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The Best Way to Cram for an Exam in 24 Hours

  • Sean 

This article explains how to cram for an exam in 24 hours by focusing on high-yield information and using high-level techniques to maximize your study time.

Cramming for an exam can be overwhelming. But there is a way to do it effectively.

Cramming for an exam is all about focusing on the most important and relevant concepts in your subject area. By prioritizing this high-yield Information, you can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time and also better understand the overall structure and logic of the material.

Let’s get into the cramming techniques.

The Best Way to Cram for an Exam in 24 Hours

1. Don’t Focus on the Details

A mind map with central ideas and sub ideas branching off
Study high-yield information

Not all information is equally important to learn for your exam. This is arguably the most important component to effectively studying for an exam, especially in a short period of time.

So, don’t focus on the details. It’s so common for students to just open the textbook or lecture slides and go through them one at a time in order while trying to learn all the detail as they go. This is a terrible strategy. This is like overeating in studying form.

If you take in this much information at once you are not going to remember a lot of it come exam time. Rather, you should aim to come back and learn these details later only if you have time.

So, this leaves the question, what type of information should you study for your exam?

Study high-yield Information

High-yield Information is important information. It is highly connected to other concepts and without it, other concepts just wouldn’t make sense. This information is the “backbone” of what you are studying.

So why should we focus on this information?

Firstly, it’s very likely that you are going to be tested on this information. But perhaps more importantly, we can cover a lot of ground in a very short amount of time by focusing on this information as well. It is for these reasons that high-yield information should be your top priority.

This will vary, but in a given textbook chapter or lecture it’s very common to only have around 3 central concepts or “chunks” that hold the reading together. If you focus on these incredibly important ideas and forgo some of the detail you will cover so much more material in less time.

By learning these central ideas you also naturally have to learn some of the subconcepts along the way. Learning these relatively less important ideas makes learning them so much easier because you have the context and surrounding information of how each concept fits into a larger picture.

So we need to be studying high-yield information, but how do we know what information is high-yield?

How to find high-yield information

There are many ways to find high-yield information but this is a big topic, so ill just cover some of the basics here. Here is a list of the ways you can narrow down exactly what is important to study for your upcoming exam.

The main technique here is going to be “scoping your subject”. You need to find the lay of the land. What are the main objectives that your professor is trying to teach you? What ideas/concepts are most important to those objectives?

  • Check the course syllabus
  • Read chapter summaries/learning objectives
  • Ask students who have completed the course
  • Ask your professor (hopefully they don’t just tell you the test is on “everything”)
  • Find past exams (if you can)

Once you have these central concepts write them down somewhere. The best way to do this is by using a mindmap and plotting out the main concepts but you can also use regular note-taking and make a list if mind mapping is something you are not familiar with.

You may feel like just studying now is better than spending time doing these things but this is wrong. By finding high-yield information now you are going to save yourself so much more time than by just going through all of the material at once.

But beyond just learning the material faster, you will be learning it in a better order as well. You are starting with the backbone of information first, meaning that, if you have time to get to some of the details, they will be easier to learn.

Find your high-yield weaknesses

Your revision needs to be highly targeted toward what you don’t understand, especially when preparing for an exam. Why study something we have already mastered?

As described before, in general, Information is not created equally. But it’s important to realize that you can refine this further to what information is important to you.

Once you have found the important concepts you need to go through them and evaluate what you don’t understand. Then you should focus on the key concepts that you are most confused about.

You can do this by going through the course materials and trying to explain the different ideas to yourself without the help of your notes or other course materials. This way you won’t trick yourself into thinking you know everything and you will find the key content to brush up on.

2. Choose your techniques

4 different high-level studying techniques for exam studying

Now that you have found the most important information and personalized it to be most effective for you there is another half of the puzzle remaining. We need to actually learn this high-yield information.

Not all studying techniques are created equally (noticing a trend here?).

Techniques to avoid

First, just avoid the techniques listed here because they pale in comparison to other options. These techniques are common, but that doesn’t mean that they are effective.

  • Rereading notes/lecture slides/textbook chapters
  • Summarizing information
  • Mindlessly taking notes
  • Highlighting text

It may seem like you don’t have many options left after you read this list but there are so many more ways to study information than what is listed here.

You can see why these techniques are relatively worse if we look at a framework on knowledge mastery like Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Most of these techniques are going to fall on the lowest tier of this taxonomy (recall facts and basic concepts).

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 3 best techniques to prepare for your exam

Instead of the abovementioned techniques, you should use higher-level learning techniques to get much more bang for your buck. These are techniques above the first two tiers on the pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Here are some of the best techniques for covering a lot of information very quickly while also actually retaining it.

Create Mind Maps

Mind maps are a great way to comprehend large amounts of information because by creating one you need to inherently prioritize and focus on high-yield concepts to make a high-quality one.

Here is an example of a mind map I created a semester ago. This is far more memorable than simple list-style note-taking. I still remember a good amount of what is on here even months later.

Something particularly important for mind mapping is using memorable imagery. You can see this mindmap uses a lot of it. There is a lot of research indicating that using imagery is extremely beneficial for memory compared to traditional note-taking techniques.1

Use practice problems

Practice problems are great because they often target highly relevant parts of the material you need to learn. These can be found in textbook chapters, or online, or you can make your own.

While these are great, you can also use these practice questions in high-level ways.

For instance, you can look at a problem and replace parts of it to get a new question. For example, “how does x relate to mitosis”. You can replace the first part of the question to get more questions this way.

Or even better, you can replace a part of the question so that another one of the multiple-choice answers is correct.

Teach an imaginary student (or a real person if you can)

Teaching someone about the high-yield concepts and how they relate to one another and allowing them to ask you questions about that material is an extremely effective and high-level way to retain information.

One of the best ways to do this is by teaching a friend or finding a study group so you can all get together and use this technique. I have an entire article that explains step-by-step how you can create an effective study group and use this teaching technique if you are interested.

Bonus: create flashcards if you have time

First of all, flashcards are a lower-level learning technique. But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use them.

If you have covered the material using the other techniques already you can use flashcards as a memory aid for memorizing the details. But you should never start your revision using flashcards because this technique doesn’t help us see the big picture or the central relationships.

Flashcards are a great way to go through the details after you have this big picture of the topics you need to know.

3. Set yourself up for success

So far we have covered how you can best cover the material. But there is a lot more to studying well for an exam in a short period of time than this. These last things can still make or break whether your studying helps you or not. Take these things seriously.

Get enough sleep

Lastly, sleep is often overlooked when it comes to studying for your exams. The night of your exam try to get a minimum of 6 hours of sleep but more than this is preferable.2

Importantly, you should be sleeping well in the weeks before your exam. Don’t stay up all night multiple times and then think this minimum number on the night of your exam is enough.

I have an entire article where I go in-depth on the minimum sleep you need for your upcoming exam if you want to learn how to really nail this part of your exam preparation.

Take breaks as you study

Lastly, you should take breaks as you study. Don’t pull long 2-4 hour studying sessions. You cannot focus at a high level for 4 hours. Nobody can do this effectively. All you are going to do is work at a lower quality and burn yourself out.

Rather, take breaks before you start to feel fatigued so you can avoid the feeling of burnout and maintain your focus at a high level for much longer.


  1. Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 69(9), 1752–1776.
  2. Fakhari, A., Kheradmand, N., & Dolatkhah, N. (2016). Sleep Duration the Night before an Exam and Its Relationship to Students’ Exam Scores. British Journal of Medicine and Medical Research, 15, 1–6.