Killing your Final Exams

For undergraduate students December is exam season. Caffeinated to an unhealthy amount, studying above all else and counting down the days until the semester finishes. Final exams are important since they are worth a large percentage of your final mark and can be a major determinant of your final grade. While exam season is inherently stressful and no amount of advice will eliminate this stress, my aim in this post is to provide you with some tips and tricks to help minimize this stress and help you achieve the best result you can.

Step 1 – Set your goals

First thing you need to do is come up with goals for your various classes. For each class you are registered for, determine what grade you would be happy receiving and then calculate what mark you would need on the final exam to achieve this goal. If you do not know how to do this, first lay out all evaluations you have had for the class, write the grade you have had for each one and what percent of your grade it is worth. Multiply the mark received by the fraction of the class it is worth, sum this value for all evaluations and what you should be left with is your total mark in the class at the moment if you do not write the final exam. Subtract the final grade you would like in the class from this number and then divide this result by the weight of the final exam. You are left with the percentage you need on the final exam to attain your desired mark. The reason this is an important step in my view is that it allows you to set realistic expectations for yourself. While it is awesome to say, “I want to aim to get 100% on all my exams”, unless you are some kind of genius, this isn’t really attainable, and might actually work to your detriment. What you should aim for, is to attain the best grade that is attainable across all your exams in order to get the GPA that you wish to achieve. Remember, the grade point system works in a way that a final course mark of 99.99%, 90% and everything between that is equivalent to a 4.0. While it is awesome to get a higher mark as a status symbol for yourself and also to demonstrate you really understand the content, if your aim is to get into medical school or have a higher GPA, it is much better to receive a 90% in two classes instead of 100% in one and 80% in another.

Step 2 – Scheduling your time

So, how can you more efficiently split your time? Your time split should be based on several factors which includes the timing of your exams, how comfortable you are with the material, what grade you need in your classes, and the type of studying required for each class. I will address each of these factors, starting by discussing the timing of your exams. The first step is to figure out your exam schedule by laying out when each of your exams are. You should do this as early as possible, since it plays a pivotal role. Next you need to analyze the difficulty of classes. You should know by exam season which classes you tend to have a more difficult time studying for, and which ones are more intuitive for you. Flex your strengths and work on your weaknesses – spend more time on the classes you are weaker on to make the biggest gains, and while you should not slack on any class, if you have more breathing room for a specific course and you know you are more comfortable with its material, or you are able to learn it quickly, take advantage of this. The biggest mistake I see students make is spending all their time on the subjects they enjoy studying for and are doing the best in, while neglecting the classes they are truly struggling in. This sets you up for failure since the returns on studying on the class you are doing well in diminish and you are going to take the biggest losses in the classes you are neglecting. As much as it is fun to study the content you like or are good at, and as annoying as it is to study organic chemistry if that is not your cup of tea, by spending more time on such a class will lend you the greatest returns. If you don’t spend enough time you might even end up with a grade you are not happy with and/or you may be forced to retake it again, further prolonging the suffering. Do well in it once so you can forget about it and move on. If you need help with this, just pretend you love the course. You have probably tricked yourself into enjoying other aspects of your education up to now or have just told yourself it is a necessary evil, treat this the same and remember it is only 4 months of “hell” and then you are free from it. This is actually a very valuable skill to develop regardless because no matter where you are in your life you will be forced to do work you may not enjoy very much, but that is life. In medical school that includes blocks you might not enjoy or rotations you may dread. Life is just like that sometimes, and the best thing you can do for yourself is learn from it and really work to make the best of the situation.

Once you have determined the relative weighting of how much to study for various classes, the next thing you should do is make a rough study schedule for the exam period. Keep your schedule flexible and give yourself more time than you feel like you need in case things come up and your schedule gets held back, because once again, that’s life. If nothing does come up and you are ahead of schedule, you will have an easier time, win-win. The earlier you make the schedule the better, and if you do start early, I would suggest front-loading some of your later exams, and then transitioning into your exams coming up. The reason for this is because some of your exams might be two weeks into exam season and some of the content will not be very familiar. Giving yourself a content “refresher” early in the exam season will prime you well so when you are more burnt out during your dedicated study time later in the exam period, things will be less stressful. How many days to dedicate study is a personal preference but I would aim to dedicate study for classes about 1-4 days before the exam depending on the timing. If I had 2 classes on the same day, I would split my studying days in half (ex: morning I would study physics and afternoon/evening I would study organic). If I had two exams a day apart then I would do an alternating dedicated study and then right after my first exam I would take a break for a few hours, and then immediately hit the ground running with studying for my second final. Once again, these are just a few strategies which all just depend on your exam schedule as well as the other factors to keep in mind.

