The trek towards finals is quickly approaching.
Next week is finals week at my school, and I often have friends ask me, “How you do you prep?”
I thought I’d just create an article here outlining my “semester survival method.”
Keep in mind that I’m very self-disciplined, organized and time-aware, so this method might be “too much” for you. You’ve got to find a routine that works for you, your schedule, your learning style (find out what that is by taking a free quiz online. I’m visual/audio, but definitely not kinetic), and your personality. This routine is also going to fluctuate depending on which classes you are taking and their intensity.
I created this method based on trial and error to survive the hardest class I’ve taken so far in college, a Chemistry class, and I plan to follow this step by step next semester for Anatomy, the legendary “hardest class” my school has to offer.
I put my method’s results to the test when I showed up to that Chemistry final two hours and fifteen minutes late (it was a three hour final and since it was my first college final, I didn’t know that class times were different for finals schedule). I finished the entire test except for one question, left the classroom in tears thinking I’d failed, and I got an 86. I received a 96 (A) in the class. In other classes, when I’ve showed up to the final on time, unlike my Chemistry final, I’ve received finals grades well into the 90’s and had very little stress about the test itself.
So, without further ado, here we go: Becca’s Semester Survival Method
My method is actually a temporary lifestyle, a study habit, so it begins with this:
1) Show up to class prepared on day one. Have your brand new notebooks, binders, folders, and most importantly, a planner, ready to write down important dates and times.
2) Transfer important dates from the syllabus the instructor hands out directly to your planner. This planner will become your best friend while you survive. Take each of those important dates and go back one to two weeks in your planner and create reminders of those upcoming due dates.
3) Regardless of those reminders, start those projects as soon as possible (try to keep up on homework throughout the week so your weekends are freed for projects) so that the bulk of your semester work is at the beginning, rather than the end when finals is approaching and you’re feeling more burnt out or excited for the upcoming break.
4) Dress professionally. I know some of your classmates my come to school in their plaid pajama pants or their jeans that hang down to their knees leaving you ample opportunity to view their Corona boxers. We all know the girl that has a shirt cut so low that every guy in the room is practically drooling. Maybe it’s the person who always comes in late with their tie-dye shirt and skateboard which he slams on the ground by the door while the teacher is talking. This kind of behavior is especially apparent in lower division courses. I find, though, that when I dress professionally, I feel professional. I feel motivated. I feel confident. I know that when I invest in my appearance, not in a vane way, but in an “I-take-care-of-myself” way, I carry myself in a much more positive manner. Maybe it is all in my head, but I feel like I learn better when I look and feel good. One of the pleasant additional benefits is that you earn respect from the instructor and other studious people easier than say, if you had worn your favorite skull shirt to class (not to say that you can’t earn their respect, but even though people say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” people often do. So just play the game to survive, and dress in a respectable manner. When you’re on your own time, dress however you please). We also tend to attract people who we act like. It will make it easier for you to make more mature friends if you act mature. It will be easier for you to create a study group and to network if you act in a way that indicates you’re a serious student.
5) On the tail end of number four, ignore criticism and insults. I’ve been in many a class where I’ve been publically humiliated for performing well. One instructor even said, “There is a concern that has been brought up to me by a student in private that I think is probably on other minds too. Some people think I am raising my standard and grading you harder based on a particular successful student’s high performance.” Everybody turned to glare at me. “I just wanted to clarify; I am not altering my standard in any way. If you are not receiving the grades you had hoped it is because the information is not being understood. You know my office hours and you can come visit me there. You also have plenty of resources through the tutorial center. Or maybe you can pick up a thing or two from your friend here.” Let’s just say that after that, I was not their friend. I got my phone taken from my backpack and passed around class. Anytime an academic game was played, the teams fought over who would get me (we’re in college, people). If the opposing team lost, they said it wasn’t fair because the other team had me. In another class, the instructor would quietly hand back tests and when he got to me, he’d blurt out, “Great job,” when nobody else received praise. Trust me, that didn’t earn me popularity points either. But you know what? When it comes down to it, I’m in class with those people for a semester, and if they want to be jealous, rude, or cruel, so be it. I’m not responsible for their actions. I’m responsible for myself, and I choose to hold myself to a high standard. So if people criticize you or undervalue your achievements by saying school is easy because you’re “smart,” let it be water off a duck. You keep achieving. Keep a humble heart and keep a dedicated spirit. Aim for excellence in spite of opposition. Hopefully your example can encourage others to do the same.
6) Introduce yourself to your instructor on day one. This begins your professional relationship with them. You don’t have to say anything profound, but after the class, shake their hand, give them your name, and say something like, “I’m looking forward to what I can learn in your class,” or “I enjoyed what you said earlier about…” This professional relationship can be of benefit to you later if you need their help. They will take you more seriously knowing that you are dedicated to their class.
