The Keys to Improving Your Grades and Test Scores

Conventional wisdom about improving on tests is wrong. Here's how to work smarter.
January 20, 2020

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 getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night. A recent study showed that college students who increased their sleep from 6 hours a night to 7 hours a night showed a whooping 10% improvement in their performance on exams. That’s a big improvement for just giving your brain the sleep it needs! For some great tips about how to improve your sleep, check out this article from Dr. Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center.

2. Take practice tests.

According to a lengthy 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 previously given in that Chemistry class. BUT you might not have access to a prior test. Doesn’t matter. Turns out you will still get 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 an abundance of sources. AP, IB, SAT, ACT,  SAT Subjects, TOEFL. Do 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 that 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 data was 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. 

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 had 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 my experience working with students, here is what I would suggest:

  • For the standardized tests: commit to doing at least two study sessions a week for the 10 weeks prior to the test.
  • For tests in school courses: commit to adding at least one study session of the practice test variety into your “homework” each week for every course.

4. Ask for help.

If you’re still getting stuck, tell your teachers. They are always happy to hear from students looking to improve, and they have a wealth of experience and suggestions to share.

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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