I write this entry from my own dining room table, the Albuquerque sun streaming in through the guest room window, Celestial Seasonings Candy Cane Lane tea steeping in a chipped thrift store mug next to me. I am so very relaxed and content, it seems difficult to believe that just one week ago I was getting ready to take my first college finals! As I am still a very green college student, and college finals are different from high school in a lot of ways, I thought it might be nice to write a bit about how I made it through my first finals as a college first-year (hopefully with success!).
This semester, I had three cumulative exams, in chem, stats, and German, and one final paper for my first-year seminar on the history of piracy. Many of my friends didn’t have as many tests as I did, since they took a lot more writing classes than I did, so my finals week isn’t necessarily representative of everyone’s finals week, but for any prospective (or current?) students interested in finals preparation, I have a few tips and tricks about how I managed it all. If there’s one thing I gained from being a professional dancer during high school, it’s decent time management skills, so those will feature heavily in the following list.
1. Break things up!
The week before finals, I was so concerned about getting my daily homework done that I wasn’t even thinking about my finals. Regardless, the fact that I had to study was in the back of my mind all week like an itch on my back I couldn’t quite reach. Once I made it to the weekend, I had the mental capacity to remember that I had to study for three cumulative exams and write a decent paper about Treasure Island. It is so incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of studying and preparation that has to be done. In order to not freak myself out too much, I fished out my aggressively color-coded planner I used for the rest of the semester and planned out what I wanted to accomplish each day. For example, Monday of reading period I was going to finish my chem study guide (a whopping 14 pages!), and do the stats review problems my prof had put on Blackboard. Another example: I had a goal to finish a draft of my final seminar paper by Wednesday so I could discuss it with my prof before the final was due on Saturday. Breaking up tasks allowed me to realize that I really did have plenty of time to get everything done, and it made the work seem much more manageable. That being said, if I wasn’t able to finish something that I had planned to finish, I let myself be somewhat flexible. Life happens, and usually things can be worked in somewhere else even if it doesn’t seem like it. Being kind to myself instead of berating myself for not finishing a task reduced my stress levels significantly.
2. Sleep! And also wake up! And eat!
During finals week I figured it would be a good idea to stick to the same schedule I had been on for the entire rest of the semester, because destroying my Circadian rhythm when I had to perform well on exams didn’t really seem like a fun activity. So I aimed for an 11:30 PM bedtime and woke up at 7:50 AM. I ate meals at the regular times too, which really helped. I think this schedule forced my brain into thinking this was just like any other week in the semester.
3. Hug your friends!!!
My friend Elizabeth who started at Harvey Mudd College this semester did her senior thesis on altruism and stress. I won’t go into the specifics, because it was a very long and complicated paper, but basically, oxytocin (lovingly referred to as the “cuddle hormone”) decreases stress levels. Oxytocin levels rise when you touch other people. I know that most people might not be as touchy-feely as I am, but I gave my friends a lot of hugs during finals week (make sure to check if people are ok with touching beforehand, though! Making consent a conversation over here, folks!). I can’t vouch for the efficacy of the increase in hug giving (someone should do a study on that), but I really felt that I had the support of my friends during finals week, and I hope that my friends felt that I was supporting them too. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you are stressed or anxious, because there are DEFINITELY others who feel the exact same way. Use your support system! Hug a person!
4. Eat an entire bar of dark chocolate!?
My delightful mother sent me a care package of epic proportions right before finals week, complete with stuffed grape leaves from Trader Joe’s, homemade cookies, a pun T-shirt with Nutcrackers on it reading “Crushed It,” and a bar of dark chocolate. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that a bar of chocolate got me through finals week. One of my very dear dancer friends used to eat a piece of chocolate before every show; I adopted this tradition, partly because I love her a lot and it seemed like a ritual I wanted to be part of, and partly because I just wanted an excuse to eat chocolate, let’s be real here. I carried this tradition over to my final exams too. It was really nice to have a small treat before an exam. Also, eating two generous squares of dark chocolate before my 7-9 PM (!!!) chem exam was probably not a bad idea either. Finals week is a stressful time, and treating myself in a small but meaningful way was an excellent way to practice self-care during a difficult time.
5. Move that body!
Apart from eating and sleeping, I pretty much lived in the science library for 5 days straight during finals. Sitting down for too long makes me really antsy, so I made sure to go to the gym once a day and do some cardio to blow off steam. If cardio or the gym isn’t your style, there are so many other good ways to take a break, like stretching or yoga. I also found that a nice walk in the chilly (read: 5˚ Fahrenheit) air was really refreshing, but maybe that’s just me. I found that sitting for too long made me way less focused, and that once I took a good solid break and moved my body a bit, I was ready to work again.
6. Don’t study too much!
During high school, I was a firm believer in the “no studying the day of the exam” policy. I had to bend that rule slightly this year, only because my exams were at times late enough that it seemed foolish to not use the time I had to do a little last-minute review. That being said, I found that the more I studied, the more stressed out I became. At a certain point, you either know the information or you don’t, and doing 10 extra review problems might not fix gaps in knowledge or understanding. Once I found myself questioning if I had done enough, or if I really knew the material, or if I had catastrophically neglected to mention something in my essay, I decided that enough was enough, and it was time to trust myself. I worked really hard throughout the semester, and that paid off when I went to study. Really, I assumed that there was no reason to expect my performance to be significantly lower on my finals than it was on any other exam earlier in the semester. I learned to trust my instincts, and my preparation, and just take the damn test.
So that concludes Ruth’s comprehensive tips for surviving finals week! I worry a lot about grades, and I have perfectionistic tendencies, but I also know that your grades don’t define you and that self-worth isn’t determined by whether or not you remember what charge the polyatomic ion acetate has (it’s -1, if anyone’s wondering). Earlier in the semester, after every test I found myself not wanting to let myself believe that it had gone well, even if I genuinely felt I had performed well. My general strategy in the past has been to have low expectations, so that I’m pleasantly surprised if things go well. This, to be fair, is a pretty garbage way of looking at things. By the time I got to finals week, though, I had no qualms about telling my friends that I thought I did well on my exams. I know I did well on them. (What is the self-assuredness? What happened to the old, self-deprecating Ruth? Where has she gone?) Yesterday I asked my mom if I seemed different from the way I was before leaving for college. She said I seemed more “quietly confident.” When she asked me if I thought I would get an A in chemistry, I said “Yeah.” No pretense, no beating around the bush, just an affirmation. I used to be afraid of being confident because I thought it would make me seem arrogant and make people not like me. But now, I am beginning to realize that thinking that I can do well in things and being confident doesn’t make me arrogant or a bad human, it just means that I trust myself more.
My final (pun intended) message to anyone who just took finals or who will take finals again: Trust yourself. You did the best that you could, and even if you didn’t do your best, you still have value as a human being and I love you. Happy Holidays, and have a great New Year!