It’s that time of year again. The days are gradually getting longer, the sun shining almost all of the way through, with that perfect once-in-a-year warmth where you can walk out sleeveless without getting a chill or working up a sweat. All this can mean only one thing — finals.
First of all, let it be said that whether you’re a conscientious studier all the year through or you’re a bit more lackadaisical with your studying routine (some nice SAT words there, by the by), we’re all in the same position when it comes to finals. We all, to the last man, find it stressful, unpleasant, and at times overwhelming. You’re not alone.
Many people don’t realize that studying itself is a skill to be learned and acquired. Some students might have put forth the effort early on and, through much trial and error, have found a pretty successful way to finish school assignments and prepare for tests. If this isn’t you, this doesn’t make you a “worse student” by any means. You just haven’t acquired this particular life skill, just as some people don’t learn how to do laundry or budget their money until an advanced age.
To get started on building this oh-so-important skill, see the steps below.
Step 1: Gather your “To-Dos”
Before anything else can be accomplished, you first need a solid idea of what needs to be accomplished. As far out as you can before finals, gather a list of everything you need to do and when it’s due. This includes papers, lab reports, projects, and, of course, all of your final exams. Rather than having a bunch of due dates scattered throughout your agenda calendar, write all of these items out in a list or chart. Order them in whatever sequence is best for you (earliest due date to latest due date, most pressing assignment to least pressing, etc.). You might even find it useful to, for each item, put an estimate of how many hours you expect it will take you to complete it (for exams, meaning complete studying for it). This will give you a good sense at one look of what you need to prioritize. And speaking of which–
Step 2: Prioritize
Look over your list and figure out what items needs the first and best attention and give them a “priority ranking.” To figure out how to prioritize you need to ask yourself 1) how important is this to me and to my grade?, 2) how long is this supposed to take to complete?, 3) how long is this going to take me to complete? The difference in the last two questions is about your personal strengths and weaknesses. Some students might not need more than a couple hours to review for their Pre-calculus final, but expect their Chemistry lab report to take days.
Feel free to take your own preferences or future plans into account here, but be reasonable. If you care more about AP World than about your math class, it’s okay to skew your priorities accordingly. But don’t spend the majority of your finals prep time working on a Chem lab that doesn’t count towards your grade and forgo studying for any of your exams.
Step 3: Make a schedule
Now that you’ve got your to-do items written down, prioritized, and with the completion time of each estimated, plan out a studying routine for every single day from now until finals. And here be realistic as far as your own motivation. If it’s three weeks before a final exam or a paper’s due date, it might be excessively optimistic to think that you can guilt yourself into doing 5 hours of studying in a day. Be mindful of your other commitments too– if you have a volleyball tournament that you know will take an entire evening, getting you home late at night, it’s okay to include absolutely zero studying that day. A schedule is useless if it’s not realistic.
Step 3b: Make a good schedule
A good study schedule will allow you to finish your task by the due date, with your time allotted to it gradually ramping up until you’re working at it the most just before it’s due. Now, by “just before it’s due,” I don’t mean an hour before the final–more like a day or two before. And, of course, it would be great if our attention was so easily subjugated that we could make ourselves finish a paper a couple weeks before it’s due, leaving ample time to study for that final that’s scheduled on the same day, but–at least for myself–I don’t think that’s realistic. And a schedule, above all else, needs to be realistic. But if you do have overlapping due dates, keep that in mind too. For example, instead of the last two days before a final going into Math overdrive, if you have another test that same day, maybe the last four days will be Math and Chem combined overdrive.
Break down tasks as minutely as possible in your study schedule. For final exams, that means breaking down your review by topic and figuring out how much attention each topic needs.
For example, an Advanced Pre-Calc study plan might look something like this:
- Conic Sections (hard, ~2-3 hours)
- Trig (harder, ~4-5 hours)
- Vectors (okay, ~1-2 hours)
- Limits (easy, ~1 hour review)
- Binomial probability (easy, ~1 hour review)
Feel free to make up these allotted times arbitrarily and adjust later if you find that you just don’t have 12 hours to devote to your Advanced Pre-Calc final in the end.
For papers or projects, a task break-down might be something like this:
- Thesis idea
- Introduction paragraph
- Body paragraph
- Conclusion and editing
Once you have all of your items broken down by task, decide which day you’re going to complete which tasks (again, keeping in mind the ramping up of time allotment as the due date approaches and your motivation rises).
Step 4: Study!
A little obvious, maybe, but I have some tips here as well.
Figure out where you can most comfortably study– at home, at a library, at TA, etc. Make sure it’s a place where you’re not distracted. Three hours of scheduled study time where you spend three hours complaining to your friends at the table over about how much studying you have to do equals zero study time completed.
I personally find it a great help to listen to instrumental music when I study or work. My latest playlist is The Best of Rachmaninoff on YouTube — 3 hours of great classical music that’s loud enough to block out outside noise without being too distracting itself.
Make sure you’re studying effectively. Index cards–hand-written or online–can be great to help you memorize things, since the index card creation itself helps internalize the info. Reviewing and absorbing info is important but make sure a good portion of your test prep is practical. This means doing actual practice problems, writing practice essays, etc. For problem-based tests (math, science, etc.) at least 70% of your studying should be doing practice problems. And make sure it’s the kind of problems you can expect to appear on the test.
Make sure to use your resources effectively, too. If you’re spending hours reading the same chapter in your Physics textbook and are making zero head-way on understanding the Doppler effect, put that book aside. Check out Khan Academy, YouTube videos, go to your school teacher, or, of course, ask your friendly TA tutor.
Be kind to yourself
Give yourself as many breaks as you need and never berate yourself if a task is taking longer than you expected or if hours are going by because you just can’t figure out how the heck torque and equilibrium work. Just adjust your schedule to fit your needs and carry on.
No study plan is complete, in my opinion, without appropriated rewards. If you have the time, maybe a nightly reward of 30 minutes of YouTube or Netflix is a good way to go. Or you might prefer one bigger reward after all of this is done– plans with friends, an overpriced Starbucks drink, a whole day of nothingness, etc.
And above all, the key to studying success is to try not to stress. With a great studying routine, you’re doing everything in your power to prepare effectively, and that’s all you can ask of yourself.