How to Cram for an Exam – If You Must
Let's get this out of the way, we don't condone cram sessions. Especially when it comes to IT certification exams. There's just so much technical and dense material involved. Staying up into the wee hours of the night in a desperate attempt to master concepts like IPv4 subnetting or deploying clouds is usually a recipe for disaster.
As CBT Nuggets trainer Garth Schulte is fond of saying, "You aren't going to learn IT overnight." So, why even try? IT certification can be a long, challenging journey.
However, we all procrastinate. It happens to the best of us. If you do find yourself scrambling at the last minute, here are tips to get the most out of a cram session. Those include selecting the right space and identifying weak spots, among others.
Pick an Environment That's Conducive to Studying
Studying at home can be very distracting. The T.V. remote is right there. And we all know children can be loud. Hopefully, you have dedicated space where you can shut the door, hunker down, and study.
If not, you may want to find a more quiet place like a library or bookstore. Coffee shops can work too, but we recommend one that isn't going to be too bustling.
The bottom line is if you have to cram, make sure you can do so in a quiet and comfortable environment that has minimal distractions. Otherwise, you'll be fighting even more of a losing battle when it comes to being prepared for your exam.
Get Strategic About Cramming
Don't try to do too much all at once, even though you are racing the clock. Consider using a time management strategy. For example, study for 45 minutes, then take a 15-minute break. Repeat. This will ensure that you can stay focused, but not overwhelm yourself.
Pace yourself. There's only so much you and your brain and can learn at a time. Don't let things get overwhelming. The harsh reality is that by putting off your studies, you're already stressed and anxious.
Understand the Big Picture
If you have an extra block of time – even 15 or 30 minutes – before your cram session, review the big-picture concepts in order to save time and benefit more from your exam cram. For example, take a few minutes to review all of the concepts you will be studying before your cram session.
By reviewing general topics, you are leveraging your brain's natural ability to recall items and concepts — and help you learn better. If you do not have much time to spare, focus on big-picture concepts during your study session.
Focus on What You Don't Know
Don't spend too much time reviewing concepts you know well. Because, good job, this means you truly understand the material. When cramming, focus on content that you're struggling to grasp. Hopefully, at this point, there isn't a lot of that left. If you don't know what to focus on, take a quick practice exam.
Practice exams are a great way to gauge your areas of strength and weakness. You should take several practice exams during your IT certification journey so you know what content areas to hone in on. That includes taking a practice exam with a few weeks left to spare. Knowing what you need to brush up on before exam day is huge.
By spending your cram session on material you don't know as well, you are maximizing the limited time you have left to study before the exam.
Study Out of Order
Research shows that our brains learn optimally when the same information is encoded differently — as multiple learning methods reinforce what is learned and serve to strengthen your knowledge.
Instead of going through your study notes from beginning to end many times, try something different. Study everything once in order. Then go back and study the same concepts out of order. This will help your brain learn everything independently, rather than help you memorize a series of information.
Let's be honest, memorization does play a factor in passing IT certification exams. There's a lot of terminology you need to know. For example, cable types and port numbers for CompTIA Network+. However, you also need to have a stronger understanding of concepts and how they apply to real-world situations.
Shaking things up and studying material out of order can help your brain make those deeper connections — setting you up not just for exam success, but on-the-job success as well.
Don't Forget Sleep
You may feel like you don't have enough time to sleep the night before your exam. But you need to get some shuteye. Even two to three hours can help facilitate memory consolidation. That said, six to eight hours would be preferred. Either way, it's crucial to give your brain some much-needed rest.
Getting more sleep seems simple enough. But as anyone who has crammed before can attest, it's easy to lose track of time. Next thing you know, it's 3 a.m. or later! And if you aren't awake and refreshed come exam day, you're in trouble, no matter how prepared you are.
Science says that waiting until the last minute is a bad idea when it comes to preparing for exams – especially technical, complicated ones like most IT certification exams. Avoid cramming whenever possible.
We encourage learners to map out a study plan — like this one — and take a strategic approach to their exam studies. However, if you do find yourself having to pull some last-minute studying, hopefully, we've provided useful ways to get the most out of your limited time.
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