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5 Mistakes to Avoid During Finals

December 1st, 2008 · 32 comments

Post-Thanksgiving ScrambleExam Hall

It’s the week after Thanksgiving. For most students this means finals are rapidly approaching. If you haven’t begun thinking about how to tackle this upcoming challenge, now is a great time to start. With this in mind, I want to review 5 common mistakes that students make during this period.

Read what’s below before diving into your own final-driven scramble and you’ll increase your odds of making it to Christmas vacation unscathed by an academic disaster.

Mistake #1: Not Having a Clear Schedule


Some students assume they can handle finals period one day at a time. When it gets close to an exam date they start studying. If they have a paper due in a few days they begin writing. And so on…

This is a recipe for a disaster! Deadlines will creep up and conflict. You’ll end up staying up late, rushing your studying, turning in crappy papers, and generating more stress and worse grades than is necessary.

You should, instead, build a detailed and clear plan that covers every due date and exam — including exactly when you’ll you work on each.

Mistake #2: Not Purging Your Obligations

Most students maintain a significant load of minor obligations throughout the semester. These include all the gunk that builds up on your task list, generated by your extracurricular involvements, promises to friends, and various administrative annoyances.

This gunk can usually be handled by smart capture systems and regular mucking. But in finals period, your workload will spike. During this time, the little obligations in your life can add stress and destabilize your attempts to focus on the big things.

The key, therefore, is to ruthlessly purge the minor stuff right now, before the workload spike occurs. The system outlined in the recommended reading will walk you through this process.

Mistake #3: “Studying”

Nothing upsets me more than students who treat “studying” like a generic action. Here’s the truth: The verb “study” means nothing. It’s way too vague. I’d be happy if it was banished from the student lexicon!

Here’s what you should do instead: deal with specific actions. That is, your review plan for a class should be a collection of discrete, specific action items – each of which requires no more than an hour. Once the list of discrete specific actions is completed for a given class, you’re done. No guilt. No staying up late in the library because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.

Mistake #4: Social Working

Exam prep and final paper writing is not a time to be social. There’s no easier way to scuttle your efficiency than to study in crowded lounges or in public areas of the library. If you want to bond with your friends, play a game of pong. If you want to prepare for finals, seek monastic isolation and work in small energetic bursts.

Mistake #5: Calculating Your Final Grade

A lot of students try to figure out what effect different final exam grades will have on their final grade in the course. (For example: “I have to get at least a 90 on the final to get an A in the class.”) Indeed, almost every e-mail I get asking for exam preparation tips seems to be prefaced with some range of scores the student has to hit in order to get some desired final grade.

Don’t do this! No good can possibly come from such a superficial focus on the numbers. It will add stress. This, in turn, will make it harder for you to execute a reasonable, specific, and efficient study plan. Also, it’s just plain crass. You don’t want to be that person…

Forget about your G.P.A., and focus, instead, on how you can best prepare for the specific challenge in front of you. If you screw up, you screw up. Perform a post-mortem and use this to guide better preparation the next time around. Good long-term performance will follow from this short-term focus.

What mistakes are you looking to avoid this exam season?

Hat tip: longtime reader, David.

(Photo by davidhc)

32 thoughts on “5 Mistakes to Avoid During Finals

  1. Hmm..
    Calculating my grade gives me some motivation: “Come on, you want to get that grade, work for it”

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Calculating my grade gives me some motivation: “Come on, you want to get that grade, work for it”

    My problem with this approach is that leads to malformed approach to review. Instead of coming up with a plan of specific action items and then completing it according to a schedule, you might, instead, try to assuage your guilt by “studying” in the generic sense as long as you can stand it. (The more pain, the better you feel about your effort).

    I think reviewing is a specific process made up of specific steps. You either do it or you don’t.

  3. J. Barny says:

    Thanks for this!

