Final Exams: 10 Ways to Survive

Sometimes it can take more than a sharp mind to survive the gauntlet of tests, reports, papers, and late nights that make up final exams.  Sometimes the week of finals can feel more like an episode of the Walking Dead than the last week of college.  But – it doesn’t have to.

  1. Spread it out

This may seem like a no brainer, but logic quickly goes out the window when you’re facing 5 exams in 4 days.  While you may be tempted to spend all of your time before each exam only studying for it – don’t.  By breaking your studying over a few days and through a number of different sessions, you’re studying will be much more effective.

  1. Take breaks

It may seem counter intuitive to spend time not studying when you only have a limited time before the test.  But studying for long periods without giving your brain a break is like trying to run a marathon without water stops.  It isn’t pretty and usually your time is much worse.  Take a short breather every 15 minutes so you can let your brain stretch.

  1. One step at a time

Since you’re breaking up your studying sessions into 15 minute blocks, only focus on the step that is right in front of you.  How do you survive the zombie apocalypse?  One day at a time.  Trying to take in everything can quickly get you bogged down and overwhelmed.  You don’t have to do it all, you just have to do this little bit next.  By directing your energy into ‘kicking butt’ for the next 15 minutes, you will be setting yourself up to ‘take names’ when the exam comes around.

  1. Brain food

While eating brains won’t help your exam grade any, giving your brain the fuel it needs to excel is critical for the mental gymnastics that finals can demand.  First, eat often.  Keeping a steady flow of calories to your brain is critical for keeping it in top shape.  Nuts, berries, avocado (guacamole!), and dark chocolate are all great choices because they are high in the healthy fats that make your brain faster, low sugar so you don’t have a sugar crash, and easy to sneak into the library.

  1. Learn.  Sleep.  Learn again.

One of the best things you can do is to make your sleep as productive as possible.  The easiest way to do that is by using sleep to break up your studying.  Over night, your brain takes the opportunity to clear out any information that it doesn’t need.  By studying something before and after a good night’s sleep, you are doubly reinforcing what you’ve learned.  This is also why it’s better to wake up an hour early to study the next morning rather than stay up an extra hour the night before.

  1. Put your muscles to use.

Although your brain will get the biggest workout during exams, make sure you don’t neglect the rest of your body.  Take those short study breaks to move around and get your blood flowing.  Not only will it help you work out that kink in your neck from reading so much, it will also kick your brain into high gear when you return to the books.  Even something as simple as walking outside to get some fresh air can give your body the break it needs to chug through another study session.

  1. Caffeine & A Nap

It may be easier to fly to the moon than make it through exam weeks without caffeine.  Whether you prefer black coffee, Diet Coke, or an electric blue Mountain Dew Voltage – caffeine can provide that extra perk that gets us through the day.  But, it takes approximately 20 minutes for the caffeine in your drink to start working its magic.  Coincidentally, that is also the ideal amount of time for a nap (another essential for surviving finals).  A small cup of coffee and a power nap can be a one-two punch for making it through another study session.  Best of all – it’s science.

  1. Stick with the routine.

I’m the kind of person who always likes to sit in the same spot in class.  After an entire semester of learning in a certain area, the final exam isn’t the time to see what the room looks like from another chair.  If you moved around every class, now isn’t the time to start ‘settling down.’  Sticking with your usual routine for a final exam gives your brain and body a familiar setting to pull on all the information you’ve learned there throughout the semester.

  1. One. Step. At. A. Time.

Once the big test is upon you, there isn’t anything left to do except to take a deep breath, trust in yourself, and forge ahead.  Whether you’ve put in weeks of work or just a few hours, try not to spend time thinking about what you can or can’t remember.  Take each question one step at a time and give it your all.  If you don’t know the answer, move on to the next question.  The following questions might trigger something that gives you the answer you were looking for before.  Just like studying, taking an exam one question at a time help you give you the extra clarity to knock it out of the park.

  1.  Celebrate!

Just turned in a massive paper?  Take some time to celebrate before you get back to the grindstone.  Just as important as working hard before a test is rewarding yourself afterwards.  Enjoying the big victories (like nailing an exam) and the small ones (making it through your flashcards without a mistake) makes studying a little less painful.  It also gives you something to work towards.  So, work hard, but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  Just try not to celebrate at an empty ski lodge in the middle of nowhere.


