Getting Ready for Your College Final Exams

Jed Applerouth, PhD
April 11, 2023
min read
Getting Ready for Your College Final Exams

As the spring semester comes to a close, college students turn their attention to final projects, term papers, and final exams. The stakes are high for college exams, which can account for a very significant portion of a student’s final grade. An exam with higher stakes presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

At the college level, students must take a greater degree of ownership for independently crafting a smart study plan and using available resources. Students are firmly in the driver’s seat. Professors may offer some explicit guidance to assist in preparation for their final exams, but many will leave the exam prep entirely to the students.

Students will have time to prepare for their exams in the weeks leading up to the finals period and through reading days set aside for focused exam prep. The challenge for students is how to best use that time to their advantage and balance the study time for their various classes, while attending to their own needs.

Here are some tips for successful exam preparation.

Determine what to study (and what not to study).

Students need to learn what material will be covered on the final. Every teacher has their own approach to what’s covered in class, in the textbook (if there is one), what’s covered in outside readings, and what’s on the final exam. Some professors are required by their department head to have a textbook on the syllabus, with assigned readings, but their exams have nothing to do with the textbook, and may come exclusively from the lecture. Professors may give you hints or direct instruction regarding what content will be covered. Listen very carefully when they talk about exam material, and don’t waste time reviewing material that will not show up on the final.

Start early.

It’s better to spread your review and study out over a longer period of time than to attempt to cram your study into a shorter window. More distributed practice allows for better memory consolidation and more time for you to recognize a weakness and then get the help you need.

Tap into your resources: professors, TAs, review sessions, etc.

Smart students use their resources. At the college level, office hours and review sessions can be critical to understanding course material. You don’t have to do it alone. And in many cases, it’s incredibly helpful to talk directly to the teachers and graduate students who will be constructing and grading your exam. If review sessions are offered, make time to attend. If you start exam preparation early, you can identify areas of challenge or confusion, and bring focused questions and problem areas to the review sessions or office hours.

Structure your study time.

It is a best practice to impose structure on your study time, including your breaks and transitions between subjects. The evidence is compelling that while studying for multiple subjects, students need to change subjects every few hours to optimize retention and comprehension.

It’s not ideal to spend six consecutive hours cramming material for a single course. The brain gets over-worked and becomes less efficient. Shifting to a new topic, “interleaving” your subjects, leads to improved retention and comprehension. New topic: new energy and focus.

It’s also a best practice to break up your study hours over the course of a day. You could see the same subject in the morning, later in the afternoon or evening, and you will benefit from time away from the material to let that memory consolidate before revisiting and reinforcing it. Each subsequent time you revisit that material after stepping away, the memory encodes more durably, and it becomes “stickier” in your brain.

Test yourself.

Here, your goal is to prioritize active, not passive, review.


When you passively re-read notes or course-material, learning is minimal. If you want to learn something deeply and be able to retrieve it later, you need to actively test yourself on the material.

The act of testing oneself, of forcing oneself to retrieve material unaided from memory, reinforces neural connections and makes memory traces more durable. Self-testing changes your brain, enhances and deepens the encoding of material.

You can split your notes and force yourself to retrieve key concepts from memory. You can use flashcards or Quizlets. You can answer old exam questions, or end of chapter questions. When you test yourself, you deepen learning of material, and you get invaluable feedback of what you actually know and don’t know. No amount of passive reading can give you that feedback.

Structure your study environment.

Where you study matters. You need to find a place that offers the right level of silence or background noise for your brain, and the right level of visual quiet or visual stimulation. Some students do their best work in a library with students all around. Others thrive in the quiet of their room or in a cubicle or study carrel.

Be mindful of what distractions you allow into your environment as you attempt this deep-focused work.

Cell phones, in particular, need to be managed skillfully. Every time a new notification appears on your phone and you switch your attention, you’ve degraded, at least momentarily, your comprehension of the material at hand. Ideally, silence notifications and close apps that clamor for your attention during your deep-study periods. Save the phone for your breaks.

Practice stress relief techniques.

Preparing for college midterms and finals can be stressful. I remember vividly the freshman year phenomenon called the “Econ Scream” when all of the first-year econ students opened their windows and began to scream together in advance of the mid-term exam. Yelling together was cathartic: Yes, this is hard work, and yes, we are in this together. It felt good to connect with other students who were trying to master the same challenging course material. There was a wisdom in that: the connecting, and in the collective stress-release.

We all need outlets for stress-relief while preparing for our exams. Students are not machines. We have brains that get tired. We have bodies that need to move.

I strongly advocate some form of exercise during exam review periods. Some students go for a walk or a run, go the gym, or shoot hoops. Cardiovascular activity actually helps memory consolidation and the formation of new neural connections. Moving is a friend to learning.

Humans also need some human contact, especially during periods of high stress. Our friends keep us grounded. Make some time to hang with people you care about during your exam prep. Put the books down and change gears completely. The books will be there when you return.

Stick to a healthy sleep and meal schedule.

Sleep is perhaps the best friend to learning. During sleep new memories are replayed and organized and consolidated for future retrieval. If your sleep is disorganized and disrupted, your retention is going to be greatly impaired. Prioritize sleep during your exam review.

It’s easy to fall into a habit of poor eating during study time. Be careful of leaning too hard on sugar and caffeine to maintain or extend focus. Have some healthy food options at hand, and that will impact your choices. Make time for actual meals, and ideally social meals if you can work in time with your friends.

Master the mental game.

For a student taking a relatively high-stakes exam, it’s completely natural and adaptive to experience some degree of stress. “This counts for a quarter or even a half of my grade.”

The stress, the necessity to take this seriously, isn’t a bad thing. It can enhance focus and motivation. However, students can potentially shift from good stress to distress if they are really struggling with the material or feel they don’t have adequate time to master the entirety of the course material. It’s key to get help early before distress kicks in.

It’s also key to have some personal stress-reduction strategies to help you recenter if stress picks up. For some that could be exercise, or yoga, or breathing techniques, or shifting your self-talk. Shift from fear back to trust, of yourself, your process.

Ultimately, you have to do the best you can given the time and resources at your disposal. Any time you can expand your inner or outer resources, that’s generally a good thing.

Applerouth is here if you need additional support.

If you need to up-resource in preparation for your finals, consider Applerouth as a member of your support team. We love to help our students achieve their best outcomes, and we are here to help if you need us. You can schedule a call with one of our Advisors here.

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