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Prep for Success When Taking Your Finals 
Written by Jim Meany April 7th 2017
Greetings and welcome to the first ever Insight Tutors LLC blog post. We write our posts to be informative and useful. They will cover a variety of subjects relevant to success and advancement in high school, college, and graduate school and beyond. The subjects will address learning mechanisms, study methods, undergraduate and graduate admissions, and test prep, among other issues. With our posts, we seek to alleviate your pain and reinforce your joy with the information and answers we provide. Be sure to let us know in the comments of topics you would like us to address in future posts.

Occasionally, we might explore other topics of interest to adolescents, young adults, and their parents that extend beyond formal education. Do not expect the prosaic and remixed from us. You can read elsewhere about how you need to be yourself in your application statement and shouldn’t try to write the kind of essays you think admissions committees want to read. Do expect the provocative. We want to provide material that challenges the reader to think, to analyze, and yes, even to disagree, thus mimicking our approach with our clients. We know it’s not a one-size-fits-all world.

So let’s get started as the writer learns the meaning behind the aphorism “It’s easier to be an editor than an author” and you, the reader, learn something of use and interest that you can apply to your scholastic and personal evolution.

Today’s topic is preparation for finals. It’s almost mid-April, and for many, finals are barely a heartbeat away. For those taking AP tests, finals week is more like a QRS trace beyond tomorrow (med and vet students can relate). For everyone, think you have plenty of time before you start prepping for finals? Sorry, think again. Hate to be the one to break the news, but we are way past this semester’s/quarter’s optimum start date for finals prep. However, not all is lost.

The best time to start prepping for finals is not dead week (week before finals which is free of required classes) or the week before that or even three weeks before your first final. No, the best time to start prepping for finals is the first day of the semester or quarter! Why do we say that?

Finals are called finals for a reason. They are the last tests you will take for a given course of study. They are necessarily cumulative, even for those finals that cover only the last half or other latter portion of a course. One should consider even finals that do not cover a whole semester’s work cumulative because course work is cumulative – the later parts of a course build on the earlier.

Preparation for a final test, as with any section test, should involve no more than intensive review – you should not be trying to learn new material immediately before the test, especially not material that was taught much earlier in the semester. If you are, then you probably did not manage your time well over the semester. In an ideal, time-unlimited world, everyone would be caught up all the time. We know nobody lives in an ideal world. Starting on Day 1 of the semester brings many advantages, however.

For one, if you start the semester knowing you are prepping for the final, your approach will be more efficient and your learning stronger. We are not encouraging anyone to violate any strongly held beliefs (especially by the author) about the utility of remaining in the moment, avoiding destructive outcome orientation, and not discounting the value of learning for learning’s sake (watch for future posts addressing these topics). However, to borrow from Stephen Covey, it pays to start with the objective in mind and to work your way back from it.

Anticipating exams, including finals, creates a mindset by which you constantly ask yourself, “Could this problem/topic/event show up on the test? If so, how? What kind of answer would the professor expect? What kind of answer would I expect to see if I were the professor?” Now you are attending every lecture, taking every note, and completing every homework assignment and/or project with the idea that you will have to revisit and demonstrate mastery of the material during an exam. You will notice some interesting changes as a result.

First, your finals review will be exactly that – review. You will not be scrambling to relearn or, worse yet, to learn from scratch material that you just “never got” earlier in the semester. Second, you will be learning more effectively because you will have a context for assimilating the material, if for no other reason than you will want to excel on the final exam. This can be helpful for creating interest in those required courses that you will experience throughout your academic career for which you really can’t generate any sustained enthusiasm. Yet the courses are mandatory, so you need to make them count. As a consultant, the author absolutely hates invoicing – such an uninteresting time suck. But he sure likes cashing checks, and he doesn’t get to do one without the other. All of a sudden, invoicing becomes fascinating!

Finally, by beginning exams prep the first day of class, you are taking steps to alleviate a major stressor for students, if not preempting it altogether. You are now managing the assignment rather than letting the assignment manage you. You are actively navigating your way to your future rather than being the metaphorical cork bobbing along downriver, completely at the whim of the current. You know where you are going and how you will get there, and you are increasing your potential for mastery along the way. Moreover, you are establishing an approach that will be invaluable for career success.

What if you didn’t start finals prep the first day of the semester? No worries. Start now! Four weeks of prep time is a whole lot better than a week or a day. And all-nighters, while possibly effective in the short term, really are not a sustainable, healthy approach to anything. Gather all your past papers, tests, homework, study guides and other materials (you did save them, didn’t you?), and make a plan. 

Make sure you understand how to improve material you missed the first time around (now is a good time to make use of instructor/teaching assistant office hours) and can repeat your performance on the questions you answered correctly. Redo homework and test problems you missed if you have done so already. Write new study guides if necessary. Complete end-of-chapter sample tests. Reread your annotations in literary works. Convene study-buddy groups if helpful (watch for a future post addressing best practices in exploiting participation in a study group).  

Treat the time remaining as a capacity utilization/operations management challenge so that you can be as efficient and effective as possible in your finals prep. Then enter your final exam with a calm and confident mindset knowing you have done the best you can to prepare, and be prepared to excel.

Good luck!

About the Author: Jim Meany

Jim is an award-winning educator and admissions consultant who helps clients realize their highest personal and academic potential. He is founder and director of Insight Tutors LLC of Greenwich, Connecticut. Founded in 2001, Insight Tutors, LLC has been helping students excel at subject matter, master standardized tests, and gain admission to the most competitive undergraduate and graduate schools. He holds an MBA in finance and entrepreneurship from USC and MS and BS degrees in biology from Stanford University and has also taught at both schools.
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