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Surviving Finals Week

By Matt Gonzalez

Stressed woman biting on a pencil while staring at her laptop
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Whether you are a first-time freshman or a well-seasoned senior, nothing quite strikes fear into the heart of students as Finals Week. Between balancing the studying requirements for each exam or adding your finishing touches to several term papers; Finals Week is the season of stress. So, what is one to do? How can you simultaneously be asked to enjoy the holiday season and prepare for the final push of your class? Here are some last minute tips that can help you get over the hump!

First step: Breathe - literally!

I get that this sounds about as cliché as it gets but, hear me out. The way our minds and bodies function only allows us to be only in a state of peace or a state of stress; we can’t really exist in both states at the same time. We also have this great partnership between our minds and our bodies where if one commits to something, the other will often follow! 

We can use these two systems together to help our bodies elicit a peace-response by breathing deeply (i.e. stressed-head meets at peace-body, which becomes at peace-head)! The Cleveland Clinic has an excellent tutorial on how to do this correctly. You may have discovered that you don’t perform well on many tasks if you are feeling stressed out; why not take a couple of minutes to breathe and regulate first?

Controlling finals stress

One thing that I have many of my clients do when approaching a stressful situation is create a list of the things that are 100% under their control and then everything else. You will be quite surprised to find that we tend to spend an inordinate amount of time ruminating about factors of our life that are not under our control. Time spent focusing on the extra credit you didn’t do last month or being angry at that one kid who seems to do well on exams without studying is not exactly a productive use of your limited mental energy. 

Try listing the things you can control and focus your limited energy and time on those. Things that students will find that are, generally, 100% under their control: 

  • attending classes 
  • implementing a time management strategy 
  • completing assignments
  • utilizing campus resources 
  • the level of effort they are putting into a task

After the semester is over, then you have my full permission to be angry at that one kid!

Sleep and self-care during Finals Week

Of all the basics most quickly abandoned by students, sleep is number one. However, this can be an unfortunate error. Sleep is a critical part of the learning process. It is during this time that information learned during the day is written into long-term memory. It seems like pulling an all-nighter is a rite-of-passage in college, but I’d encourage you to avoid them if possible. If you get no (or limited) sleep, not only have you not encoded the information well on a neurological-level, but fatigue hampers your ability to recall information and focus on a task; both of which are desperately needed for exam-day performance! Do what you need to do, but if you can help it know that you are likely better off reviewing what you know, skimming through what you don’t know, and getting a full night of sleep before the test instead of trying to learn something new at the 11th hour.

Exhausted man laying in bed with his laptop, working late.
Photo by Matthew T. Rader on Unsplash

Also, please don’t abandon self-care during this time. Yes, you are absolutely inclined to limit the amount of self-care you perform during this time; however, completely and utterly surrendering it will likely not help and if anything, it will make things worse. Be sure to continue doing the things that make you, well, you! Take a walk, go to the gym, call family/friends, make a meal, play video games, watch a movie, read a book, listen to music; whatever it is that you do, keep doing it. Just be sure to manage it, which brings me to my next point…

Manage your time

Speaking of things that are controllable…your free-time is certainly among them. Procrastination is public enemy number one during finals week and a mismanagement of your time can be the difference between moving on or trying again next semester. I have watched several students go into the end of the semester passing and come out the other end not passing; not because of their intelligence, but because of mismanaged time. There are many ways to engage in the time management process but here are the two most important features: 

First, you absolutely need to know what tasks you need to manage, so list these out. This will include tangible tasks (like assignments and exams; as well as their due dates) and intangible ones (like studying and self-care). 

Second, you need to know what works for you. Do you never seem to use the handwritten planners because you don’t like them? That’s ok! Find a new tool; your phone is an excellent candidate and you might be able to find an app that suits your needs. The key point is that you find something that works for YOU that you can commit to using.

Prepare for finals 

Finally, the last step is simply being prepared going into your exam. Know your exam dates, times, and locations and write that information onto an easily accessible place (e.g. your phone). Along with that, know what scantron type or other exam materials will be needed for the exam and put those in a folder in your backpack or bag ahead of time. Know whether you will need to show a student ID to take an exam. Know if you professor/instructor is allowing any cheat sheets of any kind. Gathering all of this information and materials ahead of time can help limit stress and boost confidence!

I have confidence that you have the capacity to put forth a strong effort this finals-week! It is my sincere hope that the tips above as well as the knowledge you have gained during your time at WVU will serve you well. Good luck!

Meet the author

Matt Gonzalez

Matt is a third year Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology doctoral student, as well as a student in the Counseling M.A. program. He is currently a graduate teaching assistant in CPASS and a master’s practicum trainee at the Carruth Center where he provides supervised counseling to students at the university.

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