My World Famous Mechanical Exam Prep ProcessApril 29th, 2008 · 17 comments
Exam advice week continues here at Study Hacks. I’m posting Wednesday’s article a little early because I’ll be gone tomorrow morning and I wanted to make sure you got your productivity fix in a timely manner.
So Much Waste
Finals period is tough. I can’t change that. But as I watch students slog through this process I keep remarking at the amount of unnecessary stress. The main culprit: waste.
Too many students begin exam prep without a (sufficiently detailed) plan. They have, at best, only a rough idea of how they’re going to review before they dive straight into a pseudo-work grind. Cue the red-eyes; the coffee-stained hooded sweatshirts; and, of course, the early morning competitions to see who slept less. (“You went to be at 4 last night!? For shame! I’ve only slept 18 minutes in the past 9 weeks.”) It’s tedious.
Waste Elimination (The Good Kind)
Exam prep doesn’t have to be this hard. If you’re willing to spend a few more minutes planning, and if you can put aside that childish impulse to procrastinate on absolutely everything until the last minute (it’s not a genetic trait, chief, you’re just being a lazy ass), you can eliminate most of this wasted time from your prep schedule. This elimination, in turn, will push the experience from overwhelming and terrible to hard but manageable.
Trust me, it’s worth it.
In this post I explain the simple mechanical process I used to prepare for exams back when I used to have lots of exams to prepare for. (Ah, the joys of being a senior graduate student.) Yes, it requires that you start things early. But it works. You can follow the plan more or less blindly; avoiding the ill-fated need to draw upon your limited will power to make decisions on a daily basis.
Cal’s Patent-Pending Mechanical Exam Preparation Process
I’m not usually so formal with my habits, but, for the sake of exposition, I’ve clustered the main ideas into clean bullet points. As usual, I expect you to customize, challenge, and experiment with the system until it best fits your situation:
- Gather and Plug.
Spend 20 minutes on each course. Gather together all the material you need to review. This might require printing your notes off your computer. If there are any holes in this material — a missed lecture or, perhaps, an important reading you didn’t get to — make plans in the immediate future to plug the gaps.
- Construct Battle Plans.
Once you fill the gaps you’ll be left with complete collections of information to review for each course. Spend some time to come up with a review battle plan for each of these piles. These plans should consist of — and only of — specific review actions with well-defined endpoints. I can’t stress the latter part enough. I don’t want to hear about you blindly flipping through your book for hours. You need to specify exactly how you are going to review and how you’ll know when you’re done.
- Take a Break.
If you don’t have time to step away for a day or two, then you started too late. You need time to clear your head before the next step.
- Make Your Plans Less Dumb.
Look back at your battle plans with a fresh eye. Ask yourself: where can I make this more efficient? Most likely, you’ll find several strategies that are redundant or could be replaced with something more streamlined. It’s easy, in the heat of the pre-exam moment, to get overzealous with your planning. Always assume things will take longer and your schedule will be tighter. Be prepared by cutting, cutting, and then cutting.
- Schedule Your Battle Plans Using the Two Day Rule.
Assign the different pieces of your battle plans to specific days leading up to the exams. When doing so, I suggest the following simple rule which, if followed, will provide a significant stress reduction: schedule each battle plan to finish two days before the relevant exam. There is something magical about never having to study the day before the test. It’s like a whole different (relaxed) experience. I know, I know, you’re probably saying right now: “I can’t finish a day early! I’m such a wild and crazy procrastinator!” Sigh. Here’s my response: “Man up.” You’re not starring in a National Lampoon movie. No one is impressed that you can put off work.)
Notice I’m avoiding the “s”-word here. “Studying” is for pseudo-working grinds. You’re executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress. Bonus: Kelly over at Hack College will pound one beer for every time you work the phrase “I’m executing a specific plan custom-designed to minimize time and stress” into casual conversation with an attractive member of the opposite sex.
A lot of this might reek of common sense. But that’s also the smell of advice that might actually work. Approach your exam prep like a robot and you’ll be surprised by how smoothly it goes.