How to Ace Open Note Exams

You’ve been stressing out about that test for a while…that is until you heard it was going to be open note (or open book). With all the resources you have on hand, what could be easier? Well, watch out—it might be a trap! Open note exams require a different kind of studying, and these are the major considerations you need to keep in mind:

Know what you’re getting into

There’s probably a reason this exam sounds too good to be true, so expect a nightmare exam. Maybe it will be extra hard, maybe it will be extra long…maybe it will involve a 5’X 5’ playing board complete with realistic terrain and role-playing. Just take your studying seriously because you never know what kind of crazy might be thrown your way.

Time is of the essence

Imagine this: you’re stuck on a problem with five minutes before the exam ends. The answer is somewhere in your notes…somewhere. You frantically flip through your ratty notebook as pages fly out. Where could the answer be? Was it near the front by that cat doodle, or on the back of that note you wrote to your BFF? Luckily, this scenario is easily avoided with a little pre-exam planning:

  • When reviewing your notes, add color coded sticky notes to correspond with class themes.
  • Number your pages for quick reference.
  • Make a quick-access crib sheet of the most vital information. Stick it to the front cover of your notebook.
  • Highlight key phrases.
  • If your notebook has taken some abuse, search for and replace missing pages. Make easy-to-read photo copies of the crinkled and ripped pages.

Condense it

It may seem easier to just bring your whole notebook, but consider making a reader’s digest edition instead. Chances are you won’t need the whole thing, and a three to four page typed version of the essentials will be a lot less cumbersome. Because open note exams tend to focus on your analytical skills (that can’t easily be replicated in note form), try to speed up your analysis by including any key formulas and concepts that you would have memorized otherwise. Leave the long explanations out, you won’t have time to read them.


There’s a reason infographics have become so popular these days…it’s because pictures convey ideas quicker than words. Take advantage of this speed by adding a thought web, flow chart or table to the back of your notes.

When “open-note test” = “ impromptu essay”

Unless you’re in a math class, an impromptu essay is a distinct possibility. Any good essay requires evidence, so you should shape your notes to make it easy to access evidence.

  • Copy down and sort important quotes and statistics by theme
  • Add timelines to your notes
  • For a literature class, write down the page numbers of important scenes.  Just think about how surprised your teacher will be when they see you cite page numbers properly with just an hour or two!

Got any killer tips for open-note exams? Let us know in the comments!

written by
Eliza Miller
March 8, 2013

One Response to “How to Ace Open Note Exams”

  1. Monica
    March 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    I have to say that the best way to prepare for an open-note test is to study like it’s going to be the hardest academic test of your life (because they always seem to be!) and to make sure your notes are neat and organized.

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