College Compass | Entering survival mode: Finals edition


By Ana Altchek, Staff Writer

As I wrap up the fall semester of my third year in college, the term ‘finals’ still evokes traumatic memories from my first-year experience during exam week. When I took my first semester finals, I didn’t quite realize how much studying it entailed and slacked as a result. At the end of the second semester, I miscalculated the workload again, but completely overworked myself instead. For first-year students, the concept of a week-long exam period may feel foreign and unapproachable — especially for those who didn’t have any form of finals in high school. But even for those who had some exposure, high school exams don’t remotely compare to the workload that college finals prescribe.

Whether you’re a first-year student or final-semester senior, the final exam period represents a time of extreme pressure, elevated stress and emotional instability. Yet the negative stigma that surrounds the term “finals” often ends up dramatizing the reality of it. While the week may not classify as pleasant, it certainly doesn’t have to feel torturous. The last couple weeks of the semester definitely carry additional pressure as it is the last attempt to maintain or improve a grade, but it’s often not that different than any other exam-packed week in the semester. In fact, the surplus of University resources combined with no classes practically molds the week toward students’ success.

Unfortunately, even if this week does feel unbearable, the hard truth remains that it’s still a recurrent reality that will present itself at the end of each semester for roughly the next four years. The sooner students adjust to this reality, the better they’ll end up performing. It’s easy to slip into a negative mindset during this week, but rather than dwell on the hardships and build them up in my head, I’ve discovered that it’s much more useful to develop a system and approach the week head-on. If you’re ready to leave the pessimism behind and prioritize your academic performance, here are five tips that will help you survive the week.

  1. Location is key, so choose wisely:

For me, location remains the biggest determinant of my academic success. The combination of lighting, aesthetic, spatial composition and student vibe can make or break the spot. Thus, since I know I’m particularly selective about study spaces, I make it a priority to reserve a spot ahead of time by waking up early and setting down my things or reserving a table at Hillman in advance. However, for those who feel less passionately about their study spots, it’s still beneficial to choose a spot and stick to it throughout the week. By developing a study routine in the same environment, I start to associate the spot with studying and it becomes easier for me to pick up where I left off as well as focus in that area. However, sometimes the scenery change feels necessary so don’t be afraid to try out a new spot as long as it works with your needs.

  1. Make a schedule — and stick to it:

I’ve learned from experience that without setting a plan in advance, I often procrastinate and struggle to stay on track. Making a schedule not only makes the workload seem less intimidating, but helps me use the long week of free time in a productive way. I like to use paper because it helps me map out what I need to do, but Google Calendar or even the notes section on your phone can get the same job done. The most integral part of making a schedule is setting a break time. I personally like to take a couple long meal breaks so that I don’t break my concentration too much throughout the day. I also try and refrain from checking social media or napping during these periods because it makes me lose track of time or end up disoriented. However, while giving yourself a break is important, it’s crucial to make sure that off-time doesn’t overlap with study time. In addition to defining start and break times, I like to carve out specific slots for different classes to promote time management. If doable, once classes end, I like to mark out each day with a different class. However, if I have multiple finals on the same day, I at least like to split up my day into two sections so that I can fully devote hours on end to a single course. The more time I spend uninterrupted, the better I can focus and the more I can get done in the long run. 

  1. Consult your peers:

If the final exam period feels like the most challenging part of your semester, you’re probably not alone — and there’s no reason you should feel like you are. Whenever I’m struggling with an assignment, I find it really useful to discuss my confusion or uncertainty with peers. A classmate doesn’t replace a professor, but when it comes to study strategies or paper topics, it doesn’t hurt to ask around and see how other students approach it. I always like to make my own study guides, but by looking over a couple others, I often find additional terms or visuals that I missed. 

  1. Prioritize food:

During my first two finals weeks, I fluctuated about 10 pounds both semesters. I would either skip meals because I convinced myself I didn’t have time, or I overate as a way to compensate for my stress levels. Not only was this fluctuation drastic for my metabolism, but it left me with either a growling stomach or constant sugar cravings — which only slowed down my studying and hindered my academic performance. While I still find it difficult to maintain completely normal eating schedules during this hectic time, I at least try to be more consistent with my food intake. In addition to striving for consistent eating patterns, I try and eat food that will give me energy — like protein, carbs, fruits and veggies. Moreover, I try and stay away from high-sugar foods that will actually decrease my concentration and leave me hungrier. 

  1. Reach out to professors:

Before the semester ends, I always find it helpful to check in with my professors, especially if I’m struggling in their class or uncertain of where I stand. Professors are often more available during the week of finals and usually open to meeting with students and giving some kind of advice on how they can approach the final. Whether you’re asking for an extra credit opportunity, a chance to discuss a past paper or exam or more guidance on the final, it will at least put you in the back of their mind before you take the final. I always think it’s useful to reach out to professors throughout the semester through email or office hours. However, even if it’s finals week and you have no relationship with your professor, there’s no harm in a last attempt at improving your grade.