I’m a high school senior and generally a good student, so I thought I’d compile a list of tips and advice that I’ve learned through other students and experience. Most of my advice emphasizes efficiency, strategizing, and finding study and organizational methods that work best for you.
I’ve organized this thematically into six sections: Studying, Homework, Organization, Picking Classes, AP Exams, and Standardized Tests.
- Study the way you learn. For instance, when I took Calculus, I did practice problems and watched the Khan Academy videos about confusing concepts. I practiced problems because I learn and remember best by practicing whatever I’m going to be tested on, and I watched videos because I need visual and auditory explanations in order to understand the material.
- Modify how you study based on the class and its format. For math and math-heavy science classes, practice problems and websites like Khan Academy are fantastic. For more memorization-heavy classes, like biology, flash cards for the important terms are amazing (it’s also good to utilize review quizzes you can find online with the textbook), and for history, make a timeline and list causes and effects. Focus on both big picture events and smaller details.
- READ YOUR TEXTBOOKS. They’re usually pretty helpful, so it’s always a good place to start and helpful with examples. You should also buy study guides that accompany your course if you find the textbook dry, difficult to understand, or just can’t bring yourself to read it.
- You probably don’t have to read everything–read intros, conclusions, and first and last sentences of paragraphs to skim it. Also, if your teacher doesn’t talk about a specific section of the textbook in class, you should definitely ask them: “Will we be tested over this?”
- Textbooks always have online resources like practice tests, flashcards, chapter outlines, etc so look them up!
- Ask questions: “What will be on the test?” “What’s the format?” “How often will we be tested?” “What’s the best way to prepare?” “I’m confused about this, will you help me?”
- Download Anki, which is a software that lets you create your own flash cards. Anki uses spaced repetition to help you memorize the material and it’s awesome because you retain the information longer than if you just used flashcards. And it’s free!
- Choose sleep over studying. You can stay up till 3 studying but if you don’t get enough sleep, then you’ll forget or misremember it, so you’ve essentially negated all the time you spent studying. When crunched for time, find review videos (list indexed below), skim the chapters and read their outlines or summaries, use online notes (list indexed below), buy review books at the beginning of the year…prepare yourself for your eventual procrastination, essentially.
- Do practice FRQs and DBQs for AP exams. That’s the best way to study for the free response sections, and it can help solidify your conceptual or big picture understanding of the material for the multiple choice section. Also remember to thank the College Board the exams are curved.
- Do the most important thing first. Whether that’s some busy work due tomorrow or studying for a major exam, do it first, even if you hate it. Then do the second most important, third most…you get the idea.
- Put everything you’ll possibly need on your desk. That way, you won’t have to search for it while doing homework.
- Follow the 25-5 rule: work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, repeat.
- If you’re like me and procrastinate by going online, download this Chrome extension called StayFocusd which will temporarily block websites for however long you want so you can’t access them. And once it goes into effect, you literally cannot change what websites are blocked and for how long until time runs out, so exercise caution when picking which websites to block.
- Find an organizational method that works best for you. I like big picture organization so I need a wall calendar to mark test dates, presentations, debate tournaments, deadlines, etc. I also like having day-to-day calendars for homework assignments and the like, so I bought a planner that has both.
- You almost always need less stuff than you think you do. I cleared off my desk during the first week of school and not only does it look so much nicer, I still don’t use everything on my desk. All I have is a lamp, a school supply organizer, a little wooden block that says “I see no good reason to act my age”, some papers from AP Lang and a book. Seriously, just throw stuff away.
- Pick one spot for each item and its variants/similar items and stick to it. The key is to make sure that a) it’s a spot you’ll check at least somewhat frequently and b) it’s easy to remember. I have several reams of paper in my top desk drawer, random cords in the middle, crafty stuff in the bottom and I remember all this because I look through my desk drawers at least once every few days.
- Keep these in mind: 1) graduation requirements, 2) people who have taken/are taking the classes you want to take or are considering and the teachers who teach them. Ask them questions about the class, 3) if you’re in high school, consider what colleges will want to see and what your interests are, 4) challenge yourself! Taking APs and IB classes will definitely pay off, and 5) pick classes as early as possible!
