Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?
Well, unless you’re taking a class on biology or meteorology this semester, you shouldn’t care right now. You’ve got bigger things to worry about at the moment.
That’s right! My fellow students, the real enemy is out there – beyond the confines of your dorm rooms, your apartment walls, your fraternity living rooms. They congregate on hard drives, printer trays, and secret folders far from our eyes… for now. Soon, though, we must all come to face this great enemy: our finals.
To face these abominations and have any chance of victory, you’re going to need preparation – and it’s up to me to use all the out-of-place movie quotes, shaky analogies, and bulleted lists I can muster to give you that very preparation. So sit back, grab a beer (just one), and get ready to evolve your studying habits. This is the mutant guide to hitting your finals harder than the Juggernaut.
Look, bub – studying enough to ace all of your finals is a monumental task. Consequently, thinking of studying for finals as one big tasks is going to overwhelm you and get you nowhere. You need to break that shit down.
Start by getting a piece of paper or starting a new note in Evernote. Make a bullet list that includes every class you need to study for. Then, for each class, see if you can find a specific list of material you need to cover.
If you’re lucky, some of your classes will have a full-fledged study guide that covers everything that will be on the final. Almost as useful is a list of chapters or topics the final will cover – it might not contain specific questions or concepts you need to cover, but it’ll at least tell you what to review.
Often, though, you’ll start with nothing more than an mention that the final for a class is “cumulative”. In cases like these, try to break your notes (or the slides for the class) into manageable sections that you can put on your giant list of topics.
The key here is to break down that one big task – “study for finals” – into small chunks you can actually wrap your head around.
For now, they can be non-specific – such as “review notes for chapters 1-12”. Right now you’re just trying to quantify your actual study load and get a feeling for how much you really have to do.
Now you have a big list of everything you need to cover in order to ace your finals. So what do you do with it?
For starters, you’re only going to look at this bad boy once per day. That’s because it’s only useful as a bird’s eye view – it’s not going to help you at ground level.
When it comes to the actual work of studying, you don’t want a huge list with dozens and dozens of things to cover staring you back in the face. You need something more doable. You need to focus on only a few things.
Each day, when it comes time to start your study session, take a few items from your list and put them on a new list. This is your daily task list, and it’s the only thing you’re going to work on for that day.
To make this list really effective, try to make your study goals specific and timely. You can also increase your motivation by building in rewards for completing them. Here are a few examples:
- Fill out 10 questions on the Project Management study guide within 30 minutes. Reward: 20 minutes of Borderlands 2
- Review my nutrition notes for chapters 1 and 2, and develop a 10-question quiz for each chapter, in 45 minutes. Reward: motha fuckin’ lunch at Panda
- Study European history flash cards for chapter 6 until I memorize 80% of the terms – shoot for under 30 minutes. Reward: walk around telling people to stay away from my girl
From experience, I know that using a small task like this makes it much more likely that I’ll get a bunch of work done during the day. If I just look at my main task list and try to tackle the whole thing at once, I’ll end up getting distracted and doing none of it.
That brings up another good point – focusing on just a few tasks will go a long way towards helping you fight off distractions. Preventing yourself from getting distracted by friends, video games, and the internet could be the focus of an entire post – and in fact, it already is – so I’ll just read that one if you need more help with them.
Back to the point -it really pays to focus your view!
Now that you’ve taken a huge step towards success by focusing on only a few things, it’s time to figure out what your optimal study environment is and get in it.
In my mind, there are four components that make up the study environment:
- Workspace type
- Level of isolation
- Noise type/level
To be the most successful, you need to figure out what works best for you for each of these components.
Location is simply the place where you choose to study. There are countless places you can choose to set down your books and get to work – your dorm or apartment, the library, a coffee shop, a random classroom, a small meeting room, under a tree, etc.
The location you choose is going to have a big effect on the other three components of your environment, but it goes deeper than that. The location you choose has to feel right. Some places just don’t work for certain people. For example, I don’t particularly like studying in the really secluded, ultra-quiet spots of the library. I can never get any work done in those places; they just don’t feel right to me.
So just figure out what works for you! You might find more than one place that you can easily work in. If you need some inspiration, here are 14 study spots to start with (though you’ll need quite a bit of cash to get to one of them).
Workspace type refers to the configuration of y0ur workspace and the resources available to you in it. There are a lot of different things to think about when choosing your optimal workspace:
- Is the desk big enough to spread out all my papers?
- Is the chair comfortable enough – but not so comfortable that I’ll fall asleep?
- Is there fast wi-fi/ethernet here? Do I actually need it (you might be less distracted without it)
- Are there outlets for my laptop? (again – do you really need them? Not having one might force you to work faster)
- Do I have enough screen space for computer work?
- Is there a place nearby where I can get a snack?
- Is the lighting adequate?
Think about all the different aspects of a workspace and decide what works best for you. Then, when choosing your location, try to see if this kind of workspace is available there.
Level of isolation simply means, “How lonely is it?” Different people will find differing levels of isolation that work best for them.
You might work best when you’re completely alone, with no one around as far as the eye can see. You might prefer to lock yourself in a room and pretend the entire world has gone away for a while when you’re studying.
