You're probably thinking that this semester you'll be more on top of your work, study ahead of time, never procrastinate and prepare for finals early. But...you haven't actually decided how. The main trick is to plan ahead — wait too long, and you'll feel that you've settled into a routine of bad study habits. Here are some pointers to help you stay on top of your work and start preparing for finals from day one.
1. Use class syllabi to your advantage.
Having half-a-dozen syllabi, each with different requirements, may seem intimidating, but these packets of paper are invaluable. The syllabi likely have lists of every test and homework due date, as well as the times for office hours and review sessions. Open Google Calendar and create a calendar compiling the office hours for every class. Then use an Excel spreadsheet to list out every class' grading scale side by side — assuming they vary. Mark down every test date and homework assignment in your planner (ALL of them, because you're not going to want to spend time making calendars later in the semester). Is there additional important information that doesn't seem to fall into these categories? Keep a binder for that class, and make a list of the important things to remember as the cover for that binder. This way you'll be reminded of the class' additional requirements every time you use its binder.
2. In a planner, write down "study for test" four days in advance of every test.
I have never crammed for a test the night before, nor have I ever stayed up past my usual bedtime studying, because I spread out the study time for any given test. Four days is just an arbitrary number that worked out for me, so you can adjust the number accordingly. Using your syllabus, mark down every test date, and for each one backtrack four days and write a reminder to yourself to start studying. Write down a list of tasks you plan to do to prepare for a test (take that sample test, go over notes, go over flash cards, etc.), estimate how long each task will take, and dole them out to individual days so you dedicate a reasonable amount of time each day. REREADING THE TEXTBOOK SHOULD NOT BE ON THIS LIST. That is WAY too detailed, long and inefficient. That's why you're supposed to take notes as you read: you don't have to go back through the entire textbook. If you didn't take notes, get them from a friend.
3. Write a dump draft for an essay the day it's assigned and just edit until it's due.
This sounds premature, but it's honestly the most painless way to deal with writing. The day that your professor assigns an essay, your head is likely swimming with ideas of how to go about it, or at least with the details and specifications that your professor laid out. Don't let yourself forget those! As soon as humanly possible, sit down in front of a computer and just type everything related to the essay that's on your mind. That's all you have to do the first day: no worrying, no critiquing, just dump everything onto the page. Then, in the days when your friends are starting their essays, you'll just be editing and rearranging and elaborating on what you already wrote. Trust me, it's very easy to go through and fix something you already wrote than to start ideas from scratch.
What if the paper is assigned at the beginning of the semester and you don't know when you're meant to start? Likely, there will be one day in class where your professor says, "Now you should probably be thinking about starting your final essays..." That's a good hint to write down your dump draft. If this doesn't happen, look at what the essay is about. Have you learned this yet? Start writing. Have you learned half of it? Write half of it. Haven't learned it at all? Don't bother — you have more important things to do. But keep checking back periodically!
4. Never do all your textbook readings in one day.
Your syllabi should list off which chapters are being covered each week. Before the work load picks up, go through and estimate the length of each reading. Split up the reading over the course of a few days. I NEVER read more than 10 pages in a day, and I try to keep the number below that to be manageable and less intimidating. If you need help remembering to read, mark down which pages to read each day in your planner ahead of time.
Read ahead on the weekends. This may sound painful, but even reading for a half hour each day of the weekend will help IMMENSELY in the coming week.
5. Review notes from yesterday's class before today's class.
If you keep up with this, it'll only add up to about 10 minutes of study-time before each class, help you stay on top of the material and make you able to shine in class by answering questions! Speaking of questions, it also helps to recall which parts of the material you didn't understand. You can then ask your questions in class instead of making the effort to go to office hours.
6. Mark difficult/comprehensive questions to practice later.
If you're in any kind of math or science class, you get lots of practice problems. You certainly have to do them now, but you really don't want to have to redo all of them leading up to a test or finals. So while you're working the problems, put a star next to every question you struggle with or requires understanding of multiple topics. Then, when you're studying for the test, you can go back through and redo those select questions, creating a set of comprehensive practice problems for yourself.
And only mark the really important ones! This doesn't work if you mark 90% of the questions!
7. Create a "synthesis" page for every unit.
Your textbook is likely already divided into separate "units" composed of several chapters. If not, go by individual chapters. A synthesis page serves as a one or two-page study guide over a unit. It could be a list of formulas, bullet-points of important rules to remember, or a few paragraphs that serve as an overview of all the material. These pages can also list directions for problem sets (e.g. "Redo Quest 2A Problems 1, 4, and 9-13") or any mnemonic devices that really helped you along. Not only do writing these short pages help put things into perspective and compare multiple topics side-by-side, but they're also painless to study. These pages are chock-full of the most important information for an upcoming test, but only take a half hour to comb through!
8. When studying for tests, create a synthesis page and email it to yourself with Futureme.org.
Futureme.org is a website that allows you to send scheduled emails to yourself or someone else in the future. If you have trouble remembering when you should start studying, just take a picture of your synthesis page or type it up and email it to yourself on the date you SHOULD start studying. This can be a few days, months or even years in the future.
9. Annotate your tests when you get them back.
When you get your test back, you often realize instantly what you did wrong. Or you don't care. Either way, you're not going to remember what you did wrong a few months in the future when it's time to review this test in preparation for finals. So as soon as you get your test back, write in the margins what you did wrong. If you don't know, ask a friend or ask your professor. Asking your professor is extra helpful, because it's likely that your TA graded your test while running on three cups of coffee at midnight, and they might've misgraded! Asking your professor why you got a question wrong might mean a few extra points...
10. Tutor your friends.
F is for friends who hold each other accountable for their goals...
I know you're not confident in your ability to master the material now, but trust me: this works. The only way to truly internalize material is to be able to teach it to someone else. Having your friends ask you questions about the material highlights questions you never thought to ask, forces you to practice explaining it (i.e. if you have a written test), and gives you episodic memory associated with the material. Do you really remember going over flashcards? No. Do you remember many of the jokes and complaints you and your friend share together? Definitely more than the flashcards. Associating the material with a friendly/fun conversation will commit it to memory, especially if the two of you crack jokes about the material while studying. If your teacher can't make the material fun, it's likely your friend can!
None of your friends are in the same class? Even better! Convince them to listen to you blabber for ten minutes or so, and it should really illustrate where you are and aren't good at explaining things to beginners.
11. Synthesis pages are easier to study periodically.
Don't overwhelm yourself if you plan on reviewing material periodically in advance of finals. Remember: each time you study something, you need to dedicate slightly less time to it. So taking 15 minutes to study a synthesis page for a unit every month or so will only end up adding up to maybe an hour with all your combined synthesis pages. In May, spending an hour for each class might still sound like a lot, until you realize how many hours of finals studying it'll save you!
Before each upcoming test is a good time to review past material. It may be less intimidating to go over a friendly synthesis page, and it'll remind you of the format you used when you're creating a new one.
It's best to establish good study habits early on before you've settled back into your new routine — ESPECIALLY before the first round of midterms hits, when you'll barely have time to breathe, let alone change tactics. But don't stress if you don't get these strategies down all the way, because a half-successful attempt is still better than no attempt at all. Your goal here is to be your own best study partner, not your own best drill instructor!
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