- That being said, colleges want to see you challenge yourself responsibly, not recklessly: taking 6 APs as a sophomore is not a good idea. When in doubt, take the most number of challenging classes in subject areas you’re good at/interested in and in subject areas you’re not good at/dislike, take easier classes that aren’t as rigorous or time consuming.
AP EXAMS: I never did IB so I unfortunately can’t provide any advice for those exams. I imagine most of these could apply to IB exams though.
- Study. Seriously. (See number 7 in the studying section.)
- Look up score distributions for various exams and buy review books. Score distributions can help you figure out how likely it is you’ll get the score you want, as they’re pretty consistent from year to year. Review books are for studying (duh).
- On exam day:
- Bring a water bottle and some snacks–preferably something like fruit, because it takes longer to digest so you’ll feel fuller longer.
- Bring a small clock or watch, because there’s no guarantee there’ll be a working clock you can see from your chair. Remember–the clock must be allowed by the College Board.
- Bring a pencil sharpener.
- Get to the exam center at least 15 minutes early so that you can study, chat with friends, wake up, go to the bathroom, and also so that you have a cushion in case something happens that delays you.
- Bring your wallet so you can go out for food afterwards. You will be very hungry.
- Take a picture of your AP exam ID number or email it to yourself (do whatever you have to do to remember it)–because there’s a decent chance you’ll need it to access your scores.
- I would avoid looking at FRQs once they’re released after the exam because a) I think reliving the exam is a waste of time, especially if you don’t think you did well and b) you probably have more than one exam, so unless it’s your last one, focus on the next one, not the one you just took.
- FOR CALCULUS: A TI-89 will solve derivatives for functions, functions at x, and indefinite integrals! Super useful for the calculator section of the exam, so I’d highly recommend buying one!
- FOR ANY EXAM THAT HAS ESSAYS: bring multiple pens and honestly, I’d always buy new ones to set my mind at ease.
ACT/SAT/STANDARDIZED TESTS IN GENERAL: I took the ACT twice and the SAT once, and I actually prepared for the ACT and not the SAT, so my test-taking strategies will be more garnered towards the ACT.
- Buy review books and read the sections on test-taking strategies and do practice tests.
- Practice essays are crucial if you’re taking the writing section. Their essay requirements are very specific, so if you write practice essays while keeping them in mind, you’ll be more prepared and familiar with the requirements come test day.
- Since the ACT Composite score is an average of each section’s score, if you’re short on time, study the section that you got the best score on and the one you got the worst score on. If you can increase your highest score, it can pull up the average fairly significantly. If you can increase your lowest score, it’ll prevent the average from dropping significantly. I only studied the section I did the worst on–math–and I got a 35.
- Neither exam penalizes you for guessing, so it’s in your best interest to pick a Letter of the Day and bubble it in for every question you don’t know, unless you can make an educated guess.
- Time is of the essence here, so always, always, do the easiest questions you know you can get right first and the harder ones that require more time later. Each multiple choice question is weighted the same, so if you’re choosing between spending one minute getting three right answers or one minute getting one right answer, go for three.
- To prevent myself from spending too much time on any one question, I’d always mark the halfway point of each test section and write the time when half the testing period for that section was over. So if there were 40 questions in the math section, 50 minutes to complete it and it started at 9 AM, then I’d write next to question 20 “9:25” as a reminder. Then during the test, I’d periodically glance at the clock to make sure I was on track.
An index of websites I use for studying organized by subject:
- Khan Academy (covers basic math through calc BC)
- Hippocampus.org (covers arithmetic through calc III)
- Mathisfun.com (covers basic math through algebra and geometry)
- Paul’s Online Math Notes–the url should start with tutorial.math.lamar.edu (covers algebra through calc III)
- Purplemath.com (covers pre-algebra through algebra II and trigonometry)
- Various YouTube channels.
- Online resources that came with my textbook.
- Crash Course on YouTube
- course-notes.org, although I never used it. This website has notes for specific textbooks.
- Online resources that came with my textbook.
- Khan Academy
- Bozeman Science
- Online resources that came with my textbook.
- Thug Notes on YouTube (like Sparknotes but funnier).
- Crash Course
- For ACT math review: sparknotes.com
- For SAT review (works for ACT math too): khanacademy.org
I hope this helps you with your school work, homework, and exams, good luck!