Conversely, you might find that you work better when you’re in a group – whether you’re studying together or just sitting close to each other for moral support.
I believe the level of isolation you’ll prefer can actually be influenced by the type of work you’re doing. For example, when I’m writing an article for this site or doing some other type of creative work, I usually want to be completely alone. For me, the possibility of someone seeing and judging me before I’m done creating something seriously hinders my ability to do creative work.
However, I love working in groups (or just around lots of people) when I’m studying or doing pre-defined work, like a problem set for a finance class. Since I know the answer is already pre-defined, there’s no pressure to keep people from seeing my incomplete work.
Finally, noise type and level will play a big part in how much you’re able to get done in your environment.
What type of noise do you prefer – music (what type?), white noise, or total silence? What volume level works best for you?
This is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself – and it might change from time to time.
If you’re into studying with music, here’s my current study playlist – you might enjoy it. If you prefer white noise, you can try sites like RainyMood and SimplyNoise. If you need absolute silence, well, maybe look into getting a good pair of closed headphones.
Once you’ve found what works best for you in each of these four categories, try to customize your study environment so it includes each of them. You may not be able to find a place that absolutely perfect, but you should be able to easily find a place that works.
And when your study environment works, you work.
When I was training for the Warrior Dash this summer, I made sure that my body was in peak condition for the run. I knew I wouldn’t perform at my best level unless I trained, ate well, slept well, and stayed hydrated.
Even though you won’t have to jump over fire or climb up walls during your finals, you still want to perform at your best level – both before, when you’re studying, and during the finals. To do that, it’s important to pay attention to those four factors:
The type of fuel you put into your body will determine the energy levels you’ll be able to get out of it.
Contrary to what Red Bull’s fantastic marketing may want you to think, food and drinks full of sugar and caffeine won’t really help you to focus. All they’ll do is give you a short high, followed by a not-so-productive crash (and they might be addictive as well)
If you feel like you need to down an energy drink to keep studying, it’s because you aren’t sleeping enough and you’re trying to cram too much studying into one day. Pounding the caffeine and staying up super late goes against one of the pillars of good health (sleeping well) and won’t really help you much. Your tired brain won’t retain much of what you try to study anyway.
Cut the crap and stick to a healthy diet during the weeks leading up to finals. You can check out my post on NerdFitness to get an idea of my ideal college diet; however, I’d like to mention a few specific foods here that can give you some extra brain-power:
- Berries – like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries – are great brain foods. Many of them are loaded with anti-oxidants and will help keep you sharp.
- Nuts – like cashews, walnuts, pecans, and almonds – are also great. A handful of these mixed nuts will give you a needed dose of omega-3’s, magnesium, phenylaline, and choline – all important for brain function.
- Eggs – besides just being one of the best foods ever, eggs are also loaded with choline and anti-oxidants (eat the yolks too, and don’t believe the cholesterol scare stories)
- Broccoli – whether you like it or not, the stuff’s loaded with Vitamin K, which is essential for brain functioning.
This doesn’t mean you can’t grab a pizza and relax on the weekend after a long study session – just make sure to try and get a majority of the good stuff. Put good stuff in, and you’re going to get good results in whatever you do.
Let’s move on to exercise. Maybe you’re not trying to become BEASTly (hahaha….ha), but getting some regular exercise is still a great idea. It’s been proven that regular exercise keeps your brain functioning well, so I really don’t need to try to prove it to you.
What I do want to stress here is that you definitely shouldn’t make the excuse that you’re too busy studying for finals to get some exercise in – because that’s simply a load of B.S.
I know from my own behavior – and from observation – that even the most dedicated students don’t spend every free minute studying during Dead Week. You definitely have 30 minutes a day to hit the gym, go for a run, or to just play some basketball.
Not only will this leave you feeling better, but it’ll also probably help you to study faster and retain more information – after all, exercising keeps your mind alert and working well!
Exercising also serves as a great pick-up during the day when you start getting tired. I used to have a bad habit of taking a nap during the day when I got a little tired. No matter how many alarms I set or promises I made to myself to keep it to 20 minutes, my nap would always be over 2 hours. That’s two hours completely wasted.
Now, when I’m tired, I get up and go for a walk or go lift. It only takes 20 or 30 minutes, and I always finish feeling much more energetic.
Skipping that nap in favor of a workout has had an additional benefit – I’m actually more tired at night, when I’m supposed to be. That’s great, because it means I can get some good sleep.
Getting good sleep – and enough of it – is essential to doing well on your finals. If you want to read all about sleep, you can do it here – but I’ll suffice it to say that not getting enough will:
- Negatively impact short AND long-term memory
- Kill your mood and emotional well-being
- Cause actual health problems
So make sure you’re getting enough sleep! The last thing you want to do is fall asleep in the middle of your math final.
Lastly, make sure you’re drinking enough water. Your brain sits in a bath of liquid, and being hydrated is what keeps it functioning well. Try to drink at least two liters a day, and you’ll keep your brain in tip-top shape.
In this post, I’ve laid out four big-picture strategies for becoming an evolved finals-studier. Now, it’s up to you to put these tips into action and learn that material.
If you have any other tips about studying for finals, I’d love to hear them. Share them in the comments!