Sunday, November 27, 2011

How to Ace Your Final Exams

Thanksgiving break has just ended and Winter Break is so close you can taste the candy canes.

However there’s just one thing standing between you and that blissful month off – final exams.
I miss almost everything about college – but I’ll be honest I don’t miss studying for final exams. I don’t miss the intensity of knowing that in one week you will be expected to pour out everything you’ve learned in a semester onto a few sheets of paper in an hour or so. Some classes make finals a larger part of your grade than others – but pretty much every class will put you through this.

And it doesn’t get easier as you go along. In fact my senior exams were the most intense.

I will tell you though there is one part of final exams that I do miss. I miss that wonderful relieved feeling walking from my class to the parking lot, my brain feeling so free, releasing its grip on all of that information, and the elation I felt and the spring in my step that only comes from knowing you just aced your final exam.

That sense of completion and accomplishment is unlike any other. And it’s something I haven’t felt since college.
 If you’ve never felt that feeling then this post is for you. If you’re used to that sinking feeling after a test where you feel drained, exhausted, depressed, and anxious then this post is for you. There is a better way.

There are dozens of great study techniques that teach you how to study smarter and not harder. Find those books, buy them, and read them. They will save your life.

Below are my favorite techniques. The ones that helped me get A’s on every exam, the ones that made studying for exams (while not something I miss) a manageable experience, and the ones that made walking away from my exams and into Winter Break one of the best feelings of accomplishment and completion.

1. Start studying today. 
Make a list of every exam coming up and when you will take it (or when it’s due as some final exams are essays or take-home tests). Then, using a calendar or planner (my fav is Google Calendar) block off times to study for each test separately (no more than 50 minutes at a time) leading up to its due date.

2. Focus. 
Our brain literally cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. Just because we can text, study, Facebook, and eat at the same time doesn't mean it's the best way. And it is proven that our brains aren't wired for multi-tasking. Multi-tasking kills productivity

So, when studying for a test go to the library by yourself, rid yourself of all distractions (e.g do not go on Facebook, turn off your phone completely) and study for no more than 50 minutes at a time and focus on one test at a time. Put everything away except what you need for that test. Then do your study activities. Once 50 minutes is up take a 10 minute break (walk around, get something to eat, talk to a friend) and then start again. I'd recommend no more than 3 hours of studying (with a total of a 3 10 minute breaks at at time). 

3. Do not pull all-nighters. 
The day before the test should be the day you do the least amount of studying. In the weeks and days before you should be doing reviews and study activities. There are many books and online games (e.g. that you can use to find and create great study activities (i.e. just sitting at a table with your books and notes doesn’t work and will make you feel overwhelmed – you must create structure and activities). 

The day or two before a test is when you should be quizzing yourself to make sure you’re able to recall the information and then study only what you’re finding you aren’t able to recall when you “grade” your practice test.

4. Create practice tests!
I allude to this above and it is the MOST important study activity you can do. It is my best secret to getting’s A’s (if not 100’s) on every exam. About 3 or 4 days before the exam once you’ve reviewed create a practice test. By now you should have a basic idea of the style of your professor’s exams. 

Create the test in a way that will force you to blindly recall the most important information you need to know for the test. The act of creating the test will seep the information deep into your brain. Then, when you take the test and then grade yourself you will see what information has stuck and which information you need to study more – then you just focus on that.

5. Visit your professor. 
Once you’ve done an initial review and at least 3 to 4 days before the exam visit your professor during office hours with a few questions to clarify the information you are going to be tested on. Even if you think you know it all think of something to ask your professor about. You can even review with the professor the topics you’ve been studying and just confirm that you’re not missing anything. Then listen carefully. When professors talk about tests they usually reveal the most important topics if you really listen.

6. Only study in a group at the end. 
When you study initially with people it can distracting. If you’re a social learner (like myself) study by yourself first and then only once you are getting 90% of your practice test correct should you meet with a study group. The study group should be for the purpose of talking about the test and reviewing the information verbally (i.e. again this is for social and verbal learners who, when talking about it/teaching it, really learn best). If you don’t learn best by talking about it out loud or teaching it then you have no need for a study group.  If you need help talk to a professor, visit the tutoring center, or meet with one friend who you know has mastered that subject.

7. On the day of the exam – relax. 
Eat a really great breakfast. Dress nice. Get at least 8 hours of sleep. Do not study. You should be so ready for the test that you should not need to review. Keep your mind fresh. If you’ve done everything above you will be ready. Trying to study on the day of will only make you anxious and overwhelmed. Plug in your iPod and listen to your favorite upbeat music. Blast it in your car. Take a walk around your campus before the test to get the blood pumping to your brain and to feel energized by the fresh air. Then get to class 5 minutes early, put your books under the desk, turn off your phone, and just breathe. 

When everyone else is freaking out around you stay positive and don’t engage in that last minute frantic studying. Sing your favorite song in your head and tell yourself “I am going to ace this exam. I am so smart. I am so prepared. I am a great student. I am awesome at tests. I know all of this material. I am going to get 100% on this exam.” 

And then you’re ready to ace your exams and walk back out to your car with the sun shining on your back, ready to put your books away for a month. Ready to enjoy the winter break. Ready to relax because you’re not worried about checking your grades – you know you got A’s. Ready to put another semester behind you and look forward to your future.  

To read more about Isa's personal story how you can build relationships to: make positive friends, be more successful in academics and work, find the right people to connect with, and access the hidden job market, grab a FREE e-copy of the first chapter of Community College Success: How to Finish with Friends, Scholarships, Internships, and the Career of Your Dreams! Claim your free copy on the Facebook page!

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