Advice on Taking Finals

Well, I’m certainly glad that I’ve managed to finish my finals with my sanity (and my GPA) more or less intact.  It took quite a bit of effort, but I think I’m in pretty good shape.  Assume my grades turn out as expected, I should have A’s and B’s on my report card.  (And just calling it a ‘report card’ makes me all nostalgic for junior high; good times, good times.)

Now, I realize that the final season is just getting started for some people (my fiancée Sondra has all her finals next week, for example), and I also know that next semester (whether you consider the winter semester as the ‘next semester’ or the spring semester when everything will really pick up) there will inevitably be more finals (and tests of all kinds, really).  So, I thought I would help out my fellow students, take a little break from the personal finance, and give some advice on test taking.

Rule One: Always have plenty of supplies available come test time

I’ll break it down by the amount of time you have until the test begins, but first, some advice on how to study:

Throughout The Semester

-Keep up (or get ahead) on the reading: Chances are, you have a textbook or two associated with most of your classes; for all the talk of a ‘digital classroom’, ink on paper is still a vital part of the educational process.  In addition, your teacher might give out regular hand outs, post notes online, or some combination of the three.  Make sure that you don’t fall behind in this reading, as it will be a vital supplement to what you hear in lecture.  Better yet, do your best to jump ahead of the game and read the material your professor WILL be covering; you’ll have a much better understanding of your professor is discussing.  Speaking of which…

-Attend the lectures (and take notes): I almost feel bad about including this; but, given the number of people who skip lectures, many times on a regular basis, I feel I should.  Not only will attending the lecture give you a better idea what your professor will and won’t cover come test time, but it provides an alternative method of covering the material.  The more times, and the more ways, your brain is exposed to particular ideas, the more the material will sink in.  Plus someone is paying for your education (be it you, your parents, or a student loan company), so you might as well get their money’s worth.

-Seek help if needed: At some point in your educational career, you’ll probably find yourself having trouble understanding something you need to learn.  Luckily, the old academic model of professors lecturing and then leaving you on your own until test time is all but gone; there are plenty of resources available to the modern student to help you learn what you need to know.  From visiting the Learning Center or its equivalent at your school to asking a professor (or one of us helpful grad students), there’s no reason to go through the semester without having a full understanding of the material you need to know.

Alright, that should get you through most of the semester; but when tests or finals are approaching, you need to bump up your studying skills to match the coming challenge.  It helps if you get a good start:

One Week to Go

-Prioritize your goals: Chances are that you’re not taking only one class at a time; you need to know how to keep up on more than one thing at a time.  At finals time (and possibly throughout the semester, depending on how your tests are scheduled), you’re likely to have more than one thing you need to study for at a time.  You’ll need to prioritize your goals, although how you’ll do that is up to you.  I’d suggest focusing on the subjects that have given you the most trouble, but working on the material that you will be tested on first could also work.

-Eliminate distractions: Obviously, you can’t ensure that you will be completely undisturbed the entire time you are trying to study, but trying to take care of things ahead of time will make your study time go much more smoothly.  Of particular note are major projects; there’s a fair chance you have one or more things on your ‘To Do’ list that you’ll need to finish around the same time your tests occur.  If you can finish them quickly (and still do a good job), getting them done will make it much easier to focus on your studies.  (Note, though, that it’s not worth forgoing two days of studying for a 200 point final in order to do a phenomenal job on a 50 point project; be sure to prioritize the most worthwhile tasks.)

Three Days to Go

-Test Yourself: Now is a good time to test yourself to see how well you know the material; you still have plenty of time to brush up on areas where your knowledge is lacking.  There are several ways to test yourself, from using the questions found in most textbooks to getting old tests from your professor or previous students.  You could also work with one or more partners, make up tests for each other, and trade; that way, you’d see how well you know the material, and possibly see a way of asking something that you didn’t before.  In any case, focusing your efforts on areas where you didn’t test well should be your next goal.

-Switch up your routine: By now, if you’ve been studying hard for four days, you’re probably getting a bit atrophied.  It’s a good time to try something different.  If you’ve been studying from the lecture notes, try cracking open the textbook; if you’ve been going over back of the chapter problems in the text, try re-reading your lecture notes.  Anything that will make your studying fresher should be considered.  (It’s also a good time to consider taking a break for a day to let your mind rest, particularly if you have a good grasp on the material, so long as you get back to studying soon.)

One Day To Go

-Test yourself again: By now, you should have an excellent handle on the material; another practice test should be a huge confidence booster that you’ll do well on the final.  If your score still isn’t where you want it to be, though, you’ll need to do some serious studying to get up to par by test time.  (Note: If you’re using the same practice test as before, be sure that you are getting a better score because you know the material better, and not just because you’ve memorized the test.  Remember, you don’t want to just do well on the practice test, you want to be able to translate that into doing well on the real test.)

Get a good night’s rest: It’s tempting to pull an all-nighter and cram before a test, but you’ll only end up hurting yourself.  Don’t panic; if you’ve been studying well throughout the semester (and over the last week), you should do fine.  (And if you haven’t, I’m sad to say that one night of cramming probably isn’t enough to save you, anyway.)  Getting a good night’s sleep, waking up rested and refreshed, and (assuming time allows) studying more in the morning of the test is a much better plan.

The Day of the Test

On the day of the test itself, there’s not too much more you can do to prepare (at least, assuming you’ve been following this plan and have been studying up to this point).  Hopefully, you’ve managed to pack your brain with so much information that’s it’s near capacity.  A few last minute tips: Eat a good breakfast (and lunch and dinner, depending on when your test is held) before your test, so you aren’t distracted by hunger, but no so close to test time or so large that you’re overstuffed and distracted while taking the test.  Be sure to get to school with time to spare, so you don’t feel rushed or pressed for time.  Do some light reviewing while you wait for test time to approach (don’t try to learn a chapter or two of material at the last minute, but a few warm up problems will help get you thinking about the test material).  Lastly, but most importantly, DON’T PANIC.  If you’re prepared, it should be pretty easy to do well on this test.

Good luck, and here’s hoping all you finals takers will have good news to report to your friends and family come Christmas!

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