7) Arrive to class on time (military style) every day. In the military, I was told by my LJG that if she told us we were meeting at 5 pm, I could automatically subtract thirty minutes and that was the true start of the meeting. The point was to teach us to arrive early. This gives you a safety margin. You forgot breakfast? Run to the cafeteria. You forgot your essay? Run to the library and print off the copy you saved to your USB or emailed to yourself (because you did that, right?). You forgot there was a test? Run to the bookstore and buy some more Scantrons. Forgot your backpack? (How would you do that?) Pull a U-turn and go back home to grab it. Those thirty minutes become your margin of error.
8) Pick a desk in the first two rows. Nobody likes to do this because they get singled out, they can’t see what people are doing behind them, they look like the “nerd,” they are too insecure, they don’t like teacher standing right there so they can’t text, whatever the issue is, you’re in college now, and to be honest, those excuse sound pretty immature. Studies have shown that the students who sit in the front row tend to perform better than those who sit in the back. You know why I think it is? When I sit in the front row, I meet eyes with the instructor, and I develop a “friendship” with them through the fact that it feels like they are just teaching me and a few others. That relationship causes me to want to perform better in their class, to do their assignments well. They know my name and my face, so when my papers cross their desk, they are going to know who I am versus some Joe Schmo in the back. It increases my drive to perform well.
9) Read the chapter before class (you don’t have to understand it all, but the purpose of this is to start hearing the terminology, getting an idea of what sort of material is going to be covered even if you don’t understand it all, and to see where the chapter progresses to)
10) Keep your textbook flipped to the pages your instructor is lecturing from. Sometimes this can be hard with professors who jump about, but it helps so that later on, you have an idea of where those terms were. It also provides a quick reference if the teacher says something that is unclear or shows a fuzzy diagram. You’ll have your book right in front of you to see more clearly.
11) Take notes while the professor speaks. Hit key points and general ideas. If they say something profound, right it down verbatim. If they write anything by hand, write that down with them.
12) Be an active listener. Sit up straight, nod and smile at the professor from time to time, even if it is a conscious, rather than a natural act. Ask clarifying questions on occasion or share brief input on a topic that you know about. I find that the best way to break that “beginning of the semester” icy feeling that some classes have is to make the group laugh. Sometimes if a professor says something that reminds me of some funny mistake I’d made in the past, I’ll speak up; the class will be roaring, and even the instructor smiling. From there, everybody seems much more at ease. If the instructor cracks a joke and it isn’t funny, offer a slight chuckle or friendly smile despite your feelings about their lame humor. You’re helping them to save face as they stand in front of a bunch of college students whose respect they are trying to earn.
13) After class, reread the chapter, this time, more in depth. This should start to give you’re a feeling of success as you realize things have become clearer than they were before the class lecture.
14) Pair reading the chapter with re-writing your notes. Pick a notebook that is nicer than your class notes. This will be your class Bible. In this book, you will write definitions from the book of terms your professor mentioned. If you were taught in lecture about a process on the surface level, use the information in your textbook to write about that subject in greater depth. You’re essentially creating a hybrid between notes and a textbook, and the best part is that it is entirely written by you in your words, so it’s a first step in the process of internalization. This process can be long and tedious, sometimes outright boring, so make it as pleasant as you can. Find a table by a pond, or a bench in the sun. Bring a healthy snack or treat yourself to a chai spice latte (my favorite) from the cafeteria. Take some time to absorb the environment: the sounds of the birds, or the peace of the library, the solitude of your bedroom/dormroom, or, if you’re like me and trying to earn black belts while you make your way through college, enjoy the excitement of the people who are there training listening to fast workout music while you wait for your class with your textbooks on three different chairs surrounding you in the pro shop or office. Think about how you aren’t missing a thing while you begin to study and then tune it all out. Your relationship now is just you and the book. Sure, feel the wind on your cheek or greet the friend that passes you, but as soon as you can, return to that place where it is just you and the book. Use your neatest handwriting. Highlight your notes and the text, use bullet points, draw diagrams (unchain your inner artist), READ OUT LOUD.
15) Read out loud. For me, because I am an audio learner as well as visual, I’ll find myself stuck on a certain material and I’ll be like a skipping record, reading, re-reading, reading, re-reading, never retaining anything. At that point, I’ll stop in frustration, and I’ll begin reading it out loud, thinking about the words as I say them. This usually helps me to internalize the material better. In a way, it’s like I’m teaching myself.
16) Take your magic notebook with you to study groups or to your private study sessions. Pull it out to show your confused friend how something works that he or she is unclear on. Take pride in your notebook and accept complements about it. Flip through it once in a while to remind yourself of all that you have learned (and occasionally re-read the material to keep yourself frosty for those awful cumulative exams)
17) If the teacher gives a study guide, fill it out as soon as you can, and bring it to class so that you can make amends to whatever might have been left blank or filled in with the wrong information.
