52 Weeks to College: Week 2

Applying to college requires some big decision making. However, it’s all about working smarter – not harder. Get our tips & tricks...
January 11, 2021

The Keys to Improving Your Grades and Test Scores

Conventional wisdom about how to improve your grades and test scores goes something like this: Buckle down, work harder, and devote more time to studying.

But conventional wisdom is just plain wrong. You don’t have to work harder; you have to work smarter.


1. Get at least 7 hours of sleep every night.

A good night’s sleep every night is the first key to working smarter. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night. One study showed that college students who increased their nightly sleep from 6 hours to 7 hours showed a whopping 10% boost in exam performance. That’s a big improvement for just giving your brain the sleep it needs!  For great tips on sleep improvement, check out this article from Dr. Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center.

2. Take practice tests.

According to this article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, taking practice tests is a far better way to study than highlighting, rereading, or summarizing (the most common ways students study).

What kind of “practice test” should you do? Ideally, you use a practice test that is as similar as possible to the real test. So if you will have a multiple choice test in your Chemistry class, then ideally you would study using a multiple choice test that had previously been given in that Chemistry class. BUT you might not have access to a prior test.

Doesn’t matter.

It turns out you will still benefit from practice testing as long as the practice test addresses the same subject matter. So where do you find practice tests?

  • For standardized tests of any variety, there are practice tests available from many sources. (AP,IB, SAT, ACT, SAT Subjects, TOEFL – use them!

  • For tests in your school courses, you can get the same effect by treating the questions at the end of a textbook chapter as a test, using homemade or purchased flashcards to test yourself, or searching online for tests in the subject matter. You can also see if your teacher will release old tests for you to use as study tools.

3. Set a study schedule that includes shorter sessions over time rather than a giant cram session.

After comparing what scientists call “distributed practice” to “massed practice,” the results were pretty clear that distributed practice wins. Great. But what does that mean?

Distributed practice is a fancy way of saying that you break your studying into shorter sessions over time, rather than cramming everything into bigger, less frequent sessions.

The science says that you should have a gap of time between study sessions equal to 10-20% of the time that you want to retain what you are learning. So if you want to retain something for a month (30 days), then you would space your study sessions out so that you have one session every 3-6 days.

But that formula is a bit tricky for most students to apply, since it is pretty unclear how long you really want or need to retain what you are learning. Based on our experience working with students, here is what we suggest:

  • For standardized tests: Commit to doing at least 2 study sessions a week for the 10 weeks prior to the test.

  • For tests in school courses: Commit to adding at least 1 study session of the practice-test variety into your “homework” each week for every course.

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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