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Final Exams: Strategies for Acing the Big Test

Check out my final exam guide. It contains study strategies, wellness advice, and test-taking tactics to help you ace your exams with confidence!

Most final exams are quite heavily weighted to new material (often 30-50% of the final points ). It is worth learning a few new/unique strategies to optimize your performance.

1. New & Old Materials

If at all possible try to learn what percentage of the material on the exam is new i.e. covered since the last midterm. Ask you professor or look at old final exams to get a general idea of the weight of new vs. old material. If it’s been over a month since the last exam, the final is likely to be well over 50% on new material. It is worth some portion of your study time in the last 2-3 weeks to learn these new topics intensively and well. After tutoring many students I have noticed most professors heavily weight the new material.

2. Review Strategy

Again, your number 1 priority is to make sure that you can answer all the questions on old final exams, your midterm exams and your quizzes. In the last few days before the final it’s far too late to learn topics intensively. If you seem to be missing a very major high-point topic then reverse engineer it and learn just enough from your notes to understand generally what is going on so you can get some points on that topic. Memorize if you must. On the old material it is generally enough to redo your quizzes and midterm exams as a review. 

3. Study Rotation

Most people have 3-5 other final exams to study for. If possible, early in the study time, alternate, e.g. spend 1-2 hours on organic chemistry, short break, then spend 1-2 hours on calculus, short break, etc. Often, your brain will subconsciously consolidate your knowledge or gain clarity on one subject while you study the next. 

4. Balance & Breaks

Sleep at night. In the day get a short workout, take a walk or get a coffee. Take only short breaks during the day. Studying 20 hours a day solid doesn’t work for most people. Gaming as a break can cause major problems since your short break can turn into a 3 hour one very easily.

5. Time Check

Make sure to double check when/where the final is and leave plenty of time to get there if you will be coming from off-campus. You may not be allowed to write a deferred exam if you messed up on the time or place.

6. Wellness Priority

If you are very sick or in major personal or mental distress, don’t write the final. Contact the appropriate administrator as soon as you can to explain your circumstances and start the process for a deferred exam.

7. Exam Approach

Writing the final follows all the major rules we discussed in the “During Your Exam” blog. Read through the exam and answer first the easy questions that you know the best. Leave hard questions until the last but try to put down an answer for them if you can. Since many people are particularly tired even at the beginning of a final exam it is crucial to stop yourself from changing answers unless you have a very compelling case to do so. I have seen many finals were people crossed out their initial correct answer and put a wrong one.

8. Energy Management

Finals can last 2,3 or more hours. Eat something before and bring a (noncrunchy) snack and (nonalcoholic) drink if allowed. If you are used to drinking coffee, bring a cup. It has proven to increase exam performance if you are used to it. But don’t drink it for the first time during your final. Periodically look away from the exam and think of something else particularly if you are in panic mode.

9. Calmness

At the point you are writing the exam, your situation is what it is. Panic and regret will use up valuable energy and time. Optimize what you know by using my strategies and not going in with a “what the hell” attitude. When it’s a very hard/unfair exam, and you are relaxed, then you are much more open to unusual and creative approaches that might not get you a perfect score but might get you the best score. 

10. Score Verification

If your score is not what you expected, check your final against the key and make sure there are no grading/addition errors. If you think you deserve several points, it may be worth approaching your professor. 

Good luck!

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Dr. B Tips

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