9 Weird Test Prep Techniques That Actually Work

These nine study techniques seem relatively outlandish, but they're for real!

Actors are superstitious. Maybe you’ve heard of the curse of the Scottish Play. I also have an actor friend who won’t even perform without Swedish Fish. (His reasoning came from a time that he gave a great performance after chewing on the gummy creatures, though he concedes that it might be the sugar rush that helps.)

Test takers have their totems too: lucky pencils, favorite T-shirts, and mantras like “I won’t mess up, I won’t mess up, I won’t mess up.” They swear by these systems because one time they got an A+ after using that pencil/T-shirt/mantra. It might seem silly, but is there anything to this madness?

Here are nine study techniques that seem relatively outlandish, but actually have basis in fact.

  1. Have a stick of Juicy Fruit. Or any chewing gum, actually, just before the test. The chewing increases blood flow to the brain, a study suggests. So chew, chew, chew your way to a better grade.
  2. Stop and smell the roses. Ever smell something that brought memories flooding back—your grandma’s kitchen, the high school auditorium, your time as a dog groomer? It’s well documented that smells can impact memory. So you might want to have the same scent both in your study area and on your person when testing. Just make sure you don’t lay it on so thick that you distract your neighbors.
  3. Study before bedtime. Common wisdom might be to study your hardest subjects early in the day, when you are most alert. However, it turns out that the opposite is true. You should actually study your toughest subjects last, right before you fall asleep. This is because sleeping helps you retain memories.  
  4. Hit the hay. In addition to studying before bed, you have to follow through by actually getting sleep, and lots of it, because memory retention is an action of REM sleep. The more sleep you get, the better—and pull an all-nighter at your peril. A lack of REM sleep wreaks havoc with your memory. So, when someone calls you lazy for going to bed instead of studying, just tell them you are working hard, retaining memories.
  5. Eat the right foods. Nutrition holds a key to successful studying too. Studies suggest you should avoid fatty foods and carbs that slow your metabolism in favor of fruits, vegetables, and protein. And make sure you have a hearty breakfast. You’ve heard of brain food? Go for blueberries in your yogurt; this superfood helped rats remember how to get through mazes and may help you retain the periodic table.
  6. Don’t study too much. Instead, get moving. Don’t have time to exercise because you are always studying? Perhaps you’d be better off taking to the treadmill instead of hitting the books so hard. It turns out that regular exercise slows the decay of the hippocampus (the brain’s . . . um . . . thingy . . . what’s the word? memory center).
  7. Sing out strong. Ever use a song to help you remember something, say all the 50 nifty states in the union? Music engages your brain and helps define specific pieces of information in more than one way. The more depth you have on a subject, the easier it is to recall. Not only that, those piano lessons in third grade might have helped you out more than just for playing “Chopsticks” at parties. Learning music at an early age helps with memory later, likely because of the challenging cognitive exercise that it requires.
  8. Sprechen sie Français? Polyglots rejoice! People who learn more than one language do better on tests. This is because they frame information more completely and have access to different points of view when assessing the same topic. So study a language and do better on tests.
  9. Find a happy place. If you have test anxiety, make sure you reduce the number of new or stressful factors in test taking. If you are taking a test somewhere you haven’t been before, try to visit the room prior to the exam. Familiarity helps reduce stress. Similarly, arriving early will help you remain calm and collected. But the most important stress-busting tactic might be a reframing of your testing mindset. Instead of thinking of the test as a terrible slog to be endured, look at it as something you enjoy that might also be challenging (but fun), like playing soccer or working through a video game. Just by changing their attitude, test takers improved their scores dramatically.

Looking for more test prep-help? Look no further!

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About Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson's and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admission. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admission capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and the TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.


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