How to Cram for the Permit Test in 3 Hours and Still Pass (Best Study Tips)

Student Life

I managed to procrastinate so badly that I had no choice but to cram right before my Driver's Ed test. I passed with exactly 70%. I know I’m not the only one out there with extremely bad procrastination, so for my fellow procrastinators out there, I feel you. I am writing this story for you. Because I am from California, the tricky laws stated in this article is from the DMV handbook, but if you're from another state, I have resources for you explained at the end of the article.

The morning before my test was probably the most stressful 3 hours of my life, so I only recommend studying like this if you are in DIRE need. If you still have a couple of weeks, I hope my story will inspire you to start studying earlier than three hours -- and I will also share with you what I SHOULD have done. But this will also be a no BS guide for how to study for the permit test if you have VERY little time left before your test.

This article will cover:

  1. My story taking my Permit Test
  2. The most important topics you need to pass + weirdly specific laws you need to know in each topic
  3. The best resources to quiz yourself before the test
  4. What I SHOULD have done to not leave everything to the last minute

How I Ended Up with Only 3 Hours to Study

Let me just start out by saying that it was not entirely my fault for only having 3 hours to study for my permit test. I did not know it was going to be that day. It was the end of summer, and at this point, I had supposedly studied all summer. But it was summer! I found every excuse I not sit down at my desk and actually study for my permit test.

A week before my scheduled test, I told my mom that I wasn’t ready to take the test yet (she didn’t know that I had literally read only two pages of the online textbook all of summer), and I urged her to reschedule my permit test. She told me that the only other possible date was in three weeks. I told her that was perfect -- that was just enough time to learn everything I was supposed to have learnt about driving laws in the past two months. I figured I needed two weeks minimum to study for my permit test -- so that left me another week before I had to start worrying about that.

Just half a week later, my mom comes into my room, excited, saying, “Mia! A spot just opened up at the DMV! You can go in at 2!”

At this point I really really didn’t want to admit to my mom just how far behind I was with my studying. I could tell my mom starting to become skeptical about how much progress I had actually made -- it wasn't like me to get cold feet about a test -- so after some failed negotiation to push back the test date, I agreed, but let her know that I really needed to cram and that I probably wouldn't pass.

So I grabbed my computer, plopped myself down on the couch and went into complete panic mode.

Traffic Signs

The first thing I knew I needed to know were traffic signs -- that was one thing I could guarantee they would ask, so I decided to memorize all of the traffic signs in California first. My assumption was right, and knowing these well paid off for the actual test.

Of course, there are a lot of signs that I already knew -- Stop, No Entry, Yield etc. -- so I only had to memorize the remaining signs. For that, I went to the DMV website and memorized all the most important signs.

To memorize information as fast as possible, I have a three step approach:

  1. Read through all of the signs and take mental note of which ones I don't know. Make an effort to familiarize yourself with those
  2. Start at the top left sign and cover up the text with a piece of paper
  3. Go down the line reciting the name from memory
  4. When you get one wrong, start at the top of the list
  5. Repeat 2-4 until you've successfully gone through the entire list

Because the test is multiple choice (in the state of California at least), I knew I only needed to be familiar with them to score well.

Right-Of-Way Rules

The second section I focused on were Right-Of-Way rules. Many of these rules are straight forward -- a pedestrian in a crosswalk or otherwise has right of way; pedestrian safety is always the priority; do not drive on sidewalks etc.. -- but there are some tricky "what if" situations you need to be aware of. For me, I tried to speed-read through this section of handbooks to find the laws that weren't common sense and were important for me to memorize. Although it's important for you to review all these laws, here are some right-of-way laws that I found I needed to memorize.

  • When stopped at an intersection, it is important that you stop your vehicle within 5 feet of the crosswalk, but not in the crosswalk.
  • When multiple cars get to an intersection at the same time, the car on the right has the right of way
  • Yield to traffic on the through roat a “T” intersections
  • When turning left, give the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching that are close enough to be dangerous
  • Unless there is a red right arrow, you can turn right on red if it is safe to do so
  • When 2 vehicles meet on a steep road where neither vehicle can pass, the vehicle facing downhill must yield the right-of-way by backing up until the vehicle going uphill can pass.
  • Roundabouts:
    • Enter the roundabout (heading to the right) when there is a big enough gap in traffic to merge safely. Travel in a counter-clockwise direction. Do not stop or pass.
    • If you miss your exit, continue around until you return to your exit.

Bonus rules (from personal experience) People can be stupid. Always make sure you make eye contact with the other drivers before assuming they know what you're doing (also recommended by the DMV). Even if you have right of way, you can't assume the other driver will know. Be safe.

Speed Limits

The next section I needed to make sure that I reviewed were speed limits. I figured speed limits were pretty straight forward -- just follow the signs -- but there are a few tricky laws that you need to be aware of.

