How I Ace my Exams and Handle the Stress of Finals Season

It is that time of the year when students across all educational levels are running on fumes and suffering from lack of sleep while catching up on piles of overdue materials. It is finals season. My finals took place a few weeks before the start of the season and, for this reason, I took a much-needed break from all my side projects to concentrate on studying. Today I want to share with you all some tips that have gotten me through the worst times of stress and anguish that inevitably follow when all your work hangs on the balance of a final that is worth everything.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on

Planning for Success Early

Very few people follow through with this, but studying for the final from the moment your class begins is the best way to ensure a stress-free finals season. Methods that help you learn for the long term include active recall and spaced repetition. My favorite recommendation for a combination of both is Anki, which I am using to prepare for my Microbiology board exams. 

But what happens if you did not start studying on day one? What if you have multiple courses looming over your head and no idea where to begin? Well, most of the time I don’t start early either. Step into my office!

Defining What You Need to Know

The first step is to define what you need to know for each final. Is the exam going to be cumulative, or will it only cover a portion of the course? If it is cumulative, there is a good chance you already have a portion of your study materials created in the form of study guides or flashcards.

In most cases, your professor will give you a topic list and if that is not available, referring to the course objectives is an effective way to make sure you are hitting the main points of the class. Make a list on your own where you cover all the relevant topics.

The next step is to define the type of knowledge you will need to take your final. Are you going to be facing multiple-choice, open response, critical thinking, or other types of questions? Your study format should be geared towards the type of question that you will be facing. For example, MCQs can be answered by recognizing buzz words while free-response questions will require a deeper understanding and the ability to synthesize in your own words a concept. Critical thinking questions will also have you go the extra mile by asking you to apply your knowledge to solve problems. Be ready for what you need to do as there is nothing worse than preparing for an MCQ exam and finding a critical thinking question.

Making a Study Schedule

Once you have defined the subjects to study and made your master list it is time to make the studying happen. You do not want to create a study schedule until you have defined what you need to cover so that you don’t accidentally short-change yourself on time.

You also should keep in mind that the studying process requires you to first prepare studying materials, which is the passive part of learning, and then you must still have time to study, review and apply active recall to those materials. At this time, also clear your schedule of unnecessary events and activities that will not be conducive to studying.

I like to designate one day per subject for the creation of study materials. I will classify it as an “all-day event” on my calendar and I will be working on it until it is finished. During this time I will compile and refine my study guides. This includes reformatting content into a Q&A format that is conducive to active recall for the practice time.

When I schedule time for recall I like to use two-hour blocks followed by an hour of some different activity that may be answering emails, cooking, choring, etc. I aim for 8 hours of solid active recall while I am in the practice phase which may not be feasible for working students, but you can adjust this time frame depending on how much time you have before the exam, how much you need to cover, and how many subjects.

It is very important to note that at least for me, making the study guide is the fun part, while doing the actual studying is the boring part. To me, active recall is the cardio of studying so I like to use Anki on my phone while I play fetch or tug-o-war with my dogs so I can keep my brain occupied because otherwise, I tend to space out. If you are like me and usually have a million mental tabs running all day, having something brainless to do with your hands while you practice active recall is a game-changer.

Minimizing Distractions

While the creation of the ideal schedule is all fun and great it is more important to be able to stick to that schedule. This finals season I experimented with social media daily limits, courtesy of the Screen Time feature on my devices and with scheduling time for relaxation. The first blocks apps for the rest of the day once you meet your daily limit and the second is a way to know that you will have some downtime plus something to look forward to at the end of your studying.

Other ways to minimize distractions include leaving your phone in a different room and uninstalling the apps that distract you. My favorite thing is to turn off notifications so that I am not disturbed while I try to study.

A good tip is to engage the people around you to keep you accountable, the Pomodoro technique to stay on track, and other focusing techniques described in more detail in Seize the day: Training your brain to get stuff done.

Prioritizing Self-Care

The last step of my studying process is to prioritize self-care. I could not talk enough about the benefits of self-care for students. Studying for finals, like any other high-stress time, needs to be met with the most rigorous self-care routines instead of slacking. Self-care not only refreshes your brain but also gives us ways to cope with anxiety and the stress of finals.

For me, the usual self-care routine involves: no phone or social media during the first hour of waking, an hour of lunch at the halfway mark of my day where I am mindful, present, and unencumbered by studying, thirty minutes of exercise after my last block of studying, and an hour of winding down before bed where I do relaxing activities such as journaling and skincare.

Think about what self-care means to you and integrate those things into your day to maximize your output. Trust me you will not regret it.

This is my process for preparing for intense finals. It is not perfect and an ever-changing work in progress. I’d be lying if I told you that the stress does not get to me. I have even experienced panic attacks, but the important thing is to ground yourself and get back on the horse.

Do you have any tips for handling finals season? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Published by L. Leal

Productivity enthusiast, dog mom, and post-graduate student conquering the pitfalls of procrastination.

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