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A student sits by a window pondering her exam schedule
November 29, 2018
4 mins read

How to handle a hectic exam schedule

In my second year, I was hit with a doozy of an exam schedule. All four of my finals, crammed into a 30 hour period over the very first two days of the exam period.

My schedule was technically just outside of the requirements to receive an exam hardship (3 exams within 24 hours), so my professors weren’t able to offer me another time to write. I had to buckle down and work through the situation.

I was concerned about reviewing all the material in time for my finals, but also about just getting through the two days themselves. How was I, someone who is easily distracted at the best of times, going to be able to stay focused enough to write 4 exams in a row?

When I finally walked out of the last of the four exams, I was too dazed to know how I made it through. It felt like I had been carried through the two days in a rush of adrenaline.

But upon reflection, I realized I made some choices that paid off and allowed me to get through this difficult situation. Here’s some insight that you can follow if you have a tight exam schedule (or any other high-pressure circumstance):

1. Sleep

This is the most important tip for me, as I, unfortunately, cannot function well without a solid 8 hours of sleep. Coffee just tends to accelerate my heart rate and make me lose focus, so I have to use alternatives to keep my energy levels up. Getting a good night’s rest is, obviously, the most effective.

A lot of my friends were surprised when I said I wasn’t going to pull any all-nighters before my exams. I knew that by doing so, I would have become irritable, unfocused, and groggy, which would have canceled out any benefits of the extra study time.

Do what’s right for you—if you do have to pull an all-nighter, make sure you listen to your body and rest when you need to. Grades are important, but your health always has to be your number-one priority.

2. De-stress in between exams

Even if it’s just 15 or 20 minutes, give your brain a break between your exams. I had about an hour between my exams each day. I used that time to sit outside, eat, and watch some YouTube videos. I felt a lot better after being able to laugh and refresh my mind for a few minutes, and doing so, better prepared me to dive right into another exam afterward.

I find that it’s rarely productive to study in the hour or two before a test. I’m usually too worked up to concentrate, and most of the information I go over vanishes by the time I open the exam booklet.

Being able to refresh my brain instead of cramming more studying cuts down on some of the built-up stress I was feeling. Stress can be a part of the university experience, but there are lots of ways to manage it, or even use it to your advantage. As long as I’m making sure to give my brain breaks, I can keep the stress at a manageable level and use it for motivation to work hard.

3. Bring your own food

It was tempting to just buy all my food over the two days so I wouldn’t have to meal prep. However, standing in line to buy a meal or wandering around campus trying to find something to eat would have just been a waste of time.

I spent 30 minutes the night before the first exam making a bunch of sandwiches to sustain myself. It wasn’t gourmet by any means, but I also brought along some fruit and granola bars so I was well-nourished and could concentrate on my tests instead of what I was going to eat.

And at the end, I treated myself to a massive feast from that pinnacle of cuisine, A&W!

4. Prioritize and plan

I had 3 days to study between the end of classes and the start of my exams. There was absolutely no way that I could get all of my studying in then, so I had to start studying while classes were still in session.

I won’t lie and say that this was an easy experience, but having a plan and sticking with it helped. Three weeks before my exams, I started dedicating one extra hour to studying each day. It wasn’t an unreasonable amount of time, but it did mean that I had to cut out time for my “fun” activities, like watching TV. Fitting that extra hour in actually helped me manage my time in the future, and think about how much downtime I really needed to feel refreshed.

I also looked for alternatives to keep my grade up, no matter how well I did on the final. In one of my classes, there was an extra credit project that I made sure to complete. In another, we had the option to hand an essay in early, get feedback, and revise it for a final mark. These are good opportunities to take advantage of, even if you don’t have a hectic exam schedule. In this case, being proactive boosted my mark so I had some extra leeway if my exam didn’t go well.

If you struggle with time management like I do, try the Pomodoro Technique to keep you focused! It uses 25-minute study increments followed by short breaks to keep you on task and is really helpful when you have some longer study sessions.

5. Be gentle with yourself

I realized early on that I wasn’t going to ace every exam, and that was ok. I knew there was going to be a lot of stress and fatigue over the two test days, and no matter how early I started studying, I just wasn’t going to have enough time to be as prepared as I wanted to be.

Admitting this to myself was helpful in managing my expectations. It actually made me more motivated to do the best I could in the situation, instead of stressing about sticking to high standards.

Hard work pays off

In the end, I was happy with all my exam results!

Did I go home with my A&W after my last final, watch Titanic, and cry a little? You bet I did! But I felt really good about the work I put in, and I had an extra long winter break to enjoy after.

It goes to show that no matter how tough the situation, there are always ways you can make it easier and keep yourself healthy at the same time!