  4. Jeddy says:

    Hey Cal, you mentioned in one of your earlier posts (Fixed-Schedule Productivity, I think) that you postpone obligations for later if you currently have more important priorities, and you’re clear about when you’ll be able to complete those.

    What’s the difference between that and here with #2? If you’re in “panic mode” already, should you just get it “all” taken care of immediately, or is it better to postpone everything until after finals and get it out of your head for now?

  5. Jon Kho says:

    Hi Cal, I read your articles relating to “avoid obsessing on GPA” which reduces stress and i agree with you on that. However, if the student is unable to get back the exam paper. How does can he/she improves the current study habit. Is there any other ways to measure the performance?

  6. Right on, when I was pursing my undergrad degree, around finals is when people started to freak because they became to distracted by GPA, video games, social events and so on. Not fun, I went through rough times because of crap like that. One time we all got hooked on 24, instead of preparing for finals. :) Those were the days, by the way- not that long ago.

  7. patrickryan says:

    Thank you for this post! It’s great, I love reading your stuff!

  8. Annie says:

    It seems like every semester, I get stuck on #2. My school has graduations the weekend before finals so I feel the need to go to all of the celebrations my graduating friends are having that weekend and that cuts down on my studying time.

    As for #3, when you say to turn your review plan into a list of action items, I can see myself getting bogged down in taking the lists of action items and scheduling all of the items. But these lists are just guides of what to do when you are “studying” right? They’re not meant to be put into a structured schedule?

  9. Frances says:

    I live in Australia, we finished final exams mid November.
    I had three.

    During revision for first one I followed the timetable Cal outlines, break down into specific tasks, read and recall, ect. During the exam, I was calm and collected – it was a beautiful thing!

    The next two were very close together a week later.
    And my schedule definately suffered.
    I had a feedback system going on where my rising anxiety gradually impeded effective study, leading to more anxiety, etc….

    On later contemplation: I need to start out earlier.

    But the semester was an increadible experience, I learnt many effective study strategies. And really changed my internal concept of what it means to me to be a successful student.

    Short answer: Yep, this is what you need to do :)

    Good luck for the coming finals to you all.

  10. dottywine says:

    I’m looking to avoid calculating my grade, socializing .. basically all of these.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    If you’re in “panic mode” already, should you just get it “all” taken care of immediately, or is it better to postpone everything until after finals and get it out of your head for now?

    There are three weapons that can be deployed against minor obligations: do it, postpone it, or purge it. During a busy time like finals, my tendency is to purge everything that I reasonably can, than do the small things left. Postponing tasks until the new semester, I fear, would slow down my start…

    However, if the student is unable to get back the exam paper. How does can he/she improves the current study habit.

    In this situation you can still use the rough feedback of the grade itself. If it’s bad: change something! If it’s good: stay the course!

    It seems like every semester, I get stuck on #2. My school has graduations the weekend before finals so I feel the need to go to all of the celebrations my graduating friends are having that weekend and that cuts down on my studying time.

    No problem. Just factor that into your plan. The result will probably be that you start some work a week or two before you’re used to.

    But these lists are just guides of what to do when you are “studying” right?

    For me, they’re specific items that I complete as if I’m a building contractor. Once it’s done it’s done. I don’t want to do any review work that wasn’t planned in advance: that’s a recipe for guilt-driven pseudo-work.

    On later contemplation: I need to start out earlier.

    Excellent. It’s this self-evaluation and improvement — with each exam period — that most efficiently gets to you to a point where you can consistently destroy your exams. It sounds like you’re well on your way.

  12. The Chemist says:

    One more mistake I feel obligated to add because of my own recent experiences:

    Back up EVERYTHING!

    I just had an epic computer crash. If you’re school is like mine and let’s you save things on school server or something similar- take advantage of that. I wish I had. At least if their stuff fails no one can really fault you for it.

    This goes double for majors where final papers tend to be given in lieu of exams.

  13. With a limited amount of time, I think that calculating the needed scores for your minimum required grades helps to decide where to best spend that time. As a graduate student who has to take classes, teach, and do research, time is at a premium and I only spend it when I have to.

