Tackling Tests: Final Exams

As you approach final exams you need to shift your perspective from a local/subject view (preparing for relatively short tests on limited material), to a global/term view (preparing for several large, comprehensive tests that occur at the same time). Planning for final exams is more than preparing for several long tests. You will be choosing how to prioritize your subjects and deciding how and where to concentrate limited amounts of time and energy. You will need to plan for the exams themselves and also for your final assignments and projects, which are just as important. How can you get everything done and finish on top?

Here's a set of useful steps:

Succeeding in final exams is the culmination of all the work you've done to improve your study and test-taking skills, manage your time, and maintain your health through the term. Staying organized and managing stress as finals approach will translate into solidified knowledge and your best grades.

Gather Information

  • The Final Exam Schedule is posted near the beginning of each term. On Add Date (fifth week), once your schedule is settled, check the schedule and record each exam date, time, and location in your planner. Check again on Drop Date (tenth week) and in the last week of classes to make sure that none of your testing dates, times, or locations have changed. Sometimes changes are made later in the term, even just before Finals Week.
  • The Registrar's Office will contact you if you have a scheduling conflict between two or more final exams.
  • The Faculty have agreed on rules to ensure that student workloads are manageable prior to and during the final exam period. These Faculty term regulations specify when and how finals can be given, when final assignments are due, testing in subjects without finals, and more. They are publicized each term, but instructors occasionally overlook them. At the beginning of the term, check your syllabi against the regulations; ask the instructor if you see an apparent violation. You can also address questions or report violations to exam-termregs@mit.edu. Doing this early in the term prevents last-minute crises for all concerned.
  • Gather all of your notes, handouts, texts, assignments, and tests for each subject and sort them into chronological order so they will be easy to find again. Check your gathered material against the syllabus. Do you have all of the important information? Are you missing notes for any lectures? Do you have all of the assignments and tests back that you should? All of your textbooks? Will the final exam cover the entire term's material or some subset? This is the first step in planning your study time.

Assess your progress

All exams are not created equal. Some count more toward your term grade, some less. Some cover the whole term, others just material since the last hour exam. You are probably better prepared in some subjects than others. Based on these differences, you can begin setting priorities for your exam study time.

It may help to use our Term Assessment Form to clarify your thoughts, look at your term as a whole, and possibly spot trends or problem areas. You may want to do this once a week before Drop Date (ninth week of term) and again a month before Exam Week. As you review your results, consider these questions as well:

  • Do you know your approximate grade level in each subject? If not, speak with the instructor or TA as soon as possible. You have to be clear about your progress in order to set realistic goals. Your instructor and TA can also suggest tools for improvement, including alternative approaches to the material and possibly additional instruction or tutoring. Don't be afraid to ask: your instructor wants you to succeed by mastering the subject.
  • Are you having difficulty with just one subject? Again, have a conversation with your instructor or TA right away. Ask them whether you can still pass the subject.
    • If you still have a chance of passing, ask what grade you need to achieve on the final exam to pass the subject. Ask for help in studying for the final.
    • If your performance in the subject is borderline, the instructor will likely encourage you to keep working and make this subject a high priority during the final exam period.
    • If tdere's no chance that you can pass, meet immediately with your advisor. If it's still before Drop Date, you and your advisor will most likely decide you should drop. After Drop Date, with your advisor's input, choose one of two options. You can continue to attend class and submit work, laying a good foundation for the next time you take the subject. (In this case, be careful not to sacrifice subjects that can be improved for one that cannot. On the other hand, sometimes both instructors and students have been surprised by a high final exam grade.) Or you can stop working, accept the failing grade, and move on. If you choose to stop working, be sure to inform the instructor, so that s/he knows how to grade you.
  • Are you having difficulty with two or more subjects? What are your realistic chances for success in each subject? Will intense effort in one jeopardize your performance in others? If you drop a subject (before Drop Date), will you be able to recover in your other subjects? If Drop Date has passed, meet with your advisor immediately to discuss how best to recover the term. You may also want to meet with a dean in Student Support Services to discuss your difficulties and explore possibilities for extensions or withdrawal.
  • How can you improve your grade in a subject late in the term? After you have met with your instructor, TA, and advisor, you will have a good idea how you are doing in a subject and where your problem areas lie. Review these areas and redo incorrect problems from former problem sets and tests. Do practice problems and alternative problem sets from your textbook. Bring problems you cannot solve to your TA or a tutor for clarification. Continue practicing within your study group. Set realistic goals for yourself, and work on making progress in manageable steps.
  • How many hours can you realistically spend preparing for each exam given the time remaining? This is the last question on the term assessment, and one to consider carefully. You will have assignments and unit tests for which to prepare in the weeks before exams begin. Make a list of these other commitments and their due dates. How much time will you need to prepare for them? How late in the term is it now? What resources will you need (such as access to practice problems, labs, computers, instructors, or TAs), and when will they be available to you?

Organize Your Time

Ideally, you would start this process at least three weeks before final exams begin, but you can easily adapt the following techniques to a shorter period.

  • Use a planner or calendar program to chart each week remaining before your final exams and Finals Week itself.
  • Date each sheet or entry, and fill in your time commitments between now and your last exam. Include all remaining class meetings, recitations, and labs; assignment due dates, testing dates, and final exam dates; and other appointments like review sessions or study groups.
  • You won't have classes during Finals Week, so it will look like you have lots of time then, and you will, but don't leave everything for that week. Planning ahead is the key to performing well and reducing exam stress.
  • Make a list of important tasks that you need to accomplish before the term ends (such as meeting with instructors, TAs, or study groups; getting notes back from a friend; packing by a certain date) and make those arrangements. Add any new dates to your planner and To-Do List.

Use Your Study Time Productively

If you plan out your study time in loose blocks, you're more likely to keep up with all of your subjects and be ready for each exam as it occurs. Say that you plan to study four subjects for 20 hours each over a two-week period. On average, this means you would be studying about 5.7 hours/day, which is manageable. To accomplish the same task in one week, you would be studying 11.4 hours/day, which is significantly more difficult.

Studying is most effective when you plan to concentrate for reasonable periods of time (blocks of two or three hours), and take reasonable breaks (15-30 minutes) between them. It is also more effective to work on more than one subject over the course of an evening, rather than working on a single subject all night. The change of subject will refresh your mind and keep you more alert and engaged. It's easy to spend too long on a subject in which you are not making progress if you do not plan to switch gears at some point.

Consider the difference between these two approaches to studying three subjects over the course of two days:

Two Ways to Plan Study
  Emma Anne
  Mon Tues Mon Tues

4:00 p.m.

Subject 1






Subject 3












Subject 1







Subject 2






Subject 1



















Subject 3






Subject 2

Subject 2

Subject 3
















12:00 a.m.




















Botd of these students complete four hours of studying in three subjects, but Emma has more options. If she has difficulty in any of her subjects on Monday, she could follow up with the TA or her study group on Tuesday. In the meantime, she will have made some progress in her other work. Anne is in a more difficult situation, as she faces long study sessions and less opportunity for follow-up. Although both students will have done six hours of studying by 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Anne will likely be more tired and stressed, and unfortunately she still has work to do.

Different people work differently. Your ideal block of study time may be only one hour or it may be four hours. Perhaps it is easier for you not to change subjects once you are making progress. Adapt these guidelines to work for your preferences and style.

(Reference: http://mit.edu/uaap/learning/teach/tests/finals.html)


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