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5 Ways to Survive Finals


There’s no way around it: Finals suck. Instead of stressing about finals, prepare yourselves for what’s to come, and you’ll be far better off! All-nighters and endless cups of coffee won’t be necessary if you stay on top of things. We’ve talked to experts from Learning Strategies Instruction at James Madison University to put together this list of tips for surviving finals. Good luck!

1. Plan ahead of time

Leaving studying and final projects for the last minute will just be a hassle later. There’s nothing worse than cramming for an exam the night before – it will stress you out, and you probably won’t do too well as a result. Plan when you’re going to study about two weeks in advance. This way, you’ll have set dates to study for certain exams and will have plenty of time to ask questions and go to office hours if necessary.

“I don’t advise cramming for finals,” says Emily, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “I did that last semester, and it was a nightmare. I was up all night in the library and could barely function the next day.”  Take our advice and save the money you’d be spending on Starbucks!

Caitlin Powell, a learning strategies instructor at JMU, laid out a five-day study schedule that can be turned into a weeklong schedule for finals:

  • Five days before: organize

Organize and review your notes carefully. Prepare a list of all topics that will be on the exam; list them in order of importance so you can focus your attention accordingly.

  • Four days before: review and recall

This is the most important step! Review your notes thoroughly until you can recall all of the important information. Concentrate on the topics that are more difficult for you to remember. Use mnemonic devices or visualization to help you recall more effectively.

  • Three days before: rewrite and recall

Briefly rewrite all the important information. Review these notes repeatedly. Trying to recall your own explanation will be more effective than trying to recall what the textbook and your professors have said.

  • Two days before: questions

Make a list of questions that might be on the exam and answer them in as much detail as possible. “Quizlet is also a good resource,” Powell says.

  • Test day: prepare

Review your notes and rewritten notes a few hours before the exam. Take time to relax before the exam. If you are afraid you will forget the information or blank out when you receive the exam, write reminders on the back of the test paper that you can come back to during the exam.

2. Study in groups

If you do it correctly, group studying can be extremely helpful. Before meeting with your group, go over the information on your own. This way, you can ask your peers any questions you may have.

“I love studying in groups,” says Brooke Pearson, a sophomore at James Madison University. “It’s a great way to clear things up without having to make an appointment with your professor.” Group studying can be helpful as long as you and your group members are on the same page about getting work done.

“Of course having a group is important because a lot of people do learn better when they’re with other people,” Powell says. “There always needs to be some sort of goal with a group, what they need to study or accomplish. Set criteria for participation, keep a goal of learning in mind, and everyone can ask/answer questions so everyone feels like they can be open.”

3. Take study breaks

Studying can get extremely frustrating, so taking breaks is definitely a good idea. Try meeting up for coffee with a friend or going to the gym. The endorphins will give you extra energy and make studying easier later on. If you’re staring at a computer screen or textbook for hours, you’ll go crazy!

“If you have two different subjects to study for on one day, let’s say math and history, the recommended time to work on a certain subject is 30 to 45 minutes,” Powell says. “After that, a five- to 10-minute break is suggested. I wouldn’t go over an hour of studying at once on any subject.  If you’re trying to study successfully, I wouldn’t take breaks longer than five to 10 minutes.”

Powell also suggests being active during breaks: going for a walk outside, doing laundry or getting a snack. This schedule can go on for about three hours for one subject. Then it may be time for a longer break, like getting dinner with a friend or going to an exercise class.

4. Find the right location

Your study spot can help or hurt you tremendously. Find somewhere you can focus without going crazy. It may also help to switch locations every once in a while. Staying in your room all day and night will make you stir-crazy, but being outside for too long may get distracting. Figure out where you work best and plan accordingly.  The theory of context-dependent memory proves that if you study in an environment similar to the one you’ll be taking the test in, you will recall the information better.  If you’ll be taking the test in a large lecture hall, try studying in the library where there are a lot of people around.

“My only suggestion for places to study would be not your apartment,” Powell says. “You can go anywhere besides where you sleep. Your mind knows your room for where you sleep, so it will get confused and you won’t get the best amount of work that you can get done.”

5. Don’t overdo it

If you freak out over finals, chances are you’re not going to do as well as you’d like. There’s no use in stressing yourself out and overworking; if you plan ahead and budget your time, you’ll be okay.

“Planning in advance is really going to help with anxiety,” Powell shares. “If you’re stressed, the worst thing you can do is wait until the last minute. Really spreading everything out is going to help. Right when you get back from Thanksgiving break is when you need to be thinking about how many days you’ll be studying for each exam. Make specific ideas about what you’ll be doing for each day. And don’t forget to take deep breaths.”

“Don’t over work yourself during finals week,” says Anna Soyka, a sophomore at James Madison University. “I end up getting more confused if I study too much.” Find the happy medium between not studying enough and studying too much. Save some of your energy for getting through the actual test.

If you keep our tips in mind during finals week, it shouldn’t be as awful as everyone says it is. Sure, you may get overwhelmed at times, but that shouldn’t stop you from being in control and rocking your finals. Don’t save everything for the last minute and figure out which studying techniques work best for you. You can do it, collegiettes!

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