Final Exams Survival Guide: 10 Simple Tips

BHC students Gabby Kerner and Cassie Wales study in the Black Hawk College library (QC Campus).

Finals week is closing in on us quickly. Needless to say, preparing for final exams can be stressful for college students. Luckily, there are some things you can do to make sure this semester’s exams are much less anxiety-provoking. Following one or all of these tips may just help you ace that challenging test.

1. Get some shut eye.

Experts say that getting enough sleep highly increases your odds of doing well on tests. Dr. Philip Alapat, director of the Harris Health Sleep Disorders Center, suggests that students should get at least eight hours of sleep. Many of you probably just internally groaned at that statement and thought there is no way that is possible while working and fulfilling other commitments. However, if you have a job, you could always plan your studies around your work hours and put off any other commitments until after finals are done or, even better, call in and switch shifts with a fellow employee or call in and tell your manager you cannot make it. While it may seem tragic to take couple days off, remember that school comes first and you can always make up the work time during the long winter break ahead. Giving yourself more flexibility and time can eliminate a lot of stress.

2. Create a basic schedule to manage your time.

This does not have to be overly complex. Simply write down in your planner or calendar what subjects you will study on which day and for how long. It is a good idea to break up your subjects into different days, rather than studying them all in one day (especially if you have five classes!) (and especially if your teachers still give you homework right before finals!). If you have a lot of classes, I would recommend picking two or three subjects to study per day. Try to physically or electronically check them off when you finish studying– it may give you a tiny boost of satisfaction.

3. Chunk information.

Our brains can only process so much at one time, so don’t cram. When trying to memorize material, chunk the information. This means breaking it apart into sections. For example, study half of a page of notes a couple times until it is memorized (for help on memorization, see number four). Then move on to the next half, et cetera. Although it seems simple, making a conscious effort to do this will help you retain information in a shorter amount of time.

4. Use word association and concept association.

This is a good one to use when studying for science tests or any other subject that is heavy on vocab and describing complex processes or concepts. I have found that this can work wonders when trying to retain a bunch of information. For example, if you are studying for a chemistry exam and have to memorize that a cation is a positively charged ion, you could think of cats as being a positive thing. When you see the word “cation” on the test, you can think, “Oh yeah, cats are positive.” This doesn’t take a lot of time to think through; simply use whatever image or word that comes to mind initially and focus on associating the vocab word or concept with that thing. It is truly amazing how much you will recall later. Do not be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to this. For example, one time I actually used characters from my favorite TV show to memorize certain activities that go on in a cell (I’m not kidding– this topic was so complex that I had to relate it to something I was familiar with) (and you can probably tell science is not a subject that comes easily to me).

5. Study the worst first.

It is less stressful to start studying the more difficult classes more in advance than the easy classes. Break the challenging material up into chapters or sections to study each day, ideally a week in advance.

6. Save the best for last.

Do not stress about easy classes if you find them, well, easy. For some of my easier courses, I do not even look at them until the day before the exam. However, you should always read through or write down what is going to be on the final the second the teacher gives you the information. Once you know what will be covered on the final, feel free to hold off studying until the day before– if you think it will be easy. This will eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress and allow you to focus on more challenging courses.

7. Take breaks after a study session.

When you are finished studying a subject, get up and stretch, go for a walk outside, surf the web, and/or grab a snack. Drink plenty of water— at least eight glasses per day. Do not watch television or log onto social media unless you are done with your studying for the day or night, as that can eat up a lot of time.

8. Eat healthy and eat breakfast.

This one is important to help you concentrate better. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and some dairy products are going to be your best bet. Oranges are really good this time of year, so I would suggest stopping into the store and purchasing some. According to this Fastweb article on healthy foods, you can buy a whole bag of oranges for the same amount as a bag of chips. Of course you could get some 100 percent orange juice and that would work too. Other snacks the article recommends (and that I have also found energizing) are apples, bananas (fruit in general is just really good), peanuts and almonds, cheese, whole wheat crackers (with cheese?), peanut butter, dark chocolate (with peanut butter?), and trail mix. For lunch and/or supper, you could try a salad with plenty of greens and avocado if you’d like (I love avocados) or just pile on the vegetables. Also, you should eat breakfast. Even if you are not a breakfast person, become one. It really helps start your day. For instance, orange juice, toast with peanut butter, a granola bar, fruit, and a piece (or five… just kidding…kind of) of dark chocolate takes about five minutes at the most to prepare and around five minutes to eat. That is ten minutes of your morning that will make a huge difference (as you can probably tell food, unlike science, is a subject that comes easily to me).

9. Avoid procrastination.

I am as guilty as anybody, but I am getting better. If you don’t take control of your studies than finals will be stressful for you. It is hard to recommend specific strategies, as everyone is different when it comes to procrastination, so I will offer some general advice: just start studying. After you come up with a basic plan, just start studying without thinking too much about it. Oftentimes, once we simply start something, we will continue at it. That being said, before you start, put away things you know will distract you. Also, never, never, never think about how much work you have to do. Chances are, if it is lot, you already know that it is a lot. Do not flip through your notes and say, “Wow! Look at all this stuff I have to get through!” It is like balancing on a rope and someone tells you not to look down. Remember: do not look down (or look through the amount of work you have) or you may get scared and lose your balance (your focus). Know what material will be on the exam and focus on that.

10. Stay positive.

Remind yourself that exams do not define your life. If you fail one of your exams (or heck, if you fail all of your exams), it is not the end of the world. That does not mean that you shouldn’t try your best, but if you try and end up failing– oh well, move on. Lighten up a little while studying and listen to some comedy or laugh a little while taking breaks. That always puts me in a better mood.

Finally (no pun intended), good luck on your exams. You can do this! 

What are some of your study tips? Have you found any of the above strategies helpful? Feel free to leave a comment in the comments below or click the “Leave a comment” button at the top left of the post, under the author’s image.

Author: Elodie R. Bouwens

I am currently in my second year at Black Hawk College. I'm a 2016 graduate of Geneseo High School. Besides writing, I love to walk long distance (goal is 20+ miles), bake, watch The Walking Dead, and read. I absolutely love to write, and I'm excited to write for the Chieftain. If you have any ideas for a topic or story, feel free to contact me at