  • When you tow a vehicle or trailer, or drive a bus or 3 or more axle truck, you must drive in the right most lane or in a lane specially marked for slower vehicles.
  • A safe distance to pass bicyclists is 3 feet or more.
  • The speed limit when driving within 500 to 1,000 feet of a school while children are present is 25 mph unless otherwise posted.
  • The speed limit is 25 mph in business or residential area
  • When a school bus flashes red lights (located at the top front and back of the bus), you must stop from either direction until the children are safely across the street and the lights stop flashing.
    • The law requires you remain stopped as long as the red lights are flashing. If you fail to stop, you may be fined up to $1,000 and your driving privilege could be suspended for 1 year.
  • The speed limit for a blind intersection is 15 mph. An intersection is considered “blind” if there are no stop signs at any corner and you cannot see for 100 feet in either direction.
  • The speed limit in any alley is 15 mph.
  • Stop at least 15 feet, but no more than 50 feet, from the nearest track when the crossing devices are active or a person warns you a train is coming.

Work Zones

My best guess when I was studying was that there would be at least a couple questions about this topic, and I was right. Make sure you reference your DMV handbook because not all of these rules were straight-forward. Here are some key facts you should know:

  • Fines for traffic violations in a work zone can be $1,000 or more.
  • Anyone convicted of assaulting a highway worker faces fines of up to $2,000 and imprisonment for up to 1 year.
  • Due to higher rates of collisions in some areas, those zones are designated as “Safety Enhanced-Double Fine Zones” which means that fines are DOUBLED.

Parking Rules

Of course there is a lot to learn for this topic, but what I was concerned about was memorizing the quick fast facts that I could easily recite on the test. You will need to go back to this section to understand these rules VERY well, but here are the most not-straight-forward laws you must know.

  • Colored Curbs:
    • White: Stop only for a very short amount of time
    • Red: DO NOT PARK HERE; often for emergency personel
    • Yellow: Stop no longer than the time posted
    • Blue: Parking is permitted only for those with special license plate for disabled persons
  • Never park within 3 feet of a sidewalk ramp for disabled persons or in front of or on a curb that provides wheelchair access to a sidewalk.
  • Never park within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or a fire station driveway.
  • Never park on or within 7½ feet of a railroad track.

Drugs and Alcohol

Although seemingly common-sense, there are a lot of small details that you need to make sure that you remember.

  • If you are under 21 and are caught with an alcoholic beverage in your vehicle, the court may fine you up to $1,000.
  • It is illegal for any person to operate a vehicle with a:
    • BAC of 0.08% or higher, if the person is 21 years old or older.
    • BAC of 0.01% or higher, if the person is under 21 years old.
    • BAC of 0.01% or higher at any age, if the person is on a DUI probation.
    • BAC of 0.04% or higher, in any vehicle requiring a CDL—with or without a CDL issued to the driver.
    • BAC of 0.04% or higher, when a passenger for hire is in the vehicle at the time of the offense.

Additional Laws that are Important to Memorize

When I was memorizing laws as fast I could, I didn't pay attention to exact fines and small laws that I figured were common sense. I assumed I could make an educated guess on the fly, but this is where I actually went wrong and missed most of my wrong answers. Here are some of the weirdly specific ones, but it's important to reference the "additional laws" section of your state's DMV's handbook. I'm convinced they use these questions to see if you got to the end of the handbook.

  • Do not smoke at any time when a minor is in the vehicle. You can be fined up to $100.
  • Do not dump or abandon animals on a highway. This crime is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, 6 months in jail, or both.
  • Do not wear a headset or earplugs in *both* ears while driving.
  • Do not carry anything in or on a passenger vehicle which extends beyond the fenders on the left side or more than 6 inches beyond the fenders on the right side. Cargo extending more than 4 feet from the back rear bumper of the vehicle must display a 12-inch red or fluorescent orange square flag or 2 red lights at night.
  • Stickers on windows that are ok:
    • A 7 inch square on either the passenger’s side windshield lower corner or the lower corner of the rear window.
    • A 5 inch square on the lower corner of the driver’s side window.
    • The side windows behind the driver.
    • A 5 inch square located in the center uppermost portion of your windshield for an electronic toll payment device
  • You must turn on your headlights 30 minutes after sunset and leave them on until 30 minutes before sunrise.
  • You must dim your lights to low beams within 500 feet of a vehicle coming toward you or within 300 feet of a vehicle you are following.

Quizzing Yourself

Many laws you learn during drivers ed courses are common knowledge because so many of us have grown up with parents that drive. That said, there are so many small and specific laws that will be necessary for you to memorize for the test. Now that you've gotten a basic overview of some of the tricky laws that are hard to memorize, it's important to quiz yourself on your knowledge to get a sense of how much you really know.

There are some free tests online to quiz yourself, and they're good to start with, but you'll save yourself so much time by going through a service. My mom ended up paying $120 for a course that I didn't get through and while these services are definitely important to go through so that you're safe on the road, the most important thing that you need to fit into your studying is actually testing yourself before the actual test. Here is a free test that you can start out with for any state.

I would recommend taking one test, and afterward, determine which categories on which you tended to mess up. Then go through the handbook (or your course) again under that section and review the most important material. Keep repeating the process until you consistently score 80%+ on the practice tests. That way, you give yourself some cushion in case you get really nervous when taking tests.

Good luck with studying, and remember -- the most important part about taking this test is that you are safe on the road once you do pass it.

Mia Johansson
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Mia Johansson is taking a gap year from Harvard to work on The Teen Magazine full time. Mia enjoys spending her time writing, traveling, surfing, writing, and spending time with friends.