Few aspects of college are as feared, dreaded, and—difficult as it may be to believe—necessary as final exams. These tests provide a valuable marker of learning outcomes, but they also cause a whole lot of stress, even among ordinarily calm and collected students.
It’s perfectly normal to worry about finals, but these tests shouldn’t take over your life or cause sleepless nights. With the right approach, they can become less of a burden and more of a tool to help you determine if you’ve achieved the outcomes highlighted in your syllabus. It’s all about breaking bad habits and learning how to do well on college finals without subjecting yourself to unnecessary anxiety.
10 Study Tips for Finals
Are you determined to ace your exams this semester? Start implementing these finals tips as soon as you can to ensure the best grades and the least possible stress:
1. Avoid the Urge to Procrastinate
No guide on studying for finals in college would be complete without a quick mention concerning procrastination. This natural tendency seems to define the college experience with some students even boasting about their ability to survive all-nighters. In reality, however, procrastination is not cause for celebration or even lighthearted joking. This harmful practice stresses students out and almost always leads to worse scores.
The process of preparing for final exams should begin on the first day of class. The material you cover early on in your course is also the most likely to be forgotten by the time finals arrive. Hence, the need for extra attention in those first few weeks. As finals draw near, plan to review the full scope of material you’ve covered, perhaps dividing study sessions up by chapters in your textbook or dedicating one study period to each week of class.
Of course, everybody holds good intentions at the beginning of the semester—and then life happens. If, however, you know why you procrastinate, you can develop and implement a plan to deal with that tendency.
2. Get Plenty of Sleep
At first glance, sleep might not seem like the most important of the many study tips for finals. In reality, however, all that prep work will do little good if it’s not accompanied by plenty of shut-eye. Extensive research reveals that sleep not only improves our ability to focus but also plays an active role in consolidating memories and making it easier to retrieve information. Slow-wave non-REM sleep, in particular, is important for memories involving facts that need to be actively recalled.
The need for sleep underscores the importance of avoiding procrastination. If you wait until the last minute to begin studying, you may panic and choose to ditch sleep in favor of cramming. The sooner you get started, the less likely you’ll have to endure all-nighters later on.
If you’re currently struggling to get quality sleep, you’re far from alone. Still, college doesn’t need to be a time of minimal shut-eye. Make an active effort to improve sleep hygiene by removing TVs and mobile devices from your room, getting on as consistent of a schedule as possible, and avoiding caffeine in the evening.
3. Create a Study-Oriented Space
Is your workspace conducive to studying? Or do you simply hang out with your laptop and textbook wherever you can find a comfy spot?
Environment matters. You might find it difficult to focus if your space is cluttered or chock full of distracting devices.
If possible, set up a nook exclusively dedicated to studying. This area should include a desk, an ergonomic chair, quality lighting, and any materials you might require during your study session. Let your roommates, family members, or other fellow residents know that, when you sit down at your desk, you are not to be disturbed.
4. Level Up Your Playlist
The right music can make your study session both more enjoyable and more effective. Several studies highlight the value of classical music, in particular. For example, in a study published in Learning and Individual Differences, researchers discovered that lectures involving classical background music prompted higher quiz scores than similar lectures that lacked such music.
The main theory underscoring these results: Music places students in a heightened emotional state that makes them far more receptive to information than they would be under ordinary circumstances. Experts at the Duke Cancer Institute also believe that music boosts retention because it reduces anxiety.
5. Ditch Distracting Devices
In today’s digital world, it’s tough to go even a few minutes without glancing at our smartphones. Unfortunately, this dependence can cause big problems when it’s time to buckle down and study. Research suggests that the mere presence of a smartphone is enough to prevent most people from learning effectively—even when showing restraint and managing to avoid scrolling through notifications.
While apps and alarms might seem helpful, they may not make up for the inherent distraction that comes with keeping your phone in your study space. For best results, commit to turning your phone off for at least an hour and placing it in a safe space as far from your desk as possible.
6. Experiment With a Variety of Study Tactics
No one study method works equally well for everyone. Some people learn best from reading notes out loud, while others benefit from flashcards or highlighters. Experiment with several approaches until you find a strategy that best addresses your unique needs. Don’t be surprised, however, if a single method fails to deliver results for every subject. A specific strategy may prove more effective for one course than for others, so don’t be afraid to switch things up as soon as your approach appears to deliver diminishing returns.
7. Create Sample Test Questions
As you try different approaches to studying, consider this effective option: Develop and answer questions that might realistically be found on your exams.
This method provides a variety of benefits. First, it forces you to boil down weeks of learning into a few basic takeaways. Details matter, of course, but it’s equally important to understand the big picture.
Writing sample questions also allows you to think like an instructor. This thought process may benefit you when the actual exam arrives. Finally, self-created tests help you determine where your main gaps in knowledge lie for a clear indication of the topics that warrant closer review.
8. Get Involved with a Study Group
It’s never too late to start a study group. While these gatherings are most beneficial if they take place throughout the entire course of the semester, they can provide plenty of value in the last few days before finals. If nothing else, commiserating over test prep may ease your stress.
Many of the tactics highlighted above can be integrated into group efforts. For example, everybody in your group can be tasked with creating flashcards from a specific lecture or chapter in your textbook. These can then be mixed and used for the ultimate flashcard review session. Likewise, participants could develop sample questions to be compiled and used in a practice exam.
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Exam prep may feel lonely at times, but you can take solace in knowing that you’re never truly alone. Numerous resources are available to help you conquer difficult material and deal with pre-exam stress.
Begin by turning to your fellow classmates or study group members for assistance. Even a brief chat could trigger valuable insights or provide the motivation needed to push through when the going gets tough.
Don’t hesitate to seek help from your instructors. Office hours exist for a reason, and yet, far too many students are too intimidated to chat up those in the best position to help.
The sooner you get over this discomfort, the better. Not only will increased interaction with your instructor prove helpful for short-term test prep, you could build a strong relationship to form the basis of your college networking efforts.
10. Keep the Big Picture in Mind
Final exams aren’t designed to torture stressed-out students. There’s more to this college essential than grades alone. It’s the perfect example of the cliché about the journey being more important than the destination. The act of studying for your finals ensures that you fully engage with the extensive material covered throughout the duration of each course.
If you take exam prep seriously, you’ll come away with a richer understanding of key concepts. This, in turn, will ensure that you retain the knowledge you’ve worked so hard to gain. As you move forward with upper-level courses, graduate school, or your eventual career, you’ll thank yourself for putting in the effort.