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Countdown to Finals
Finish the year strong with these tips on prepping for finals.

By Haley Shapley, Graduate, University of Pennsylvania

If the thought of finals makes you start to sweat, join the club—nearly 85% of students feel more stressed when finals are on the horizon, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.

Even if it seems like you have a million facts to memorize, thousands of words to write, and hundreds of pages to read, you can get through this. Read on to find out how.

Step One: Having a Plan
Never underestimate the power of making a plan—and sticking to it.

Jan Sylvert, a senior at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, used to fly sans schedule, until she learned the value it held in helping her balance extracurriculars and academic obligations. By putting everything down on paper, she also got a better grasp on how much time to devote to each class, as well as some insights into what she wasn’t doing very effectively. “I realized that I was studying way too much without a break; my brain was on overload,” she says.

Breaks are more important than you might think, says Chris Tobias, director of educational excitement at School Skills, a business that provides academic success training. Don’t forget to allot time for them. “Using a personal planning calendar or your iPhone app to schedule your study time slots into 90-minute study sprints with a 30-minute break for exercise and brain recharging creates high-focus study sessions that can cut your study time in half,” he says.

Scheduling time for specific studying also helps make sure you actually get it done. If you just have a vague notion that you need to study sometime before the test, it’s easy for distractions to get in the way and push that study time until the last minute. But if you have a specific block of time set aside, even if something else comes up, you’re more likely to shift that studying to the next available time instead of forgetting about it completely.

“Something about setting aside the time and expecting it makes you more focused,” Tobias says.

Part of being a good planner is also allotting ample time to study—that means not waiting until the night before the test to begin. “I would really emphasize to not procrastinate,” Sylvert says.



Prepping Right
If you have a big paper due, “it’s best to break the assignment into smaller units,” recommends Sharon Reed, director of Student Support Services at Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana. “Do a time schedule—work on the first section of it on Monday at a certain time, break away from it, then come back that evening.” Coming back after a break can give you a fresh perspective.

For group projects, you want to make sure everyone’s on the same page and knows the portion for which he or she is responsible. Reed says that successful groups often have a point person who reminds everyone about meeting times. Start as early as possible, as the closer you get to the due date, the more everyone will have on his or her plate.

When it comes to studying for a test, make sure you set yourself up for success. “Finding a good place for studying is a necessity; [it should be] free from interruptions and a lot of distractions,” Reed says. “Have enough space to have materials spread out to study. I think you should have adequate lighting; you shouldn’t be in a dark corner.”

Tobias recommends that when you review your notes, you should ask yourself what the exam questions would look like for the material you’re studying. “It makes your brain think about it in a new way,” he says. “Hand it to a friend and say, ‘Read these questions to me.’ Review the material as many different ways as you can—write it, read it, talk about it.”



On-Campus Resources
Want a little extra help studying? Your campus is sure to have a number of resources, starting with the person teaching the class. “Go to a professor’s office during office hours and jot down the questions you want to ask,” Reed says. That way, you won’t forget what you wanted clarification on.

Suzanne Raga, a 2011 graduate of Princeton University in New Jersey and author of You Rock! How to Be a Star Student and Still Have Fun, adds that you should always “go to any optional review sessions that professors have, especially before an exam.” They’re sure to go over material that will be on the test, so make a point to attend these.

When Raga was an underclassman, she took advantage of organized study sessions with older students, and Sylvert likes to use the online databases her college provides access to in order to complete projects. Tutoring, writing centers, and study groups are other resources likely at your disposal.



Staying Healthy
Your inclination may be to run on no sleep, stop working out, and eat out of vending machines, but keep in mind that the better you take care of yourself physically, the better you’ll be able to perform mentally.

“If you’re stressed out, run down, grumpy, and not exercising, you simply can’t perform as well on your exams,” Raga says. “A lot of my peers made the mistake of locking themselves in their rooms to study, pulling all-nighters, and not socializing for weeks on end before an exam. Although finals are definitely important—and a large part of your grade—they are not worth losing your sleep, social life, and sanity.”