Whether your exams are a zombie apocalypse or a real live version of the Hunger Games, approaching them with the right set of tools can make you more prepared to succeed than the best “doomsday prepper.”  

The Final Countdown

Sorry if you’ve got “The Final Countdown” playing in your head…if it wasn’t before, but is now, sorry for that too.

The semester has been a long hard fight and now it all comes down to these last few weeks – designed to push you to your academic limit.  Passing our foreign language exam may not be the same as sparring with a chiseled Russian boxer but we can still take a few pointers from Rocky when it comes to getting through our finals.

1.  Define what it means to win

Winning doesn’t and shouldn’t mean the same thing to everyone.  In the first Rocky movie, the goal is for Rocky to “go the distance” – meaning that he goes all 15 rounds with Apollo Creed.  Getting an A+ on your final may be one way to determine if you’ve won, but it doesn’t have to be.  Grades are only one way to assess how much you’ve learned over the semester.  Find out what it means for you to consider the class a success and strive to meet your personal goal.

2. Turn your weaknesses into your strength

Rocky was a “southpaw” boxer which meant that he preferred his left-hand instead of his right (not that being a lefty is a weakness).  In Rocky II, Mickey focuses on training Rocky’s right so that it throws off his opponent.  If you have a hard time memorizing terms, recognize that and change your training to meet the challenge.  You may not naturally pick it up as easily, but once you do it will really pay off.

3.  Do what you do best

When Rocky tries to find things to do besides fighting, it doesn’t work.  In addition to working on those things that we think are weaknesses, we can also work to highlight our strengths.  If you can churn out awesome essays in no time, then making sure you have great essay responses can give you a leg up when you have to face a harder section like multiple choice (or multiple guess for me).

4.  Don’t go it alone

We all need people to give us a kick in the pants every once in a while and Rocky always did his best training when he had someone to help motivate him.  Some of us may be able to sit in the library alone and pound out hours of intense studying.  But, going it alone also means that you may be missing out on valuable insight that can come from a little help.  Spending some time working with a study group can give you the opportunity to see the material from a number of perspectives and perhaps find something that you may have missed in your own notes.

5.  It’s about more than a test

Even though the Rocky movies seem to focus on the fights, they were actually only a small part of what made those movies so great.  Rocky had to deal with a number of issues outside of the ring so that he could perform at his best.  In the days leading up to finals, remember that there’s more to life and your semester than this one test.  Prepare for it like crazy, but don’t forget to take a little time to remember all the people and things that make life really worth living.

In case you want a little musical motivation, feel free to run up and down the stairs of your library to this.  Good luck – you’ve got everyone here at PERRLA rooting for you!
Thanks to Ricardo and Steam Boat Friday for the inspiration and picture.

The Calm Before the Storm

We’re at that point in the semester where many of the tests and papers are behind us but finals wait just around the corner. Like sitting in the middle of a hurricane, it’s an eery calm that can be misleading. So, instead of just bracing for the oncoming wave of anxiety, cramming, and late night library visits, let’s use this time to fortify our defenses and lay out a plan to go out with a triumphant hoorah!

See The Big Picture

Take a 40,000 foot view of your class as a whole. Step back and look at how the class material has been organized. If you can get your head around how the class has progressed through the semester it can give you a new way to categorize the information you’ve learned. Most professors (or at least the best of them) have a reason that they’ve taught you the material in the manner they have. So, if you can understand why a course is laid out the way it was, you’ll have a better grasp on the underlying architecture of the class and a helpful insight into what the professor is hoping you will learn.

Organize Your Study Materials

First, organize important notes, handouts, and tests from earlier in
the semester. Over time, our important papers tend to get a little
scattered. Taking a few moments to make sure that you have everything you’ll need to study effectively can cut out hours of panicked searching later. It also gives you a chance to share resources with classmates in case you are missing anything or want to beef up your previous work.

Start Reviewing Now

Next, go ahead and start reviewing your materials. Most exams are
comprehensive, so that means you’ll need to brush up on the terms and concepts you learned way back in January. You don’t have to jump into full study mode yet, but becoming familiar with the major ideas that you’ve already studied will keep them fresh in your mind.