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Finals Survival Strategies for College Students

Connie Lissner

It’s that time of year again, when college students across the country go into full-on panic mode: cramming into libraries, pulling all-nighters and drinking way too much caffeine. It doesn't help that the last few weeks of the semester tend to coincide with longer, warmer days making it even harder to stay on task.

Fortunately, with a little planning and some mindfulness, your student can make it through finals relatively unscathed. Here are seven suggestions to pass on to your students to help them finish this year strong.

The Master Plan

1. Get organized NOW.

Don’t wait until the week before finals to figure out what you need to do. Organize your notes for each class and write down all of your deadlines, study sessions and exam dates so you can see exactly what you have to do and when. Just 30 minutes of planning can save hours of wasted time.

2. Triage your preparation.

Prioritize your tasks the same way a triage nurse prioritizes treatment — based on what needs immediate attention. Evaluate every assignment on the list to determine what is “Must Do Now!” versus “I have two weeks to get it done.”

Consider what classes you’re doing well in and where you need to spend more time. This may be when you decide that a skipped 5-point writing assignment isn’t going to change your grade so, instead, you may choose to use that time to focus on studying for something that will make an impact.

That said, don’t assume that just because you think you know the material in a class you can stop studying altogether.

3. Create a calendar.

Now make a schedule of what you’d like to get done each day and set a realistic time frame for each activity. A color-coded Excel spreadsheet isn’t required — a simple list will do —but, if you need the tech support, of course there’s an app (or 20) for this.

4. Focus on academics.

Try not to worry about what comes after this semester. Again, triage. Figure out what non-schoolwork can be pushed back and what can’t.

One thing that can’t wait until after finals is your plan to move out of your residence hall or apartment. Dedicate a few minutes during your organizing session to confirm your move-out date, make transportation arrangements and figure out how to store your stuff if you aren’t lugging it back home. (This is something your family can help with, BTW.)

Support and Self-Care

5. It’s never too late to ask for help.

If there’s an assignment you don’t understand or a concept that’s giving you trouble, don’t waste time trying to figure it out on your own. Reach out to your instructor, track down the TA, ask your classmates for help.

DO NOT BE EMBARRASSED to get help at the 11th hour. Don’t discount your university’s academic resource center, either. They often offer group study sessions, peer tutoring and even stress management workshops.

Read about end-of-semester options for difficult courses here >

6. Take care of yourself.

Don’t skimp on sleep, make sure to eat well, drink plenty of water, and find a way to relax. Relaxing may seem impossible when you are only three pages into a 15-page paper, but figure out what calms you and do it. It will make you more productive. Go to the gym if that’s what you need, meditate (there’s an app for that, too), go out with friends, play a game, go pet an on-campus therapy dog if you have that option. Burnout is real, so take a break before it breaks you.

On that subject…

7. Take regular breaks (but don’t procrastinate).

The sun is finally shining. Who could blame you for wanting to play Frisbee on the quad instead of sitting in the library?

Who says you can’t do both? Go ahead and play for 15 minutes, then head back to the library. Taking breaks will actually help you focus. A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that taking a brief mental break improves performance on prolonged tasks like studying for exams.

Brief is the operative word. Fifteen to 20 minutes seems to be the sweet spot, so if you know you can’t spend just 15 minutes playing a video game, or if Snapchat is like a black hole that would take you an hour to escape, find a less distracting activity and save the others for later. Use your break to get out of your seat, get a glass of water, take a walk outside, anything that creates a physical distance from your workspace.

Remind Them They're Not Alone

Whatever steps our students are taking to stay on top of the semester, this can still be a very stressful season. We can remind them that they have a support network — at school and at home.

Connie Lissner is a writer, lawyer, wife and more importantly, the mother of two sons — one in college and the other a recent graduate. She was once told that a child’s job is to constantly push a parent’s limits and her boys do their job very well. She, in turn, is trying to do her job of not totally screwing them up. She navigates the slippery slope of motherhood one mistake at a time. Connie’s parenting failures have been featured on The Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, Grown and Flown, Scary Mommy, LifeAfter50, Club Mid, BlogHer and in the book, Not Your Mother’s Book…on Parenting.
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