By Peter J. Mikulecky, Chris Hren

Studying for a chemistry test can be a real challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. You just need to know how to do it right. In reality, the process of studying starts long before you sit down the night before a test and try to figure out complex chemistry problems between energy drinks.

If you think studying consists of looking over the study guide once, glancing at a few problems, and then texting your friends, you should really keep reading. The following list gives you quality guidelines for how to study for a chemistry test:

  • Don’t cram. Studying a little bit at a time over the course of the entire unit is far and away the best plan for mastering the material and building your confidence in it. Chemistry is complex. It isn’t really something that’s meant to be consumed in mass quantities over a brief period of time.

    Taking the material that you learned in class each day and reviewing it at home for 15 to 20 minutes at night will pay huge dividends on test day. Yes, studying the night before the test is always a good part of the plan, but preparing far in advance will be more than worth it.

  • Figure out exactlywhich concepts will be on the test. Before you begin studying, determine which concepts from the unit are going to be on the test. Go back and look over your notes from class and look at the study guide. Check out the textbook if you bothered to bring it home; it might help. See which topics overlap all of those. Determine which topics are the most discussed. Get together a list of topics that you think will be the focus of the test, and then study those.

  • Allocate your study time wisely. Sadly, your time is limited. You can’t just pause the day and study chemistry for hours on end. Heck, you probably have other tests to study for, too. So with that in mind, after you figure out what will be on the test, study it.

    Most chemistry units have a ton of information in them, some of it far more important than others. Unless you’re quite lucky, you probably aren’t going to master every topic in the unit. Spend the bulk of your time on the stuff you know will be on the test. Don’t get sidetracked for an hour trying to understand one rather obscure concept that probably has little bearing on your success or failure on the test.

  • Don’t worry about the exceptions until you know the basics. In chemistry, it sure seems like every time a rule or a theory is laid out, you run across exceptions. Electron configurations are nice and simple, except for the compounds needing only two electrons instead of eight for a full valence shell. Lewis dot structures are easy to draw, except for that entire bit about expanded and unfilled octets. You get the idea.

    Many times, students freak themselves out worrying about these exceptions without truly grasping the base concept. If the exceptions are going to be on the test, they’ll be a very minor portion. Besides, those exceptions won’t matter if you don’t understand the base concept in the first place.

  • Do example problems. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice in this list. Just looking at your notes and following along with a problem won’t help you learn. You must do your practice problems. Chemistry is problem-solving, which is a skill you need to learn by doing. It isn’t something you can pick up by simply watching a teacher do it or by reading a textbook.

  • Be confident. Confidence is a key to being successful in all things in life. School and tests — especially chemistry tests — are no different. When you study, start with the easier material and then work your way up to the more challenging stuff. Do the first couple of practice problems in your textbook’s chapter review or on the study guide. The first problems are easier. This way, you build confidence in yourself and the material as you go. Don’t try the last problem in your chapter review, which is probably the hardest problem ever conceived by man, until you’re ready for it.

  • Don’t ignore the math and everything that goes with it. If you haven’t realized it yet, chemistry is basically a math class with lots and lots of fun stuff thrown in to make it even harder. When you’re getting ready for your test, make sure your calculator is ready to go. Know how it works, which buttons to push, and so on. Not all calculators are the same, so if you’re planning on using one the teacher provides, be familiar with it.

    Don’t just know how to plug stuff into your calculator; know how to write the calculations on your paper, too (with units). You’ll likely need to show your work.

  • Know what resources you’ll have available for the test. Ask your teacher what you can use on the test. Will you be given a periodic table to use? (Almost always yes.) Will the formulas you need be available? (Entirely depends on class level and teacher.) Will you be given an ion chart telling you what all the polyatomic ions are? (Depends.) Figure out what you’ll have available so you don’t waste time memorizing things that will be given to you.

  • Sleep and eat. There’s no point to staying up until 3:00 in the morning the day of the test to study that one hard problem you’ve already looked at it four times. All you’re doing at that point is lowering your chances of doing well on the test. If you’re incoherent because you got only 2 or 3 hours of sleep, no amount of caffeine is going to make up for that when it comes to performing on the test. Getting enough sleep helps a great deal on tests.

    Also, eat breakfast if the test is in the morning, and eat lunch if the test is in the afternoon. If you eat, your mind and body can focus more on taking the test than worrying about being hungry or needing energy.

  • Don’t get discouraged when you take the test. Tests are intimidating, and they’re usually hard. Keeping a positive attitude while taking the test is important. Mark problems that you don’t understand and then come back to them when you’re done with the ones you do understand. Nothing is worse than spending 10 of the 50 minutes you get for your test on one problem that you have no idea how to do. Be aware of your time, and stay positive.