Exam week is approaching, and as teachers are preparing, students are beginning to stress. But fear not! This article will cover strategies and tips for each subject’s exams.

One of the biggest questions students have around exam season is when they should start studying. Upper school math teacher Jason Smith recommends “organizing the material you’ve already had during the semester” after coming back from Thanksgiving break. “That might vary from class to class, but for mine, it means making sure you have all your old tests, [and looking at] the practice exam packet.” As far as taking the exam goes, Mr. Smith recommends avoiding becoming “too wrapped up in one problem.” He encourages students to “jump around,” and “do all the things that seem really obvious first and then go back and look at some tougher questions.” 

The night before a math exam, Mr. Smith says his students should “go through individual chapters” and leave the practice exam for last “because that will give you … a good idea of timing.” Mr. Smith also gives his students the age-old advice of reading directions. “It’s annoying to lose points because you didn’t read [the directions fully].”

Upper school students prepare for exams in the upper library. Photo: Julia Goode

Upper school English teacher Emily Washburn has an important distinction regarding when to start studying for an English exam. “If the exam is skill based, then I don’t think you need to start studying very early, because you’ve been building those skills since fifth grade.” However, “if the exam is content based, I would start as soon as you know exactly what’s on the exam.” As far as doing well on an English exam goes, Ms. Washburn advises her students to outline, and to integrate quotes if possible. “Do not write the essay you want to write, write the essay your teacher wants you to write.” 

Ms. Washburn’s next instruction is applicable to every subject: “wear your own non-Apple watch [and do] not trust the clock at the front of the gym.” Time management is key, especially on English and history exams where writing plays a prominent role. 

In addition to all of this, Ms. Washburn says that “people who read for pleasure tend to do better on English exams.” So, if you want to try a new hobby over winter break, consider picking up a new book. 

“Students who have been successful on exams, in my experience, are highly organized and have a system that allows them to see what they do and do not know,” said Dean of the Class of 2026 and biology teacher Ben Ewing. Mr. Ewing also discourages students from “relying really heavily on whiteboards. What I love about whiteboards is they allow you to get all the information up on a board.” 

However, he dislikes “that all the information gets erased. So when students don’t do well on an exam and we’re trying to figure out how they can improve, that information is really valuable.” 

Thankfully, this problem has an easy fix: make sure to take pictures of any whiteboard spreads you might make, and revisit them every once and a while. Mr. Ewing believes that the most effective study strategies are ones that “focus on the recall of facts from memory.” He explains that “students on tests are required to recall facts and if you can’t recall them while you’re studying, you won’t be able to recall them on a test.”

Dean of the class of 2024 and history teacher Caitlin Terry encourages students to check in with their teachers in the weeks leading up to exams. “Just checking in on a weekly basis prevents … the messy build-up of pressure before an exam.” In addition, she says that “from a teaching perspective, exams are an opportunity to sum up or make big connections across the semester.”

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