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"In it deep" is how one student described his exam stress recently. "Blinded by anxiety" are the words another student used.
This is the time of the semester that all college students are feeling extreme stress. Studying for college exams is the ultimate test of stress management.
Some students fortunately have figured out and applied a study system and will cruise through the stress of the next week. They have developed strong study habits that work. They started preparing weeks ago – revisiting syllabi, going to study sessions, organizing study content, and developing the most effective approach to exam week.
Other college students, however, have not figured out how best to approach planning, organizing, and executing studying for exams. The stress and overwhelm that this creates is what causes mental distress and emotional breaks, and ultimately leads to poor academic performance.
For either type of college student, is not too late to study with sense, sanity, and less stress.
STUDENTS: Be proactive. Kick it into gear. If you adopt (even a few of) this list of study tips and reminders and put some of these into action, you will have successful exam week. Your mind will feel less chaotic. Your emotional state will feel calmer. Your ability to focus and concentrate will increase. Good Luck.
Plan, organize, and create your exam study schedule. Use good old-fashion paper and pen and sketch out even the simplest study schedule. Waiting creates the sense of rush which multiplies feelings of angst. Spend 20-30 minutes today (and tomorrow) prepping for your direction and plan of studying. How will you structure every hour? What is the best time of the day for you to focus? What will be your primary way of studying? Give it some thought.
Decide where you will study. One of the most practical things you can do to enhance your study endeavors is to pay attention to your study environment. Switch it up daily. Make it bright but not cozy. Be sure to incorporate fresh air into your study space. Your dorm room is not a good choice. Leave your apartment. Choose a place with minimal distraction capability. Mix up your go-to study space and be sure to emulate your test taking environment when you can. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you can listen to music, while scrolling your device, while watching passer-byers, while studying. This is a set-up for wasted time and decreased concentration. Say NO to multi-tasking.
Plan your study breaks. Study sessions are critical for ending the semester with success and brain breaks are even more critical. Incorporate mental breaks into every part of your studying. When you take study breaks is as important as what you do in that break time. In general, a twenty-minute break every two hours is sufficient. You can also apply the 20-20-20 rule to give your eyes a break. Stretching, catching up on social, having fun, nourishing, and even taking a teeny tiny nap are all great ideas for study breaking. Taking care of your brain in the next few days will in part determine how you produce and apply your knowledge on exams.
Clean up your spaces. You want your mind to be free of distraction. You want to minimize the amount of time you spend each day looking for things or avoiding studying because your mind is on what is in your immediate space, reminding you of other nonurgent and unimportant things. Clean your dorm, apartment, car, bathrooms, and study spaces. You will be able to focus and concentrate on only what is in front of you, making your study sessions more productive. A clean space is a clean mind.
Be prepared with study essentials. Time is so critical when you are studying for exams. Every single minute is needed. One way to assure you are freeing up good study time is to gather everything you will need to support your actual studying and mental focus. Essentials like highlighters, sticky notes, and your computer are a no-brainer, but also remember to organize your electronic files, have handy any notes, quizzes, chargers, syllabi, and supporting materials you might use. Have near, phone numbers of professors and classmates, sustenance (food), neck and spine-supporting tools, and items that bring you comfort and fun.
Know what content is covered on the exam. This may seem so elementary, but it is inevitable that you sit down to focus on a class and realize you either forgot what sections are covered, what content is included, or what is not expected, or, you have simply not looked at your syllabi recently. Refer to your syllabus first. Review class notes for emphasized, repeated, and highlighted concepts, examples, ideas, and professor comments. Be very clear on expectations. Figure out your knowledge gaps in the material covered and focus on this for the bulk of your study session. It is never too late to email your professor either for clarification. Also, know what format/application your exam will be in – multiple choice, essay, project presentation.
Please sleep smart. Your brain will tell you to go, go, go. It will be in ultra-produce-mode. And it will forget to remind you of the importance of sleep. You will constantly feel like studying is more important that anything. This is false. Although your brain is still active during sleep, quality sleep is as important for your existence (especially focusing, memorizing, concentrating, and recalling) as food and water. Sleep effects every system in your body. It effects neurons, tissue, metabolism, mood, and immunity. You need these things to be ideally functioning and healthy when you are generating emotional, cognitive, and physical energy while studying. It is unnecessary to be inflexible about how much sleep you get. Schedule it so you follow through with adequate amounts (7-8 hours). Know what bedtime, wind-down strategies work and even incorporate a few new ones.
Bullseye. Enter each study session with a single target of focus. Go in with a detailed plan. Have actionable steps and check lists. Have a set time, and an end time in mind. Know what you will study for how long and in what manner (actively studying and passively studying – both work). Use a timer. Stay true to your study goals. Be very clear when you sit down to produce.
Critical Outcome. If one of your exams is critical for a certain grade, or your class passing depends on this one exam, pay close attention to studying for this class, but try not to hyperfocus. Maintain a “balance” approach when you consider how you will study for all exams. One exam might be both urgent and important (Eisenhower Matrix), but you have other exams that need attention. Be flexible with your time and energy and be smart about how you divide your focus.
“I can’t get motivated.” It is going to happen. You will lose the gumption to study. Your brain is exhausted. Any momentum you had, will disappear. What do you do? Pair the dreaded task with a fun activity. Set yourself up with a reward. Just to get started, choose an easy, quick part of a task, and knock it out. The brain releases dopamine when you do this, and it gives you a general sense of success, so you build upon this momentum and keep going. Move on to tackle more of the task. Then move to the dreaded task.
Give yourself grace. Envision two weeks from now. Plan how you will celebrate even if it is just a pat on the back. Know that your efforts are honest and that you gave the semester your (best) shot. Do not dwell on short comings. Allow yourself to “fail” while planning to do things differently. All these soft acknowledgments help move your through stress and negative thoughts. You want your mental and emotional energies to be free to study. Give yourself grace.