Step 3 – Studying

Finally, it is vital to know the form of studying required for your classes. Some classes like physics require more practice questions while other classes, like psychology or biology, require more reading content and memorization. If the exam is memorization heavy it is important to not mix it up with other memorization based courses for studying purposes because it can lead to interference of knowledge, and also to start employing mnemonics, method of loci and other memory techniques to “cram” information that is not sticking. I would generally also make a list of content that is difficult for me to memorize and would aim to review it more frequently to help it stick. If you employed Anki throughout the year then just continue that and the content that is difficult to understand should be solidified at this point, but if this is not something that has been consistently done do not start now, just look at whether or not you can start this next semester. If the exam is more practice-based content, then I highly recommend you do as many practice questions as possible and review these questions. If you get something wrong, log what you are getting wrong, why you are getting it wrong, and what you need to work on to ensure you do not get it wrong. If your class provides you with practice questions or assignments, redo these multiple times over and know them cold. While the questions are very likely to be unique on a test, many times they employ the basic principles or technique for problem solving which is used in the assignments and if you have the approaches down cold then your time in the exam will not be spent trying to determine it from basic principles and panic, but instead be spent ensuring that you are getting the nuances of the questions. At the same time, ensure you do still understand the basic principles in case they do throw you a curve ball, but this is secondary to knowing how to answer the different styles of questions easily.

My exam study strategy

I will run through the basics of how I studied during exam season. Before you start dedicated studying, I strongly suggest you have your completed class notes compiled somewhere, ready to use as a comprehensive resource. For me personally, I would summarize all my lecture notes on Microsoft’s OneNote and for each concept, I would add anything that was testable/relevant background information from textbooks or other sources, and these would correspond to my “master” notes. I would then study solely off of these master notes and aim to know these notes COLD. This would entail me rereading and rewriting them several times, making flashcards on the difficult to study content etc. Your study habits throughout the year should be employed for exam season except on steroids. If I had past or practice exams that the professor has made available, do these only once you are very confident in your abilities and feel as though your studying has reached a peak. These will assess your confidence and abilities and allow you to realize if there are areas you need to place a greater emphasis on. After this, I would review the practice tests if I had them and determine where my weaknesses were and what concepts needed “touch ups”. Following this, I would think about what types of questions they might ask me on the final and I would actually write my own practice integration type questions as if I was writing an exam. The night before the test if I had classmates that were also taking the test with me I would then usually do a group call (1-3 other students max) and we would then run through all the material together, explain concepts we were weak on to each other, and test each other with some of the integration questions we would write up in advance. After this, I would either be good to go, or I would do a final run through the lecture notes they provided (usually power points) to ensure there were no details that I missed from my notes that were not properly captured, but this was usually very passive and I did this while listening to music right before bed. Day of the test, I did very limited, if any studying at all. I might have done some light review of some concepts to “warm up” but no new information learning unless there was urgency for something I totally missed. I would usually just relax about an hour before the test started and talk with friends/think of something completely unrelated in order to relax my brain and limit anxiety.

This is an example of how I would approach studying, please take from this whatever you might think could be useful but do not feel the need to mimic it. If you have a system that is working for you and has been working for you throughout the year, then continue this system. I figured this would be useful for students that have been struggling and are feeling stressed and need some tips/tricks, so if you wish to adopt some of my strategies it might be of use.

Don’t forget self-care

The best thing you can do for yourself, outside of studying, is self-care while in exam season. Ensure you do work hard, but also take sufficient breaks to maintain your sanity. Exercise for me was essential to ensure I did not go mad and remained motivated. Eating healthy is also vital, it kept my energy levels high throughout the season, and helped me reduce my chances of getting sick. Skip the pizza and junk food. Even if it is “fast” and will save you time on food preparation to study, you might actually be reducing your productivity with the heaviness of the grease and fast carbs, and so the time saved might actually be lost in productivity and efficiency. Get all your essential food groups, don’t skimp on the veggies, even if you are stressed. If you are feeling mentally exhausted, try some meditation or take a break and talk with friends/family about other things. Keep yourself on track. Study for blocks at a time and take your scheduled in breaks. The semester is like a marathon and exam season is the last couple “miles” of the semester. Your hard work throughout the semester has got you where you are, and all you need is a final push, but if you collapse from pushing yourself too hard, you won’t finish, and the work put in early will be compromised. Do not forget your mental health is still paramount to everything else, so take care of yourself and if you, or someone you know, is going through something take some time, chat about it and reach out. Be there for your friends just like you would hope they would be there for you and support each other. Structured mental health support is super valuable, but some of the best assistance one can get is from strong relationships. Take advantage of your closest relationships and care for those close to you to help one another get over the humps during this time of the year.

Good luck to everyone this exam season, you have worked hard, you got this and look forward to your nice break once this is all said and done.

4 thoughts on “Killing your Final Exams

  1. Hey. I commented earlier but can’t see the comment so I’m guessing that it didn’t go through or something because I wasn’t registered.

    I’m wondering how many Anki cards you had in undergrad per memorization subjects like biochemistry and physiology.


    1. I can’t tell you an exact number of cards but I would make cards for whatever I found difficult to memorize like specific names or proteins/cells etc. Note that I didn’t start Anki or really do it properly in undergrad but retrospectively doing it would have been very helpful! Don’t make too many cards because it will “dilute out” the important stuff but try to be consistent with your review that is the most important. Hope that helped!


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