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  15. Larry Brown says:

    Great post with some very good advice.

  16. Reshmi says:

    Hi Cal,

    I have been a regular reader of your blog. Thanks for posting these practicals ideas.

    Can you post on how to learn programming for graduate students? Some elementary ideas on how to start and how you divide the projects? I know there is lot of material available online, but most of it seems to devoted on professional programmers. It will be nice to hear your take on this.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Can you post on how to learn programming for graduate students?

    That’s a good question. It’s hard for me to answer. I haven’t programmed in a while — I’m a theory guy — but when I used to have to program more during my undergraduate years I had the advantage of having been a teenage geek hacker for years and years, so I don’t quite remember what the learning experience was like. To be honest, I think getting a good book, and going chapter by chapter actually works.

  18. David says:

    @Reshmi

    For teaching yourself programming, the “SAMS teach yourself” series might be worth looking into. They have books for Java, SQL, C, XHTML, HTML, among others. Just do a Google search and I’m sure you’ll get something.

  19. Jon Kho says:

    I think Reshmi is referring on how to score for the programming paper during the final exam.. In fact, during my studies when i was a post graduate, i am managed to get above 90% for my programming assignments(which i think most students would get) but i managed to get a borderline pass the final paper with much suffering.

    In fact, i am finding ways to improve my study habits for programming during this holiday period..

  20. Geoff says:

    I’ve found that organized group “study nights” very nearly kill any chance I had at, in fact, studying.

    The real problem is not just the noise, a beehive-like murmuring of many people reading almost silently, but also the vast number of available social opportunities.

    This creates an environment that usually leaves me more exhausted and less capable of performing well on a final. This is particularly true of the brilliant study nights which are scheduled to last until midnight or later.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to bed. I had a study night yesterday.

  21. Alex says:

    This is basically mostly good advice, but I have to take issue with #4, “social working”, or specifically with the idea that “monastic isolation” makes for the best working environment. While it is no doubt true that for many people it is difficult/unproductive to study while surrounded by a constant moderate level of activity/noise, I personally have found quite the opposite — I am by far my most productive when I e.g. work at a cafe or some place with noise and activity. The dead silence of an empty room or a quiet library are often the worst. This is probably related to my ADHD, in that my biggest distractors are often internal (e.g. unrelated thoughts popping up, etc), and partially “drowning them out” with external stimuli (which I can then in turn ignore) is often the most effective approach to studying, for me. It took me a while to realize this. I feel that the most important thing here is to be honest about one’s motivations and reactions. If seeking out social and “buzzing” surroundings is just a sophisticated form of procrastination, a way to “work” without actually working, then that’s a problem; if it soothes the mental junk and allows one to finally catalyze one of those “energetic bursts”, then it’s surely an appropriate choice.

  22. Study Hacks says:

    I am by far my most productive when I e.g. work at a cafe or some place with noise and activity.

    A lot of people benefit from white noise. I would sometime study at the cafe at Borders, for example. By “social” studying, I think I’m referring more to the idea that people you know are with you and bothering you.

  23. N says:

    @Alex / People with ADD or similar:
    I recently discovered websites which offer white/pink/brown noise, which helped me focus. There are a number of sites/apps for it. The one I use is simplynoise.com

  24. Mary says:

    Calculating my grade gives me some motivation: “Come on, you want to get that grade, work for it”

    Agreed. Also, anxiety tends to drive my procrastination and seeing that I only have to get X in order to get an A+ or an A in the course helps to calm me down. Even better is the realization that “Oh well, the worst case scenario (assuming no catastrophe) is that I don’t do as well as I want to and I get an A-”. After seeing that I can move on to not being so hung up on perfection.

    Also, I can balance my study time. If there’s a class in which I only need to get an 85% on the final in order to get an A+, I can focus proportionately less time on studying for it than the one in which I’m going to be struggling just to get an A.

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