Top 15 Hot Tips for Finals

Know the best ways to prep for and take your semester-ending exams.

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It's finals time! These time-tested tips for studying for, and taking, your final exams can make a huge difference in your results, and send you off happy to your holiday break:

1. Count your way forward. Many students, when starting to think about preparing for finals, look at the dates of their finals, then count their way back. "Biology final on Wednesday? That's two or three studying days needed. I guess I'll start hitting the books on Sunday." A far better idea is to count up from the day the study questions are handed out (or if your prof doesn't bother with such niceties, a week before the exam) to the day the exam will take place. "Seven days? Then I'll divide the course into sevenths and study two weeks' worth of lectures each day."

2. Shed some commitments. You'll find you have a lot easier time studying if you make extra time for it. Put off any unnecessary social obligations or family commitments. And, if you're working, try if at all possible to take 10 days off for final exam period (or at least trim your work schedule). Even a few strategically placed extra hours can make the difference between doing just OK on finals and doing a really great job.

Best-Kept Secret. If you can finish your term papers the week before the last week of classes, it'll free loads of extra time to study for finals.

3. "Triage" your study time. Some students think they should spend equal amounts of time preparing for each of their finals. Instead, proportion your study time to how hard the final is likely to be and how well you already know the material.

[Read how colleges are trying to take the stress out of exam time.]

4. Figure out what's covered. One of the most important things you need to be clear about is what materials are going to be tested on the final. Are readings and discussion sections included, or is the final going to focus almost exclusively on material from the lectures? Is the final going to concentrate on materials since the midterm or is it going to be a comprehensive or cumulative final? Knowing the extent—and the limits—of the exam will make it much easier to organize and structure your studying.

5. Decide if it's going to be a grand tour or lots of local attractions. Professors have two strategies in making up finals. Some profs design a single, big question or two; other professors give a series of more focused questions, each covering some single issue in the course. Before you start studying, make sure you've figured out your professor's test-construction strategy.

[Learn how to relax and ace your exams.]

6. Torture the samples. In the typical college course, there are many resources available that give you specific information about what questions will appear on the final. Sometimes, the professor or TA simply drops hints about what "would make for a good final exam question." But other times, the questions are right there in the open. A study guide, sample final, or set of review questions can often furnish questions amazingly close to the actual exam questions.

7. Study with a group only if it makes sense. Many students believe (mistakenly) that a study group always affords an advantage: more brain power plus peer pressure to crack the books. This works well when your study buddies are at least as smart as you. Exam time isn't charity time.

8. Cram with the professor (or TA). One of the best—and at some colleges, most under-used—resources is the review session. Here the professor (or sometimes the TA) will give you a window into the final. He or she might sum up the high points of the course, do sample questions or problems, give study tips, or sometimes just divulge about how he or she was thinking about the topics of the course. In any event, it's the single biggest help in studying for the final.

9. Leverage your notes (when allowed). Increasingly, professors are allowing students to bring their notes and books to the exam. Rather than the trick question, "gotcha!" kind of exam, these professors want to see how well you can express your ideas, given the data. Be sure your notes are in tip-top shape if you're given this chance.

10. Read the instructions—and make a plan. When you get to the exam and get your test sheet, take the time to carefully survey the format of the test. How many questions are you being asked to answer? Is there a choice? How much does each part count? Then make a (tentative) plan—right up front, before you start working—of how much time you're going to devote to each question.

4-Star Tip. Don't waste too much time outlining your answers, writing down formulas you've memorized, or (when given a choice) starting a question and then stopping and starting another question. You're being graded on the quality of your answer, not on notes to yourself or false starts.

11. Be sure to develop your answers fully. Many students don't realize that, on essay exams, part of what's being graded is how well you develop and explain your answer, not just how correct it is. Consider explaining your points in more detail so that someone unfamiliar with the answer would know, just from what you say, what the answer is.

12. Make it easy on the grader. In many courses, the professor or other person grading will have 70 finals to read in a space of two or three days, which means about 10 or 15 minutes per exam. You're more likely to get a good grade if you: make clear which question you're answering; begin to give your answer in the very first sentence of your essay; show all work in a problem-based exam; and, above all, write neatly.

13. Pace yourself. Two or three hours is a long time. Think of the final exam as a work session, divided into a number of sub-sessions. Take a few-minute break between each question or part. Approach each question separately from the rest.

14. Don't panic too soon. In three hours, confronted with a number of questions of varying degrees of difficulty, there are bound to be ups and downs—times you're feeling better, and worse, about how the test is going. Ignore such instantaneous feedback. Most tests are designed to have some harder questions, and in any case, such self evaluation is often wrong.

15. Stay 'til the bitter end. It's amazing to see, but many students leave before the exam is over. That's never a good thing to do, since there are always problems to be checked over or essays to be added to or proofread. Even making a single correction to a problem, or adding a single point to an essay (don't be afraid to pencil a paragraph into the margin or on top of the page), can spell the difference between a good grade and a not-so-good grade.

Best of luck on your finals!

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