the corner of a physical flashcard, or perhaps starring or favouriting a card in a tool like Quizlet), then a great day-before-the-exam task is to just go through all of your challenging cards

So don’t try and do everything.

Option C: what if you haven’t made flashcards?

In this case, I recommend that you try some blank page retrieval instead. Here’s a reminder of how:

  • Take a tricky topic or two and write out everything you can remember about it on paper, from memory
  • Then you check your notes and see if you’ve remembered all the key points
  • Add in any additions or corrections in a second colour, to help them stand out
  • And finally, perhaps repeat the whole exercise again, challenging yourself to remember more of what you missed, for the second time through

How to re-test yourself when you’re feeling anxious

I have one final thought for this first tip about retesting yourself, and making sure you’re as solid as possible, during the last 24 hours before your exam.

This particularly goes out to anyone that’s feeling especially nervous or anxious about their exams.

If your anxiety levels are rising quite high, then my recommendations are slightly modified:

When doing your retrieval practice, you need to still do the self-testing. But perhaps you might deliberately focus on parts of the course that you know reasonably well, i.e. parts of the course that you are quite confident about. For example, the basics or fundamentals that are very likely to come up in your exam.

The goal of giving yourself a little extra practice on the parts of the course you find straightforward is to try and reassure yourself and build your confidence that you do know what you’re doing.

So that’s tip one for handling the day before your exam!

Tip 2: do your warm ups

The second thing I recommend doing during the 24 hours before your exam are some exam style warm up activities.

Get your exam-answering brain turned ON, by reminding yourself of what real exam questions look like.

Option A: short exams

If you have a relatively short exam paper tomorrow, say an hour or less, you might attempt a full practice exam paper.

  • As always, to get the most out of exam practice, try it from memory first and resist the temptation to look little bits up in your notes until the end.
  • If you have access to the marks scheme, finish off the exercise by checking what you put against the model answers.
  • Pay close attention to where you scored marks, and especially what caused you to miss marks!

Option B: longer exams

If your exam paper tomorrow is a little bit longer, for example two to three hours, maybe even more, you might not want to do a whole paper the day before the exam.

It takes a lot out of you to sit a big exam paper, and we want to make sure you’re fresh and you’ve got some energy left in the tank for the real thing itself the following day!

So what you might do the day before a longer exam is take a selection of questions, perhaps a couple from each section of the exam paper. Follow the steps in Option A, and feel confident that you’ll get a nice sense for all the different kinds of questions that you’ll be facing tomorrow.

Option C: exams with essay-style answers

An alternative strategy, particularly relevant if you have longer written answers (like essays) in your exam tomorrow is this:  

You don’t have to write up a full essay in your warm-up practice – we don’t want you to exhaust yourself the day before your exam! Instead, try the “top and tail technique”.

Think about the process of answering an long, essay-style exam question: it’s really in two parts.

  • The first part is planning out your answer in rough, brainstorming all the points you want to include
  • And then the second part is writing up your answer  

I recommend focusing on practising the planning stage: brainstorming your points and not worrying about the writing up.

And that’s because tomorrow, during your exam, the day will be won or lost on the strength of your essay plan. That plan is where you do all the heavy work of remembering what you’re going to include, trying to recall all the important points, deciding how you’ll structure your argument. And once you’ve got a great plan, a great essay will surely follow.

Expert-level tip: As a bonus, writing an essay plan, is in itself a great way to do retrieval practice, particularly in heavily, knowledge-based subjects.

You can still compare your plan to the mark scheme if one is available, to learn lessons about what you could have included, what you might want to do differently, and any analysis points you missed.

So, a great exercise for 1-2 hours on the day before your exam is to practice planning a handful of different essay questions in rough. Spend an equivalent amount of time on each question as you have planned to tomorrow.

And then to finish, write out a couple of introductions and conclusions, with full paragraphs, to get your English-language writing brain switched on.

Option C: a creative writing caveat

The one exception to all this would be if your exam is heavily weighted towards the quality of your writing. For example, a piece of creative writing, with a big score for the quality of your sentences.

That’s when I might change my advice a little, and suggest you focus more on the actual writing than the planning, as part of your warm up on the day before your exam.

Essentially all we’re trying to do with this second tip is make sure we get some practice. Like an athlete before a race, get your brain stretched and back in the zone for the kinds of questions you’re going to be facing tomorrow. We want you feeling fresh and confident!