18) Connect with people in your class. This is called networking, a skill you will need in your professional life later on. Begin this process now. Exchange phone numbers, Facebook names, email addresses, and class times. Find out when you and your “friends” can meet up to review for a test.
19) I have found that my “study groups” often turn into social groups. I don’t like being the leader, but I find that in college, I oftentimes have to be the leader because everybody else will often be too shy, insecure, or immature to step up and get focused. I often position my study group in the library near a white board. Most school libraries have whiteboard pens available, but I bring my own just in case. I start by asking people what topics they feel insecure about. I try to be friendly, smile, and encouraging. I never let anybody feel bad if they don’t get something that is too simple. I find out if there are gaps in our study guides that can be filled out. I don’t get de-railed by the inevitable person who hasn’t even started their study guide and wants us to go through ever step. I point to the clock and ask them to pick three or four they need help on and have the group exchange numbers and emails so they can reference each other later on if necessary. I ask if there is anybody in the group who feels particularly confident with the topic that is asked about and would be willing to step up to the board with me to help me explain it. If not, I “learn” it with my group. I have one person open the textbook to the topic, another opens the study guide and reads what the instructor said. Another person uses their notes or my notebook if they don’t have one to read what the class notes were on it. Together as a team, we compile what we know about the subject and in this process, I, as the leader, have to “teach” it to whoever needs it. I break it down; reword things where I can, draw diagrams. This process leaves me feeling empowered and confident, but it also helps another person. What’s more, if you can teach something to someone, you have achieved the next level of understanding. If you can teach it, I’d say you are test-ready.
20) Enter a class with the mindset that says, “While I’m in this class, I am going to learn all I can about the subject as though this is the field I am going to spend the rest of my life in. I am going to invest myself 100% in this subject matter, no matter how boring it seems to me. I’ll muster up some sort of enthusiasm, try to seek out some sort of value in it, and I will become knowledgeable in it.”
21) Studying for the test doesn’t happen after the study guide is given out or two days before the test itself. Studying happens all semester long that is why the above steps are very important. If you study all semester long, your tests will be a lot less stressful than they were when you “studied” like two days before the actual exam date.
22) Projects. Get started on class projects as early as possible. For example, I had an essay this semester that was due on the day of my final, and it was worth half of my grade. Trust me, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a single paper. I began by writing out a rough outline of what I wanted to write on. I then sat down each day with a goal of writing two paragraphs or editing the previous to paragraphs (so every other day I wrote two more paragraphs). I started a month and a half before the due date. Some days, I got so involved in my writing that I let myself run with that inspiration and write four or five paragraphs. I picked credible sources using academic journals found through my school library’s website. Before I knew it, all twelve pages with two pages of references were written, edited, and ready to be printed. I had a family member double check them. I referenced my project instructions to make sure I’d met each of the criteria, and I placed my essay in a report folder that my instructor had requested. I picked a black one to stick with the theme of being professional.
23) Do every extra credit opportunity you possibly can. Do this extra credit even if you feel you don’t need it. You never know if you will get sick on a test day or tank on an exam because somebody close to you died or your car could break down on the day you needed to turn in an important homework assignment. Extra credit saves your butt. Extra credit gives you the chance to cushion your grade, so get as much of it as you can. And if you end up having a disaster-less semester, that extra credit will boost your grade. It can’t hurt. It’s like Nike. “Just do it.”
24) When finals approach lay out a plan with your study group about two to three weeks beforehand. Meet with them two to three times a week. These ample opportunities to meet allow for group members with varying schedules to make it to at least one of these meetings.
25) Throughout the semester, use external resources. I use one that I particularly love called “Khan Academy” that can be found online. They post all kinds of incredibly helpful videos on a variety of topics. This is especially useful on tough science classes where explanations are rather in depth but often breezed through during lecture. Khan Academy saved my butt many times for math and science classes. YouTube can also be helpful when the right search terms are used.
26) Get a second textbook. You’re probably thinking, “Are you crazy? I’m not made of money! Have you seen how much textbooks cost?” I’m not saying get the same textbook. Just get any old textbook on the same subject you’re studying. I had to take several nutrition classes for my nursing pre-reqs, so I went to our local library which has a used book store attached to it and I found their textbook section, bought three nutrition textbooks and paid them five bucks. For Chemistry, I did the same thing. I bought an extra Chemistry textbook and paid them 50 cents. Whenever something didn’t make sense in my regular book, I used the index on my other textbook and read their explanation. I found that between the two of them, one of them was bound to make sense.
27) Get a stuffed animal. Stuffed animals are great students. Sit Mr. Teddy on your bed or your desk, grab your study guide, and go through each term and explain it to him as best as you can without looking at your guide or using any other resource. This is a great gauge to see how confident you are with the material. Make a mark next to the ones you need to review afterwards. Mr. Teddy is also fantastic for practicing speeches or presentation. He won’t mock you or mark you down if you have a problem with your PowerPoint or have to look at your index cards too frequently.
