Why you shouldn’t cram before exams (and how to study properly instead)


Does cramming before exams work? Chances are you’ve wondered this at some point – especially if you’ve got an exam coming up and you don’t feel fully prepared.

However, here are some solid reasons why cramming isn’t the best way to study, along with practical tips for what you can do instead (even if cramming seems your only option). 

It’s harder to retain information 

Cramming often means pulling all-nighters and enduring long hours of study, without taking any breaks, as you attempt to load up your brain with heaps of information in a short period of time. The thing is, our brains find it harder to retain information when they’re overwhelmed with too much of it, too quickly. 

What to do instead

  • The trick isn’t to spend more time studying in one go. Space your study out over a number of days or weeks in the lead-up to your exams.

  • Work out a schedule of dedicated periods of studying with regular breaks. 

  • Structure your sessions as manageable blocks. You could try out 25-minute study blocks (recommended by the Pomodoro technique), followed by five-minute breaks. Or, you might find that studying for roughly an hour before taking a break works for you. (Just try not to work for more than an hour without taking a breather.) 

  • Check out Pomodor, a simple web-based timer, to help track your sessions.

You’ll be less stressed

We don’t need to tell you that putting off studying until the last minute can be stressful and overwhelming. And when you’re feeling higher levels of stress, it can impact your ability to focus on, comprehend and store information. It might sound simple, but the more prepared you are, the less stressed or anxious you’re likely to be. 

You might find that cramming before exams can also mess with your sleep routine, encourage unhealthy eating habits, or even lead to feelings of burnout, which is why it’s so important to put your wellbeing first and make sure you’re practising self-care

What to do instead

Your understanding won’t be as deep 

When you try to cram a year’s worth of information into a day, you won’t have the time you need to understand the topics as deeply. You might memorise some facts but find that you’re not actually grasping the underlying concepts. 

This can make it harder to apply that knowledge critically and creatively. If you’ve given yourself more time to study the material, you’ll be able to absorb it more effectively using the tips below.

What to do instead

It will be harder to maintain a study–life balance

Cramming has a tendency to hog your time and energy, leaving little left over for other important aspects of your life, such as relaxing, socialising and self-care. When you’re cramming, you might also feel a bit guilty whenever you take a break or do something enjoyable. 

What to do instead

  • Factor regular breaks, fun activities and relaxation into your study schedule. Instead of feeling bad for watching your favourite show or catching up with mates, you’ll know it’s all part of your master study plan. Here are some suggestions for cheap ways to chill

  • Think of these activities as rewards that can help you to stay motivated throughout your study session.

  • Set some realistic goals and boundaries for your study sessions. 

  • Get these tips on how to nail your study–life balance.

What if it’s too late?

Sometimes, despite your very best efforts, you may find yourself facing an exam with minimal prep time. While the best way to study is to develop that regular schedule and stick to it, these things happen!

If you decide to cram before exams, it’s important to recognise that frantic cramming has its limitations. So, try to consider some strategic alternatives. 

Here’s what you can try:

  • Prioritise covering the key concepts and topics that are most likely to be examined.

  • Use targeted review materials such as summaries, flashcards, past papers or practice quizzes.

  • Remember still to take breaks, and try to get some quality sleep. (Staying up a few extra hours likely won’t improve your performance.)

  • Take some deep breaths and focus on relaxation before the exam starts.

  • Show yourself some compassion and try not to put huge expectations on yourself. (Exams are naturally stressful!)

  • Check out our Online Community, where other young people share their best study tips.

What can I do now?

  • Check out our study tips and advice on beating exam stress.

  • Find out what simple swaps you can make to feel less stressed.