When you do take study breaks, you might want to consider an alternative to playing video games, which is a high-focus, high-intensity activity that doesn't give your brain a breather, says Tobias. Instead, head outdoors and kick around a soccer ball or throw a Frisbee. “Get oxygen flowing. Give your brain a break so you can file all that stuff you just gave it,” he says. “The exercise releases the stress, and your brain becomes more flexible.”

Above all, save yourself some trouble down the line and start studying now—that way, you can cruise into finals rested and ready to go.

HALEY SHAPLEY IS A FREELANCE WRITER BASED IN SEATTLE AND A GRADUATE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA IN PHILADELPHIA.

 

Find Out More
Click for a great guide to preparing for finals from the University of Nebraska website.
Click for a great set of finals tips from the Academic Advancement center at Ohio University.
Click for 101 ways to prepare for final exams now from Eastfield College's website.

Last-Minute Preparation Advice
Here are seven ways students across the country who filled out our survey get in last-minute preparation for finals:

“Get lots of sleep and review just the main points to keep things fresh. Do not cram too much.”
—Colin, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

“Get comfortable, find a spot that helps you be the most productive, be prepared (bring everything you might want—a snack, drink, etc., with you so you won’t be distracted trying to find one).”
—Jillian, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts

“Try not to worry…worrying just takes up space in your head that should be used to store exam materials! It is difficult, but worth trying.” —Lorie, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti

“Write songs with study terms.”
—Christa, Elmhurst College, Illinois

“Tell someone about what you learned in your studies to synthesize the information and iron out any questions you didn’t know you had until you started talking about it.”
—Grace, University of Denver

“Make flashcards throughout the semester and then go over them over and over again before finals to remember all the material.”
—Niki, Elmhurst College, Illinois

“If you are anxious right before the test (like maybe 30 or 15 minutes before it), quit cramming in your studying, and listen to some calming music, or pray, or reflect on something positive that’s going to happen after your final, even if the only positive thing is, ‘I will be done with it and no longer stressing about it.’”
—Ashley, George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon

 

Thinking of using ADHD medications to focus your studying? Think again.
Among the types of drugs misused by college students are those frequently prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The stimulants Adderall and Ritalin can be truly beneficial to students who have trouble focusing their attention. When misused by someone who doesn’t suffer from a hyperactivity disorder, they can elevate blood pressure, raise heart rate, and in rare cases, induce cardiac failure or lethal seizures.

A senior at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles says when exam time hits she sees more of her friends popping Adderall and Ritalin. “As scary as it is, some students use a combination of Adderall, coffee, and energy drinks to get through stressful times,” she says. “I’d say that these are smart kids, not necessarily druggies or partiers or anything. I think the pressures of today’s society have made it so that many students—regardless of whether they do drugs or drink on a regular basis—are feeling the heat and turn to these stimulants.”

She thinks the economy—and the pressure to get into law school or business school to ensure a good job—may have something to do with it. If that’s the case, students should be aware that most law firms and financial institutions perform drug tests. Learning to handle the pressures of school without drugs may serve you better in the long term.

While our student at USC sees abuse among “smarter” students, Dr. Amelia Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and senior scientist at the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, says most of the misuse of prescription drugs— particularly stimulants—is among students who are already having academic problems. She says that it’s primarily not overachievers who are using drugs to aide their studying.

“The big picture seems to be that non-medical users of prescription drugs have a history of other substance abuse—drugs or alcohol,” she says. “They are much more likely to skip class and are more likely to have academic performance on the decline,” and then use stimulants to stay awake and cram.

Even if you have a legitimate prescription, you need to be aware of how a drug reacts with the most common drug that students abuse: alcohol (and yes, alcohol is a drug). For example, Adderall can stimulate the user so he or she doesn’t feel the sedative effects of drinking, but it doesn’t change your blood alcohol level so there is an increased danger of alcohol poisoning. With painkillers, alcohol can amplify the effects.

If you think you have a problem or may be developing one, most advisors on your campus have been trained to help, and health services, counseling services, or a health education center can connect you with programs to address drug use, including treatment programs and 12-step groups that are geared toward students.

 


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