Ah the glorious hell that is pre-exam time. Your room has dirty clothes and garbage (mostly packaging from unhealthy snacks) strewn across the floor and every other flat surface — amidst, of course, the disorienting sea of paper that has come to be your life. You are probably missing those days when the pleasure of showering and having clean hair was taken for granted. Mornings melt into midnights and afternoons into dawn. As you look towards your curtained window and catch streaks of light that represent sunrise, your stomach growls as you realize that it’s been a while since you had anything besides instant noodles, milk and cereal. Fear reminds you of many “what ifs” and reduces any remaining hedonistic desires to dust. You sigh, your thoughts sinking into deep abstraction as you ponder the fundamental nature of “time.”
Of course, I’m not speaking from personal experience.
To further show that the sense of pain and panic you are currently experiencing is a ubiquitous phenomenon among undergrads, I’ve informally interviewed some very tired students on the St. George campus. For confidentiality’s sake, their names have been removed. After all, What’s in a name? That which we call stress / By any other name would feel as grim.
[Nov. 19, Biome Student Forum] “I have this dream every few weeks or so where I think I’m enrolled in a course but have never shown up to class, then I go to class one day and have no idea what the hell the professor is talking about, and even worse, I’ve missed a bunch of work or there is a huge project due the next day which is way beyond my capabilities.”
[Nov. 23, Robarts Library, 3rd-floor reading room, 9:50 p.m.] “I was sick but I had a midterm the next day so I had to pull an all-nighter. I stayed up till two in the morning, went to bed till four, then woke up to study until five, then slept from five to seven, studied till eight, slept from eight to nine, and then showered and went to my exam.”
[Nov. 24, Innis College, 3:10 a.m.] “I got a max of 20-something hours of sleep this entire week so far. I’m so tired that I don’t even feel tired anymore.”
[Nov. 24, Innis College Residence, 4:40 p.m.] “Oh my God, I was supposed to wake up at three o’clock to study for my term test that’s at 5 o’clock!”
[Nov. 25, outside of Gerstein Library, 3:10 p.m.] “So after my exam last Wednesday, I was so burned out and so tired, but I had to study for my other term test the day after, right? So I forced myself to go to Gerstein and somehow fell asleep as soon as I sat down. And when I woke up an hour later, everywhere on my body hurt because — ha ha —I had fallen asleep on one of those huge paper clip things and my face had this huge red mark and I was so disoriented for the longest time, like I didn’t know where I was. And um, on my notes there was this little puddle of drool.”
[Nov. 25, Facebook status update, 8:00 p.m.] “effemeeeeeellllllleeeeeee”
Yep. I concur.
Thankfully, there is hope. There’s still quite some time before finals roll around: if you look solely at the number of hours between now and exam time, as we tend to do the day before a test or exam, time is in fact rather abundant. In addition, Arts and Science has added in a two-day study break starting this term, and honestly, any break is a good break!
The following will come off sounding very cliché, but don’t let yourself procrastinate (much)! A situation that might sound very familiar to us all is described by an anonymous poster on Biome:
For final exams that [are] worth a lot, I have such a difficult time studying for them. I don’t even know what it is, but maybe because they’re so important, I end up avoiding studying for them. I procrastinate like crazy as a result, despite knowing that I am going to do poorly if I keep it that way. I kept telling myself that I have to study, but I just cannot bring myself to do it. I know some of you would tell me that I am just lazy and that it is my fault. I tell myself the same thing too, and that’s what I would also say to others who have the same problem. But when you are actually experiencing it, getting yourself back to studying isn’t easy at all. I tell myself to get off Facebook, MSN, and whatever other distractors so many times. But as soon as I start studying, I start feeling hungry so I need to find something to eat. After I eat, I start getting distracted again and the cycle continues. It is really frustrating because one part of me wants to study, but the other part of me is preventing myself from doing so.
As a result of this, I ended up being under-prepared for my exams. Naturally, I did not do well on them and I become so disappointed with myself. I mean, I could actually do very well if I spent all that time studying instead of procrastinating. I tell my friends I’ve let my profs down because I talk to them/they know who I am. But really, I let myself down more. I used to think this was my own problem and I could work around it by having better study habits. I tried — I started writing out my schedule, for example, and I tried studying at the library more. They helped at first, for midterms at least. But not for finals.
… Do any of you experience the same thing? I am not talking about normal procrastination where you just don’t do anything until the last minute. I am talking about the kind of procrastination where being pressured won’t even get me to start working again. I’m devastated because I don’t think anyone could help me with it.”
Doesn’t that sound so familiar? I know I’ve experienced the same thing for at least three or four finals every single semester so far. In my last year of undergrad, I’ve realized that it is virtually impossible to spend “all that time studying instead of procrastinating.” I used to make some very slow progress studying for a final one day, then go to bed thinking about how I’ll spend a “whole day” tomorrow studying for the same thing. “Tomorrow” always feels like such a blank day, a reservoir of empty hours waiting to be employed in something useful. In reality, though, that’s almost never the case. Very few of us can actually study the same subject non-stop for such an excruciating amount of time. No wonder we procrastinate! The very thought of such an unpleasant experience completely kills any motivation we had in the first place.
Obviously it’s good to spend a long time studying for a course, but time is not as important as efficiency. Grasp the key concepts and look at past exams. Just as in many other aspects of life, a key step to success is approaching the problem strategically. Be strategic in all aspects of exam preparation:
- The material: Be tough on yourself, and resist the urge to commit every minor detail to memory. Students who do this are no doubt hardworking, but they always end up giving me a real fright right before an exam because they obsess over insignificant details that I unfortunately do not know. These people do not necessarily do better on exams, either. Trust me, I know — I used to be one of them.
- The mind, body and soul: It’s true that you probably study better before midnight, but if you’ve already developed a quirky sleeping schedule, it’s probably too late to change in time for exams. All of these tips — eating well, getting exercise, sleeping enough and so on — are there to help, but sometimes when we feel that we are not doing all we can to maximize our study efficiency, we feel guilty for having mistreated our bodies. What was supposed to help actually becomes a source of stress! The best thing to do is probably just forget about it temporarily. If having snacks helps (chewing has been scientifically demonstrated to boost memory), keep a small package of healthy snacks within reach. I avoid drinking water, because it lacks taste and I usually need something to stimulate my taste buds late at night. So I opt for tea — it’s not as strong as coffee and also not as dehydrating.
- The place: Not everyone functions best in a library setting. Some people who are more extroverted can only study when other people are around. For introverts though, being alone definitely aids concentration. I also tend to be easily distracted by noise, so when I’m cramming like mad and therefore very high-strung, I shut myself in my room where almost all sources of noise are under my control.
- The people: Depending on your study habits, you might not want to sit down and study with other people. Nevertheless, it’s always good to keep in touch with others who are in the same course, whether it’s through MSN or email or even Facebook. At best, you’ll generate some mind-stimulating discussions that will boost your understanding of the material and enhance your memory; at the very least, it will make you realize that others are in fact panicking along with you! (And if you are like me, seeing that some people are further ahead in their study schedules actually becomes a kind of motivation to work harder.)
- “Just do it”: I love this Nike motto. Focus on now, not on the “what ifs.” Remember that when you’ve given it all you’ve got, life somehow always finds a way for you to succeed.
And that’s it for this week! Good luck with your exams and end-of-term assignments. I’ll meet you on the other side!