How to study strategically last minute (effective cramming)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a situation where you left studying until right before a test or exam.

Although advised to avoid this strategy at all costs, many students find themselves in a similar situation at least once throughout their studies.

Even though studying last minute should always be used as a last resort, there are some strategies that can help you study for a test or exam and make the last-minute exam preparation a bit less stressful. 

The basics  

Even when studying last minute, keep these in mind to help you start and organize an effective study session:

  • Choose your study space wisely and limit your distractions such as noise and electronics, as much as possible. Some students find ear plugs help.
  • Before you start studying, think of the supplies you might need. For example, flag posts, sticky notes, notebook or sheets of paper. If colour coding helps you learn, have a set of highlighters nearby.
  • Take one five-minute break each hour to give your brain a chance to relax and process information.
  • Get at least six hours of sleep and don’t skip any meals. This will help you concentrate and perform on test day. Don’t forget to set your alarm!

Tips and tricks  

Now that you are all set, you will need to be strategic about the parts of the material you’ll focus on. The most common mistake students make is trying to make up for the entire term and learn everything in one day.

Here are some strategies you might find helpful: 

Identify key topics

Gather information about what's likely to be on the exam. Find out which course material the test will cover. Ask classmates for their notes and find out which topics were emphasized in any classes you missed.   

Identifying key topics may look different depending on the course:  

Humanities and Social Sciences:  

  • Identify major themes, sub-topics, examples and major illustrations 
  • Write down key ideas on a sheet of paper  
  • Try memorizing the main ideas 
  • Use every trick you can: word association, rhymes, creating lists and mnemonics 


  • Spend most of your time actively practicing problems 
  • Focus on large concepts from the course
  • Write down key formulas on a sheet of paper
  • Don’t get sidetracked by highly specific concepts or questions — come back to these if you have time after you have learned the key points 

Refer to your notes, assignments and course summaries 

Work through your notes, assignments and tests — but just skim the text. This is the best way to set priorities for the time you have to study. If you have course notes, review the structure of the course to help you remember, comprehend and retain the material. You can also read chapter summaries to recall the major themes in the content.

Be selective of supporting material

After memorizing major themes, decide what supporting material to concentrate on. 

  • Don’t attempt to learn everything. Focus on things that feel manageable and will bring you the most points
  • Skim the text if there is one or read only the course materials that were emphasized. If there are many sources of information, try to skim them for high-level ideas or summaries 
  • Take time to review what you've covered 

Note to self 

Remember that cramming is not an effective way of preparing for exams, but more of an emergency technique. Even though it might help you study when you’re pressed for time, it should never be used as a default exam preparation strategy. Studying only right before your tests and exams can: 

  • Make you fall into the habit of not doing the work or managing your time throughout the term
  • Cause you to forget information faster, which can make it harder to recall for future tests 
  • Increase your stress as you try to remember as much information as possible in a very short period 

Finally, be kind to yourself and remember that there are strategies to help you manage your time better next term! To start, check out some of our time management tips, such as 7 reasons why you should manage your time.