Academics | Final Exams | Winter 2012

Studying Tips: 5 Steps to a Successful Finals Week

by Cathryn Sloane | for

final-exams-studying There is nothing quite like a college finals week. Once that last class of the semester wraps up, the campus atmosphere drastically changes. Various academic buildings are no longer crowded with the hustle and bustle of students loudly rushing through every hour. Instead, those students are dragging themselves to the library, the student union, the local coffee shop, and dorm study lounges to set up camp for hours at a time. Groups of students who are entering classrooms are tense and silent with nothing but a few number-two pencils in hand. For during this week, students are concerned with preparing for and finishing these finals.

Due to the randomness of the final exam schedules, however, getting through this week can be easier said than done. Professors do not check with their colleagues when setting the days and times of their respective exams. More commonly, it’s the university’s registrar’s office that sets the exams schedule. The office has to accommodate thousands of students across hundreds of classes and needless to say, won’t be able to guarantee a perfectly convenient schedule for everyone.

You may have all of your final exams back-to-back on Monday, you may have them all at 7:30 a.m. slots through the week, you may have to wait until Friday evening for your last one to conclude – whichever route your schedule takes, it will be out of your control and not identical to anyone else’s.

Here is the big picture: you have approximately three to five exams, papers, and/or projects due within a period of five days, all of which count for major percentages of your final grades. No pressure, right? Well, if you put panicking on hold and execute the right preparations ahead of time, the road ahead can be a lot smoother.

Here are some tips to help you stay motivated, calm, and productive during this hectic finals week.

1. Determine your times, locations, and tasks ASAP. Unfortunately, not all professors are as efficient about getting this information out to you as others – but the second they do, jot it down. Document it in your planner, on your computer, in your smartphone, or whatever calendar system you use. Visualize these dates and times in your mind so you have an idea of how this week will flow. Additionally, remember to pay attention to the locations of each exam. You should not assume that the final exam will be held in same room where you met for class lectures. More often than not, the exam testing will be in a different room, and even an entirely different part of campus.  Make sure you know the location and how to get there. Finally, be clear on whether you have a final exam, paper, or project.  The difference between a take-home project and a final exam will determine how you best use your time for all your classes.

2. Assemble and organize all necessary information/supplies. Instead of a blank approach to your studying, it is better to have study guides in-hand.  Take some time to go through your syllabus, consult with your professor, and do whatever else it takes to get an accurate idea of what concepts will be on the exam. Some professors will be detailed and generous in offering this information, others may say that anything covered during the semester is fair game. Either way, create a check-list to help you collect notes and start molding them into cohesive study aides. For papers, find out the prompts and draft an outline.  Once you have a framework for your writing, filling in the details will be much easier. For projects, gather all the supplies and material beforehand instead of finding things on the fly.  Lower the barriers to having a productive work time.

3. Plan specific study sessions for each class. Take a good look at your schedule, and focus on the blocks of time your exams take place or the dates that papers/projects are due. Now, plan your time with prioritized tasks in mind. Having specific tasks will be more effective than simply telling yourself, “I’ll study every day”.  Evaluate which class needs the bulk of your time. What are the big concepts that have you struggled with all semester? Where can you get “easy gains” and make the most improvement in grades?  What resources do you have to help you study – homework assignments, quizzes, and tests? Answering questions like these will help you design your study sessions to reflect your best interest and adequately adjust them to the times your exams will be taking place. Minimize how much you bounce from subject to subject every time you sit down to study. Focusing on one thing at a time proves to be a much more effective way of absorbing material.

4. Compare schedules with friends. This piece of advice is here for two reasons. First, it’s always nice to have a study buddy, so if one of your friends has a similar schedule to yours, join forces and bring your study camps together. You may not be reviewing the same notes, but it can just be comforting to have some support nearby. Studying alone for too long can easily make you lose focus and feel like you’re losing your mind. However, too much interaction can also hurt your study process, which leads to the second reason for comparing schedules with friends – minimizing social distractions. Some of your friends may be done with their last exams on Wednesday while you still have two more exams remaining on Thursday. Don’t let those friends distract you from your study goals.  Simply letting them know of your finals schedule will remind them to not disturb you.

5. Set aside limited time for “brain candy.” If you do absolutely nothing but study, your brain will run out of willpower come test day. Make a little bit of time every day to relax and enjoy yourself. Rather than having your study sessions interspersed with YouTube clips and Facebook chatting to provide this fulfillment, indulge in this entertainment separate from study time. Without a healthy balance of recreational activity for your mind, you risk losing the knowledge you have gained by overbearing yourself with stress. It is vital that you counter that stress with deserving rewards.  

Along the way, remember to get enough sleep and eat well. This sounds so basic, and yet is the one piece of advice that is ignored the most often. Your mental health is intricately connected to your physical health. Taking a final exam after nothing but two hours of sleep and four cups of coffee is a recipe for disaster. Simply taking care of your body will go a long way toward better grades. Go this route and you will manage just fine during this infamous end to the semester.

Cathryn Sloane is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a private tutoring service in Los Angeles and 13 other markets. She is a graduate of The University of Iowa with a B.A. in English and a concentration in Creative Nonfiction Writing.

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