A student focused on writing an exam in a classroom
November 19, 2019
4 mins read

What to expect for your first finals season

University exams can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never been through them before. They’re a lot of work, but as long as you’re prepared, you’ll be alright.

If you know what to expect on exam day, you’ll feel more calm and be better able to focus on what actually matters: the course material.

Although a lot depends on your faculty, professor, and the classroom you write in, here’s some important info on how your exams are likely to go down!

An illustration of objects to bring to an exam

Things to bring (and why)

A watch

Wear a watch so you know exactly how much time you have left to complete your exam.

It may seem old school, but you’re definitely not allowed to check the time on your phone while you’re writing an exam and the clock isn’t always visible in some classrooms.

Multiple writing utensils

One thing I always brought to every single exam was an absurd number of pens and pencils.

You never know what will happen—you might unexpectedly run out of ink or lead, or your prof might suddenly express a preference for exams written in blue ink (it happens).

Plus, if you have a Scantron exam (that’s basically a form where you fill in bubbles for multiple choice answers), it needs to be filled out in pencil (No. 2 or HB is best), while short-answer questions are preferably written in ink to prevent tampering.

UBCcard or other photo I.D.

Especially in big classes (i.e. most first-year lectures), you need to have some form of picture I.D. with you when you write your exam. This lets the invigilator know that the person who was supposed to write the exam did indeed do so.

Books/notes/“cheat sheets”

Some profs will allow certain study materials in the exam room, usually in the form of a “cheat sheet,” a standard-sized piece of printer paper with any notes you want on it. Other profs might be okay with annotated course texts.

Check your syllabus or ask your prof to see if you’re allowed to bring anything in.


If you need one for a particular course, make sure you bring an approved model into the exam room. Some exams may allow graphing calculators, and some won't—find out what kind your prof allows well in advance so there are no surprises!


If you have to draw a graph or anything with straight lines, it's helpful to have a ruler in order to be as precise as possible.


As long as it’s in a transparent bottle (people who cheat can be really creative), beverages are allowed in the exam room.

Having water keeps you hydrated and gives you a good opportunity for a 5-second break when you need it.

Student studying

Things NOT to bring (and why)

A bulky bag

Less is always best in the exam room. Only bring what’s absolutely necessary, and keep it light.


Some professors will require you to leave your bag unattended at the front of the room. You don’t want to be worrying about your expensive devices while you write.

Your phone, if you can help it

Or at least make sure to turn it off. You can technically bring it in, but it has to be in your bag.

No one wants their phone to go off during a final, nor do you want anything to happen that could make it seem like you’re cheating.

Getting there

Finding the venue

If you don’t recognize the building code provided as your exam location on the Student Service Centre (SSC), check UBC Wayfinding so you don’t get lost!

Timing is key

Give yourself LOTS of time to get to your exam—maybe even plan to get there half an hour ahead of time. You never know what could go wrong (especially if the weather’s bad), and you can’t enter the exam room if you’re more than 30 minutes late.

I’m definitely not a morning person, so I would actually have friends in other time zones call me before 8:30 am exams to make sure I got up in time.

Fuel yourself

An illustration of snacks to eat before an exam

Also, make sure you’re appropriately fed, watered, and caffeinated before you arrive. Being hungry or sleepy can make you lose your focus while you’re trying to write your exam! For tips on what to eat and drink before an exam from UBC's dietitian, check out this post.

Special circumstances

If there’s anything interfering with your ability to attend or effectively write your exam, check out regulations for exam clashes/hardships, academic concessions, or Centre for Accessibility accommodations ASAP.

Once you get there

Student getting ready to leave

Stay calm

Once you arrive, stay calm and focused. Try to avoid sitting with people (even friends) who are freaking out. Also, avoid looking at your notes right before you head in—it’s unlikely to be helpful. Instead, take some deep breaths or listen to some familiar music to clear your mind.

A psych prof I had in second year, Dr. Rawn, always put up a sign at the front of the room reminding students that “this exam does not define your value as a person.” I found it useful to keep that in mind before every test I wrote.

Before you dive in

When you sit down at your desk, immediately fill in any Scantron I.D. forms, and your name and student number everywhere they're required—you don’t want to forget about those later.

It’s also a good idea to jot down any crucial formulas or models before you start, just in case your brain malfunctions when you most need it. Better safe than sorry.

Finally, read over all of the questions before you start answering them. You never know what will end up jogging your memory.

If you need to leave

If you need to leave the exam hall for any reason, it shouldn’t be a problem to raise your hand and get the attention of the invigilator. Some will escort you out of the room, while others will just give you permission to leave on your own.

You’ve got this!

With these tips, you can totally handle whatever exams throw at you. They’re certainly important, but they aren’t the most important—so tackle them to the best of your ability and enjoy your winter break in peace!