Tip 3: Remind yourself of the rubric!

My third recommendation for what to do in the 24 hours before your exam is simple: remind yourself of the rubric.

Take a moment to refresh your memory of what the exam looks like. Here’s a handy checklist:

  • How much time do you have overall?
  • How many sections there are, and what you need to do in each one?
  • How much time are you going to allocate to each section, and to any long-answer questions?
  • Is there a choice of questions at any point?
  • How many questions should you answer in each section?

It’s simple stuff, it’s the basics. But if you slip up, it can cost you time and points, big time! For example, a section that has a choice of ten questions and you’re only supposed to write answers on one of them and you end up doing this on all ten, that’s going to cost you big in the exam.

So do double check, just to make sure nothing’s changed the year you’re taking the exam. Doing this final check the day before your exam can be an important part of boosting your confidence!

And while you’re at it, why not triple check when and where the exam is? Make sure you know how you’re going to get there with plenty of time to spare, so there’s no additional stress about getting to the exam on time.

Tip 4: Check your kit

Put simply, this is an essential part of the day before your exam. Don’t leave it until the morning of – you don’t need the added last-second panic!

So, be prepared. Make sure you’ve got everything you need ready to go for the exam:

  • Stationery: pencil case, calculator if you need one, with spare batteries just in case
  • An id card or your school university card if you need one
  • Any other special kit you need for that exam, like a geometry set, a ruler, art materials
  • A water bottle (that’s an important one!)
  • Comfy clothes to wear

Lay it all out, ready to go so you don’t have any surprises in the morning.

Tip 5: Stop early

My final recommendation for what you should be doing on the day before your exam – the really important one that’s going to ensure you’re fresh and have plenty of energy tomorrow is this:

Stop early. Really early. Don’t work late into the evening, it’s never worth it.

The night before an exam, plan to have a nice early bedtime. At an absolute minimum, I highly suggest putting your books away, and forgetting about it all at least 2 hours before bedtime.

Make sure you spend these last few hours before your exam day enjoying a relaxing wind-down routine:

  • You could watch a bit of something calming on TV
  • Maybe have a stroll outside and get some summer evening air
  • Take a warm bath if that helps you unwind
  • Brew a soothing warm drink, but nothing caffeinated! A herbal tea or something
  • And curl up with a calming or escapist fiction book

The night before your exam: getting some sleep

Much as it might seem counter-productive, all of this will lead up to the final event: getting a healthy night’s sleep to help your brain rest.

Not everyone’s going to sleep brilliantly in exam season, with all those nerves rattling around. That’s OK.

But by knocking off work in plenty of time, you give yourself the best chance of getting a better rest and a decent night’s sleep than you would if you’re frantically cramming through to 10:00 p.m.

Go on, snuggle up. You deserve it!

The 5 steps to a successful 24 hours before your exam

So, those are my five top recommendations for how to manage the day before your exam – as an experienced expert exam coach, who’s taken plenty of exams and helped thousands of students face their own exams with confidence!

Let’s recap the basics:

  1. Retest yourself, particularly on the key bits of information that you’re a bit rocky on the day before the exam to give yourself the best chance of knowing it in the exam.
  2. Do your warm ups. So, attempt some exam style questions or just practice topping and tailing essay plans. You want to be back in the zone of what kinds of questions are going to come up.
  3. Remind yourself of what the exam looks like, what the rubric is and what the format is.
  4. Check your kit, make sure everything’s ready to go for tomorrow
  5. Put it all away, nice and early in the evening. Don’t work late, so you get a decent rest ahead of the exam.

And tomorrow, exam day will dawn and you will be formidable. You’ve got this.

Expert-level tip: A little final note from me. If you’ve got exams coming up, I would highly suggest checking out my online course, Exam Success Secrets. You’ll have access to a series of on-demand bite-sized videos jam packed with little known secrets to maximise your mark when it matters most. Plus, you’ll be given tickets to a live exam planning workshop where we’ll sort out your game plan for the exam hall itself, and all my top tricks for planning for exam success.

Need a little more exam-day motivation? I heartily recommend episode 109 of the Exam Study Expert podcast: my best tips on to tackle tough exam questions.

As always in your studies and in your upcoming exams, wishing you every success.

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