If you're reading this, chances are you have a math test very soon and are suffering from test anxiety. This test possibly occurs tomorrow… or maybe even today. You don't want some long study guide that preaches the importance of prep and taking notes and memorization. You probably don't even want a study plan because your test occurs too soon. What you want is a quick way to boost your mark as high as possible. You want to know how to study for a math test as quickly and effectively as possible.
If that sounds like you, you've come to the right place. With a 94% cumulative high school average and a 1560/1600 SAT score, I give most people the impression that I'm a try-hard nerd who studies all day long. The nerd part might be true, but my secret is that I'm just really good at test taking. I rarely study until 2, maybe 3, days before a test. In this post, I'll reveal my techniques that will help you prepare for your test.
We'll go over some simple steps that you can deploy which will significantly boost your mark on the next math test you take. With a little tweaking these can honestly be applied to any subject. But math is typically the one most students struggle with. After applying the methods from this post, you'll never study the same ever again…
How to Study for a Math Test: 6 Simple Steps
Ready to learn these last-minute study methods that will help you on your test? Let's dive in.
#1: Identify the Test Format
The first step is also the most important step. Before you stick your nose into your textbook or do any sort of memorization, you'll want to figure out what the test format is going to be. This means finding out what kind of questions and which topics will be on the test.
There are 3 levels to identifying the test format, with each one better and more comprehensive than the last:
- Topic identification
- Teacher's guide and sample questions
- Sample test
How to Identify the Test Format
The first level is topic identification and it's the lowest one out of the 3. It's one that any semi-paying attention kid in the class will know. Topic identification is when you figure out what topic your test will be on. Almost anyone paying attention will know what the topic is. There is little value from knowing just the topic because they can be so broad. Have a test on algebra? That can be anything from BEDMAS (PEMDAS) to the quadratic formula… knowing just the topic is pretty useless (but better than not knowing).
The next level is a teacher's guide / sample questions. Most teachers will let you know beforehand what the test format will be. For example: “alright class, for the trigonometry test tomorrow 50% of it will be solving questions with sin, cos, and tan. 25% will be word problems and the last 25% will be circle-related.” They might even give you some sample problems to work with. If they don't let you know what the test format will be, it never hurts to ask. 9 times out of 10, they will gladly tell you. This is what most high-scoring students do. But there IS yet another level.
The absolute best way to identify a test format is to find a sample test. Now, some teachers will gladly hand out sample tests as a part of test-prep, but others will not. If they don't, try to ask former students for a previous version of the test. This shouldn't need to be said, but make sure that the former test is for the corresponding subject and not one that's unrelated. If you can get your hands on one of those, you're golden and primed to move onto step #2.
#2: Identify the Juiciest Section
Not all sections on a test are created equal. Most tests will have some sections worth a LOT more than other sections. Your job now is to identify the juiciest section worth the absolute most marks.
If the most you got to in step #1 was topic identification… then there isn't much you can do (see how important step #1 is). BUT if you got your hands on a teachers guide / breakdown of the test, then you can start to figure out the juicy parts of the test. In the trigonometry example above, you would identify that “solving questions with sin, cos, and tan” accounts for 50% of the entire test. That is your juicy section.
If you happened to score big and got your hands on a previous test, you can look through it manually and see which sections have the most marks. If the test doesn't explicitly split into sections, look for problems that are super similar. Usually there are 3 big buckets of math questions:
- Simple “use this to solve for that” questions
- Word problems where I scenario is described
- Random graph and other visual problems (usually multiple choice questions)
This isn't true for all math tests, but on MOST, the juiciest section is the word problems. 1 word problem is worth like 10 marks, whereas a “use this to solve for that” question is worth 2 marks. Regardless, look through and identify what the juiciest section is for your specific test. Once you've got that, head down to step #3.
#3: Do Problems From the Juicy Section
This is pretty straightforward but… do problems that relate to the “juicy” section. Usually a section of the math test will have similar problem formats. If you have your hands on an old test, do the problems from that test. Then make up new problems for yourself by changing up the numbers.
If you only have a teacher's guide, try to find questions in the textbook which correspond to the section you want to study. If the teacher gave you some sample questions, do those! Then make up new questions for yourself (by changing up the numbers).
