If you’re a student, the most stressful time of the year is approaching: finals week. I know, we all can’t wait till it's over and we can go off and enjoy the sun, our summer break, vacation, time with our loved ones, and drink some slushies! Perhaps, you’re watching this in the winter, Christmas break is just around the corner, and you’re just waiting till you can dawn your ugly Christmas sweater and drink some spiked egg nog with the fam! But, before we can get to that, we have to get through these exams. So, I’m going to give you 3 real exam study tips to help you ace your finals and get on with your life.
01 | Time Management
Time. That’s the single most important factor to consider when you have multiple exams to study for. Knowing how to properly manage it, and juggle back and fourth between different courses will separate the students who go through exams stress-free from the ones who wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety attacks. There are two key aspects to managing your time:
Macro-Time Management / Looking Ahead
This one's easy. Start studying for finals early! Personally, I like to start studying at least two weeks in advance but you can decide what’s best for you.
My only recommendation would be to be realistic. Don’t assume that you’re going to study for 16 straight hours a day and that you can just wait until a few days before the test to start studying. I know macro-time management is obvious, but few students actually do it because of how busy they are with assignments and labs all the way up until exams. Even scheduling an extra hour each day, to study for finals, will eventually add up. The hard part about macro-time management is not the concept, but how to actually practice it. That's where the next aspect comes in.
Micro-Time Management / Scheduling
The second aspect of time management is micro-time management or scheduling. Start by asking yourself, "if I had no other exams to study for except this ONE, how much time would I need to feel fully prepared for it?" For me, that number usually fell between 10-15 hours of focused study.
Next, take a look at your calendar and schedule out exactly when you’re going to use that time. At least a day before the test, you should have studied the total amount of hours that you decided would make you feel ready for the test.
Check out Toggl, if you’re looking for an app that helps you track how you use your time. Here's a quick summary of it:
- it's free
- easily allows you to type in what subject and task you're working on
- with the click of a button, you can start a timer that keeps track of how long you work on a task
(Thanks Rodrigo, for recommending this app to me.) You can also keep, store, and use your data as reference in the future, when you want to assess how long it takes for you to adequately prepare for a test.
02 | Prioritization / Pareto principle
Students can easily get so caught up in the details of a problem or subject that they end up burning precious study time. In order to avoid this problem, use the 80/20 rule which is also referred to as the Pareto Principle.
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, 80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts. This law appears time and time again in nature, business, society, and just throughout life in general. I don’t want to waste your time going through the all of the examples, so just trust me for now, but look up the Pareto Principle when you have some free time.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but maybe some of the senior college students will agree (let me know in the comments below). There is a lot of stuff to cover on an exam. As a result, professors have to take the most important concepts from every topic that you covered in class, and put them on the test. After covering the main topics, they can try to squeeze smaller concepts into an exam. If you start by studying all of the larger concepts in every course, you have a better chance of scoring the most points on a test. Think of prioritization like drawing a picture.
1. Create the outline by studying all of the major concepts.
2. Then, go back and fill it in with detail and colour afterwards if you have time.
If I were to create a hierarchy of importance, it would go like this:
- Big topics that came after the midterm that you don't know
- Big topics that came after the midterm that you kind of know
- Big topics that came before the midterm that you don't know (if the test is cumulative)
- All of the little details.
03 | Active Learning VS Passive Learning
For example, if you’re an engineering student, the more time you spend doing homework problems, and old exams the better. This is a better use of your time as opposed to reading the textbook or notes. I know that it’s impossible not to refer to the notes or textbook sometimes but try to minimize that time. Start a problem, and refer to the textbook or notes when you need it to move forward. Actively try to understand the processes, the assumptions, the methodologies and formulas as you go along. The goal is to push your brain to do as much work as possible and really build the neural connections.
If you’re an engineering student, make a formula sheet as you finish homework problems and old exams. That way you don’t have to reference the textbook or notes as much. Before the exam, you should be able to explain all the different parts of a formula, and maybe some of the key assumptions that went into simplifying it because trust me... in engineering, we condense a lot of formulas into easier to use formats. It’s important to know all of the equations inside-out, so you truly understand how and when to use them on an exam.
If you’re a biology student, for example, your time may be better spent memorizing flash cards as opposed to passively reading notes.
Whatever you’re studying, just try to maximize the time you are actively using your brain to learn and understand information, and minimize the time you spend passively reading, processing, or looking over information.