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On your mark, get set, go! A guide to running your final exams

By Gaurav Talwar, 3rd year Life Sciences student

It’s week 12, exams are approaching and hopefully you have taken some time to view your exam schedule (if you haven’t, then I’d highly recommend you check it now). The question that I have for you is, What kind of race will you be running this exam season? Will you be sprinting your way through multiple back-to-back exams? Or will you be running a marathon with exams extending to the last day?”

In my first year, I ran a 100-meter sprint, with 5 back-to-back exams and an occasional study day in between. In my second year, I ran a 200-meter sprint, with more than 3 days to rest between a few exams. This year, I’ll be running a marathon.

Each type of exam schedule requires a unique approach. To help you get a head start on your exam preparations, I am using this guide to explain some key points for the two opposite exam schedule types. If your schedule seems to be a mixture of a sprint and a marathon, then I’d highly recommend that you read the tips for both sections and then tailor them to your own needs. I have also hyperlinked some great resources to visit for more information.

Get Informed

“You can run a sprint, or you can run a marathon. But you can’t sprint a marathon [or ‘marathon’ a successful sprint].” Ryan Holmes, Canadian Entrepreneur


Start by learning more about the race.

    1. “What is on my exam? When and where are my exams? How much are they worth? What material am I expected to know?”
    2. Gather your notes, readings, past quizzes and tests. Ask yourself, “How well have I done so far? How much catching up do I need to do before I sit down and study? If I had the luxury of time, then how long would I realistically need to prepare everything? How much time do I actually have?”


Sprinting through multiple exams

    1. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Focus on the key points for each course before bogging yourself down with little details (unless your professor explicitly mentioned that you should know certain details). Refer to past exams to get a realistic sense of the types of questions which will be asked. Don’t be afraid to ask your professor for some tips as well.


    1. Read SASS’ tips to organize an effective study schedule. SASS has prepared a great time-management guide on how to study efficiently with the time you have. What I did in first and second year was to spend some time on all of my courses during the week before exams started (e.g., I reviewed a few units from 2-3 courses each day). This way, I had formed a foundational set of knowledge for each course. Once the back-to-back (or one day apart) exam period began, I could focus on one exam at a time, knowing that I had done myself a favour by getting a head start with some material.


    1. Set strict timelines and follow them. Set some timelines, preferably using the study schedule tips mentioned above and using the SASS Winter 2018 exam study schedule. Remember to be in a calm and collected mindset when creating this plan. This way, if you feel overwhelmed when studying (i.e., the material is taking longer than expected), then you can refer to your schedule, feel confident that you had prepared a logical plan, understand the big picture and recognize the importance of moving on to the next topic. The next topic may take less time than anticipated, and you can then come back to the work that took longer.


    1. Don’t “should” yourself. Unfortunately, you may get to a point where you need to cram for some material. If so, accept the truth that you aren’t in the best situation. However, don’t beat yourself up with statements such as, “I should have started earlier.” These will only make you feel guilty and more disappointed. Instead, be optimistic and spend the time studying or completing other tasks (e.g., getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, taking a stretch break, etc.).


  1. Feeling nervous about an exam is normal. But remember that relaxing helps you retain the maximum amount of information. So breathe, sneak in some time to do aerobic exercise, and remind yourself that you are almost at the finish line. Also, get enough sleep before the exam!


Running a marathon

    1. Strategize your material and set deadlines. Having an eight-day break between exams can be an ample amount of stress-free studying. However, it can also very quickly turn into 6 days of no studying and then 2 days of stressful cramming. To avoid this, set your own deadlines using the exam study schedule. Also, start off with the hardest material and then move on to easier content. This way, you will have enough time to consolidate the more complex concepts and won’t burn out closer to exam day.


    1. Review and self-test every day, but avoid burning out. Create your own questions, work in groups and make sure to keep your mind active each day leading to the exam. But don’t burn out by thinking that you must use every minute of every day studying. Use the ample time to space out your studying.


    1. Add variety. Try different approaches to studying. There are many online tools to help you with memorizing facts, creating mind-maps and writing essays. Give them a try!


    1. Stay motivated. It can get boring and repetitive studying for the same course for many days. To avoid losing your motivation, check out the SASS motivation and anti-procrastination page. Add in some free time to go to the gym, watch a movie, try your favourite cuisine or hang out with friends (if they also have some free time, of course).


And remember, a great way to prepare for exams is to reflect on what worked well and what you could have improved on during your previous set of examinations (quizzes, tests or past exams). It’s the process, not the result, of writing exams which makes you more efficient.


“Each foot strike carries you forward, not backward. And every time you put on your running shoes you are different in some way than you were the day before. This is all good news.”
– John Bingham, American marathon runner and author




Photo courtesy of nchenga under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.