The important thing here is that you actually use your mental capacity to DO THE PROBLEMS. I'll say it again: don't just look over the problems, actually grab a sheet a paper and solve them!!!
It always confused me when I would see someone try to study for a math test by reading over the textbook… if a math test was all about memorizing and regurgitating facts then yes, reading over the textbook some more might help. But 99% of math tests aren't! The only way to be more prepared for certain questions… is to do similar questions!
How do you know when to stop practicing these questions?
- You're either super proficient and totally understand and can apply the concepts
- Or you can solve them quick enough to fit in your time budget (you should be able to easily find out how much allotted time you have for your test)
Once you're adequately proficient with solving questions from the juiciest section of the test, you can move onto step #4.
#4: Repeat With the Next Juiciest Section
Once you're comfortable solving questions from the juiciest section, move on to the next juiciest section and do the same thing. Complete questions that are similar to the test questions or do them from textbooks.
A quick note: a “section” can also just be a sub-topic or a particular style of question that shows up repeatedly. It doesn't necessarily have to be clustered together on the test. Basically, if you can study one kind of question (or a specific topic) and have it prepare you for a whole bunch of questions on the test, those questions fall under the same “section”.
As noted above, most juicy sections on math tests tend to be the word problems. Aside from those, there are the arithmetic ones and random graph ones mentioned above as well. Some other ones that you may run into are:
- Weird math history questions (nothing to do here but cramming historical facts into your head)
- Read-through or critical reading questions (asks you to read through a passage and point out problems to the math or extract data from the passage)
- Theory questions or theorem questions (asks about why a certain theorem works or how it came to be. You'll beat this one with a thorough understanding of the actual theorem)
#5: Continue Until You Cover All Sections
Continue working on different types of questions from different sections until you've completed them for the least juicy section. AKA, you have covered all the sections.
If you happen to be running low on time, then just try to knock out as many sections as you can. A quick cautionary reminder: try to get at least 5-6 hours of sleep in if you're studying the night before. The effectiveness of your studying quickly goes downhill the later you stay up. Plus, your effectiveness applying the things you've learned goes down too. 5-6 hours of sleep has been my absolute minimum rest time and it's what I recommend. Although different people need varying amounts of sleep.
If you happen to complete ALL sections, then you can ease off the gas a little. You can now:
- Familiarize yourself with some random facts that might show up on the test (but have a low likelihood to)
- Mentally give yourself a confidence boost to up your readiness
- Do some leftover homework that you haven't completed (let's face it, if you're here cramming for a test last minute, chances are you haven't completed much of your homework)
- Do some online practice with similar problems
- Complete assignments for other subjects
- Go to sleep and rest well knowing you applied Financial Pupil's test taking tips and will ace your test tomorrow
There it is… how to study for a math test as efficiently as possible using the most effective test taking strategies out there! You don't need incredible note taking skills or to know your own learning-style or some secret “study hacks”. You just need to put in the work.
The study tips I've provided in this post aren't necessarily complicated, but they do take discipline to execute. Some things that might help you study are study groups, flashcards, and study guides. Perform these test preparation strategies enough times and hopefully they will build into your study habits.
To recap the most effective way to study math before taking a test:
- Get your hands on the test format (ideally an actual test from a previous year or practice test)
- Identify the juiciest section on the test worth the most marks
- Solve problems from the juicy section until you're proficient (watch some tutorials and explanations if you're stuck)
- Repeat with the next juiciest section
- Keep going until you run out of time or feel prepared enough
Repeat this enough times and you'll seriously improve your test taking skills. But for now, go and study for this test! Put these techniques to use and good luck!
Thanks for reading through this post revealing how to study for a math test effectively and thank you for following along! If you’re a Canadian Student, check out the Ultimate Canadian Student’s Guide to Personal Finance! If you want to be financially free sooner, check out this page here! To learn more about me, head over to this link here. If you want to get exclusive updates and tips, drop your email in the “get updates” box (might have to scroll up a bit.) Let me know your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!
Jeff is a current Harvard student and author of the blog Financial Pupil who is passionate about learning, living, and sharing all things personal finance-related. He has experience working in the financial industry and enjoys the pursuit of financial freedom. Outside of blogging, he loves to cook, read, and golf in his spare time.