Feisty’s College Connection: How to Ace Your Finals Without Cramming

It’s that time of semester again: midterms. I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that if you still haven’t started studying for midterms, there’s not much I can do for you. The goods news is that I can help you for your finals, which are probably worth more anyway. It won’t take a lot of time, it’ll wipe out overnight cramming, and it’ll dramatically cut down on end-of-semester stress. It’s as easy as 1-2-3.

1. Take notes by hand and skim them the same evening. 

I know it’s fashionable to bring laptops to class, but write by hand anyway. For one, it’s easier to be freeform when hand-writing. You can write notes in the margins, draw diagrams, and focus on the main ideas, not hunting for the graphing function. The amount of notes you take is a matter of personal style, but focus on the concepts, not scribbling every word the prof is saying. Don’t worry about making your notes look nice. Just write. Every evening, spend 15 minutes skimming that day’s notes. This helps it stay in your brain and acts as an early-warning system for stuff you don’t understand.

2. Type or rewrite your notes on the weekend.

If your hand-written notes are anything like mine, they’re pretty messy. Now’s your chance to fix that. Block off a weekend afternoon and rewrite or type out all your notes from the week. Focus on aesthetics, organization, and structure. Don’t be afraid to rearrange, expand, cut, or color-code. Rewriting does two things. First, you review what you covered in class. Second, it gets your notes into a presentable, useable condition. When you’re done, throw out your hand-written notes. You won’t need them. Heck, you might even get people asking to buy your typed notes. (I did!)

3. At the end of semester, read through your notes.

I didn’t say pour over or cram. I said read. If you’ve never followed a system like this before, “just reading” might be a strange concept. But I promise if you’ve done steps 1 and 2, you won’t need to cram. Seriously! You’ll remember so much from your evening skimming and weekly rewriting sessions that a simple read-through should be all it takes to jog your memory. Now’s the time to look for bigger themes that span large portions of the course. What are the topics that come up repeatedly? What are the links from one unit to the next? Since you don’t have to decipher disorganized chicken-scratch, you can devote yourself to higher-level study and still have more time for relaxing.

And that’s it. Fifteen minutes a day and one afternoon a week to a stress-free end of semester. I dare you to try this. You’ll never go back.


Attention Bond Grrls “of a certain age”:

This is probably my most college-specific post to date, but there are still nuggets for you. No matter what you’re trying to remember or retain, daily and weekly reviews will be far more effective than sporadic info-binges. Try using this technique with updates in your field and see how much more you remember… effortlessly!

2 thoughts on “Feisty’s College Connection: How to Ace Your Finals Without Cramming

  1. These are some great tips, Feisty!

    But to make even more time to be a Bond Grrl and free up your weekend, you might combine steps two and three: retype your notes that evening, which allows you to reread them right then and there.

    Another tip that is useful when retyping notes is to take a digital snap of any diagrams, sketches or charts I drew in your notebook. Then, insert the photo into your word processor document. That way it’s right there for you to study from, and you don’t have to spend the time with a clunky drawing tool or graphing feature.

    Thanks for all the great posts!

  2. Hi Kiki,

    Sorry for the long reply — it looks like I don’t automatically get emails when comments are posted. I find that the delay in waiting until the weekend gives the brain just enough time to partially forget and be jogged again. Typing things out the same night you have the class is great, but then if you don’t look at it again until the end of semester, I don’t think you’ll remember as much overall.

    In terms of diagrams, I tended to leave a blank space in my typed notes and then redraw them on the printed versions. On the other hand, that’s because my initial sketches were often very rough and I wanted to have an official “nice” version for my final notes.

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