What To Do Before Finals: The Fool-Proof Way to Study Without the Stress

You’ve studied your butt off, but you think your brain can handle a bit more knowledge; how do you study, and know to stop studying, effectively?

A dog wearing glasses and a sweater vest reads a few textbooks.

I want to start with a personal story. The first time I ever took a math test in sixth grade, I had a full-blown meltdown. I had studied, not super hard, but enough to know that I should have had the answers to the questions in front of me; but, for the life of me, no amount of thinking could help me answer the test questions. The test itself had turned into a jumble of meaningless words and numbers that I could not untangle.

This is called a ‘paper tiger,’ an originally Chinese idiomatic expression that means something that appears threatening, but is actually conquerable. Tests, really any performance-based event, were always like that for me, and you can read more about my experience, and how I dealt with that anxiety in a previous blog.

Even if tests don’t have quite that feeling for you, they still provoke anxiety. Here’s the thing: after a lot of therapy, working through those testing (especially academic testing) anxieties, I’ve learned to become cool, calm, level-headed, almost to the point of Zen. My friends can attest to the fact that I am one of the most relaxed test-takers they’ve seen. Let me show you how I do it.

A woman falls asleep while studying, books scattered around her.

STEP ONE – Study Time

At this point, finals week is practically upon us. If you haven’t started studying yet, it’s either because you’re supremely confident (which is fine), you’re procrastinating, which will only make your anxiety worse (trust me), or you’re too busy.

This may seem counterintuitive, but begin by studying for the finals that are furthest away; strange, I know. The reason is simple: consider this a warm-up, you’re stretching your mental muscles so that when you go into study for the nearer finals, your brain is flexible and ready.

Spend a limited amount of time on the furthest finals, then steadily work your way into studying for the soonest ones. Studying for finals is a marathon, not a sprint, so plan your time accordingly. Scheduling out your studying is paramount:

  1. It holds you accountable to the greatest judge of all: yourself.
  2. It helps you keep track of how much you’ve prepped for what subject, and what you still need to work on.
A mouse or guinea pig plays guitar while wearing a homemade scarf.

STEP TWO – Take Breaks (When You Need Them)

As you study, every 25 or so minutes, reward yourself with a 3-5 minute break. This is called the pomodoro technique and it was developed in Italy as a highly productive and efficient means of managing work. Check out this Forbes article for a primer, and an endorsement, on the standard way to do the pomodoro (sounds like an old 1950s dance, doesn’t it?). FYI, the technique was named pomodoro, which means ‘tomato’ in Italian, because the initial research was conducted with a timer, you guessed it, shaped like a tomato.

During your breaks, follow the gerbil’s example above and relax with some music. It can still be constructive, gratifying, and restful at the same time, but not as mindless as tuning into The Bachelorette for 3-5 minutes before returning to studying.

A tired man rubs his eyes while looking at his laptop and sitting on bean bag chair.

Prepping for finals isn’t just time-consuming; it can be exhausting, especially if you never allow yourself breaks. You won’t keep your schedule if you don’t give yourself the dopamine boost of a reward. Consider small treats at the end of study blocks or chapters you’re reading, like pieces of chocolate (though not too many) or some leftover Halloween candy I know you have stowed away. Staring at a screen for too long is awful for your eyes. Don’t take my word for it; Harvard Health points out that staring at your screen can cause eye strain, soreness, or dryness to occur, none of which sounds pleasant. Give yourself time away from the screen; your corneas will thank you.

Find two separate comfortable places. Why two? One’s for studying only, and the other is for the breaks and relaxing. This is an old trick that actually works very well. According to Fast Company, by having a space strictly for work, you prepare your mind to get into that mental space. Don’t do your work in bed if you can avoid it; the only math you should be doing in bed is counting sheep.

A cat-like animal rests lazily on a big chunk of bamboo. It appears to be napping.

STEP THREE – Know When To Stop

This one speaks for itself but is actually extremely tough to accomplish. Recognize the signs of your tiredness, your weariness, the fact that you’re no longer taking in new information, to stop studying for the night.

A lot of students think they should spend hours studying and studying until they fall over, but my strategy is actually the opposite. Get as good a night’s rest before your test as you possibly can. Sleep is your best friend pre-test (pre-anything really. What’s better than sleeping?).

A different dog reads books, with glasses on and a bunch of other books around him/her

Wrappin’ It Up

The last step to preparing for your finals is mental and physical. When you log in to take that final, tell yourself you’ve got it. Pump yourself up mentally, and calm yourself down physically. Use the long breath in, long breath out (a count of 4 inhale & 5 exhale for example). Or, try pursed-lip breathing, which, according to Healthline, makes your breaths “more effective by making them slower and more intentional.” Be entirely present. It sounds cliché, but the notion “there is only me and the test” does come into play here.

Once the test is over, the final thing I tell myself, and I recommend you tell yourselves, is that there’s now nothing I can do about it. Once I take a test, I don’t talk about it, I don’t think about it, I simply wash the test away, regardless of whether it was good or bad. Put simply, I move on with my day. It will save you the dread of rehashing what you could have done differently.

I won’t say prepping for finals is fun or glamorous, but, especially if you’ve already done a lot of studying, there are ways to take a step back, relax a bit, and give yourself credit for all the work (not even the emotional toll of 2020 in general) that you’ve put in. Good luck out there, but I don’t think you all even need it.

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