28) Take exercise breaks when studying. No matter how busy I am, I make sure that in the midst of the craziest week at school, I get to at least three fitness and/or martial arts classes. This gives me the chance to blow off some steam, have fun, boost my self-confidence because I am doing something good for myself, and feel more energized and ready to sit down and focus when I return home. On a normal week, I attend fitness classes 5 to 6 out of 7 days, to give you some perspective. Are you a broke college student and can’t go to a fitness class at a gym? Can’t even make it to the gym to do your own workout? That’s fine. That is absolutely fine! There are lots of alternatives for at home. During one particularly hard semester when my class times conflicted with my exercise programs, I was forced to exercise at home most days. I took five-ten minute breaks every 30-60 minutes to exercise. I ran up and down our stairs for five minutes, did 50 pushups, a minute of prison lunges, squats, or biceps curls with a cheap resistance band I got at the store. I grabbed a chair and did some triceps dips, hopped on the resistance bike and rode for 10 minutes. I grabbed a jump rope and practiced my footwork for three minutes. It all adds up, and it’s a great way for you to maintain muscle mass, burn more calories at rest, burn up some of your stir-crazy energy to help you study, stay fit even when school gets tough, and control stress.
29) Reward yourself in the midst of the chaos of the semester. Plan an hour long coffee date with a friend a couple times a semester so you don’t feel like a total social recluse. Invite a buddy to go on a walk or a jog with you so you can get in your socializing and your exercising all in one fell swoop. Call up your friend to talk with on your speakerphone or blue tooth while you are driving to class. Park off campus (or like me, I don’t even have a choice because parking is so terrible at my school) so you can go for a walk before you sit in your lecture. Take yourself on a YouDate and go to the store to pick out some new shoes or clothes. Get your hair or nails done. Fill a hot bath and take a soak or crash your friend’s quiet night to use his or her hot tub. Do something to keep some sanity in your life.
30) Keep your study/living space clean. For me, much of my studying happens at home in my room. I make sure that weekly, I vacuum. My laundry is folded, my bed sheets are changed weekly, my bed is made each morning, my desk is kept tidy and uncluttered, etc. These things can make all the difference in creating the right mood to study and to give you some peace of mind when you are reading, sleeping, surfing the internet, or even chatting on the phone with a friend. A pleasant environment is key.
31) Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and don’t panic before tests. If you tell yourself you will perform poorly, your brain will believe you. Your brain likes uniformity, so it will do everything in its power to make you not contradict yourself. Without you even realizing it, your brain will set you up for failure if you’ve been telling yourself all along “You’re not good enough.” Talk sweetly to yourself. Encourage yourself. It sounds totally strange, but just do it. It really works.
32) Don’t beat yourself up over “failures.” We all have them. We learn from them, we move on. Don’t dwell on them.
33) Don’t make the grade your aim. Make excellence your aim. Make effort your aim. If you tried to achieve excellence and gave great effort, then give yourself an A and don’t let a C or a B discourage you. That subject might have been particularly hard for you. You may have had external issues going on at home or in your relationships. You could have had too much on your plate that semester. So don’t focus on a bad grade and start lying to yourself and saying that you are a “failure.” This will do nothing good for you in the long run, especially when it comes to your confidence. You tried, and that is what is important.
34) Adjust if it’s not working. You may need to amend how many units you are taking. I have found that with certain classes, 12-13 units enough. For other classes, 18 units was my max. In the class I’m going to take next semester, 5 units will be my breaking point. It simply depends on the type of class and the intensity of the class as well as your other obligations. You have to keep in mind that if you are a full-time student with no other responsibilities, then you probably have the freedom to take more units. However, if you are working, you have to decide if work is going to be part-time and school will be closer to full-time or if school is going to be part-time and work will be closer to full-time. You can’t do both and still keep balance and health in the forefront of your life. There are only so many hours in a day.
35) Meet with an academic counselor EVERY semester. These folks know the system, they know what other colleges you may want to transfer to require of you. They can recommend which classes to take when, help you plan, and ultimately, help you achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I meet with an academic counselor regularly and it has saved me many times from making mistakes I’d later regret.
36) When it is all said and done, reflect back on your successes and praise yourself for what you did well. “Success favors the prepared mind and body” is what my martial arts instructor tells us regularly. If you prepared, praise yourself for it!
37) Remember that school is only a piece of your life for a time. In the long run, there are many other things that are very important. Don’t sacrifice relationships or sanity in order to “get the A.” Keeping this in perspective is very important when you’re drowning in the world of academia. Good luck!
Comment below for more tips and tricks about how to survive the semester!