Final Exam Tips: 5 Things to Avoid When Taking the Tests

With spring in bloom, it can be difficult to want to crawl into the library to face the inevitable — finals are just around the corner. Whether you’re in graduate school, high school, or college, we all share the stress of impending doom and the elation, relief, and exhaustion when finals end. This year, instead of focusing on the negative, embrace the experience with a new resolution to remain positive.

As a former teacher, graduate student, and tutor, I am well aware of the many tips we repeatedly hear (do I really need someone to tell me to listen to classical music again?). One of the best tips I received was to pay attention to my study habits over the years — what types of classes worked best, which study habits led to success. Experiment and be open to trying suggestions but pay attention to what works for YOU, not anyone else (this goes for the tips I am about to dispense as well).

As you begin to prepare for finals, I do recommend that no matter what type of learner you are, GO TO OFFICE HOURS! I cannot emphasize enough how important this is for teacher-student rapport, helpful insight as to what material to focus on, and feeling confident in the material. Yes, dragging yourself there may seem annoying at the time, but the study help from a teacher/TA, the person designing the exam, is well worth your time.

In the final study hours, I also recommend using study groups. Study groups allow you to absorb material outside of the typical confines of quiet study, but they also push your abilities by having to answer the questions of your peers. Being able to teach the materials to others is a true sign of mastery.

On the flip side, talking about the material aloud should be reinforced with writing. Write and re-write — this will pound in the information and get you comfortable with being able to reproduce that on written exams.

Now for the actual exam. Here are a few common mistakes that frequently occur and that you should plan ahead to AVOID:

Don’t …

1. Rush into the first question.

Take your time and breathe, especially for an essay question. Usually rushing leads to jumping to conclusions or starting to write an essay that you realize half-way through is a totally inconclusive argument.

2. Start with the difficult questions first.

There is just no reason to stress yourself out and start off struggling. Chances are, those questions will keep you stuck and distract you the entire time. Instead, start with the easier questions and build your confidence with the material.

3. Rely on spotting.

Often times when we skim through questions, we try to spot key words or phrases. This is a good technique — but it can lead to jumping to conclusion and circling the first answer that looks similar to what you’ve memorized. In reality, the question could be asking you something totally different and you’ll be kicking yourself for messing up the questions you thought you aced. Go SLOWLY — use key words to orient yourself and think of related topics, but make sure you don’t let that blind you through answering the actual question.

4. Ignore the question stem.

Often, the key is in the question stem. If you’re stuck between two answers — go back to the question and see which makes the most sense. More than one answer can sometimes be arguably true, but an “always” or “often” in the question can be helpful in eliminating choices. And again, see number 3 — make sure your answer actually matches the question stem before moving on!

5. This one we’ve heard at nauseam … but don’t forget to check your work!

This is the teacher in me but also the student in me who never wanted to check my work or go slowly. I’d rush, confident that I aced the exam, only to find out that careless errors cost unnecessary points. It happens to the best of us, just take a few minutes to go over everything. If you happen to have lots of time, re-do problems and challenge yourself to see how long you can actually spend double-checking your confidence.

And most importantly, take care of yourself — its only finals!! In the scheme of life, an exam is not worth the stressful damage that it can do to our psyches and the relationships around us. Take mental breaks, social breaks, physical breaks, and try to remain positive throughout the process!