Finals Week — 4 Common Mistakes to Avoid


As finals approach, it becomes more and more critical to spend your time wisely. In the rush and stress of finals, we often make the same mistakes.

If you have not already, be sure to check out my prior article: 6 tips for Finals Week, where I go over good study habits and strategies to maximize your score on test day. In this post, we will instead focus on common mistakes to avoid leading up to and during Finals.


Mistake #1: Passive Learning

The first mistake I see far too often is using passive learning rather than active learning. I covered the differences between active versus passive learning in earlier posts. The main takeaway is this: during finals week, your time is extremely limited, so when you study, be sure to study effectively and efficiently.

Far too often, students sit down to study without a clear goal or purpose in mind. What this often leads to is mindless passive studying, which is only a fraction as effective as active studying.

So rather than sitting at your desk at 9AM and telling yourself you will study for the next 4 hours, instead break down the studying you wish to accomplish into achievable tasks or goals. Examples would be completing Practice Test #4, finishing 200 Anki cards, or using the Feynman technique to teach a complex concept to a classmate during a small group study session.

Rather than passively reading notes or listening to audio recordings, instead make studying an active process with recall tasks like flashcards, doing practice problems, explaining or teaching concepts to others, quizzing your friends, or creating condensed notes. You will retain more information in a shorter period of time and, ultimately, achieve greater results.

Learn more about active learning and other proven study strategies: 7 Evidence-Based Study Strategies (And How to Use Each).


Mistake #2: Disorganization

The next mistake is being disorganized. This closely ties in with the first mistake. I don’t mean tidying up your room and color coding your class notes. The organization I’m referring to is in regards to your study schedule. Sometimes you have multiple finals in a single day, or a final and a paper due the same day. If you casually approach studying one subject at a time, you’re going to have a difficult time. Due to the conflicting nature of exam dates and assignments, it is paramount to create a schedule to plan out how you will allocate your time for each exam as the date approaches.

Personally, I would take a piece of paper and list out the days leading up to each exam. I would then divide days based on subject and task. For example, Monday morning may read “Condense chapter 3 through 5 notes and complete practice test #2 under Chemistry,” and Monday afternoon may read “Complete 200 Anki cards on Central Nervous System Anatomy and go over complex concepts A, B, and C with a study group under my Neuroanatomy course.”

Don’t forget to have blocks of time for errands, mental breaks, and catch up blocks for when you fall off track, which will likely happen. There are certain things you have to do every day, like shower, eat, exercise, etc. Use these moments as breaks from studying. One of my favorite tricks is to stay hydrated by keeping a water bottle close, which has a dual purpose: staying hydrated has a slew of benefits, but it also forces you to get up and move when you need to use the restroom.


Mistake #3: Procrastination

The third mistake is something most of us are far too familiar with: procrastination. If you approach your studying without a plan—without a proper study schedule and organized structure, it’s easy to push off studying until later. Creating a schedule for the days leading up to the exam helps you pace yourself with a method of attack. Oftentimes, we don’t realize how much we have to study until we actually write it all down on a schedule.

Another key strategy for beating procrastination is building momentum. Instead of waiting for motivation to hit, focus on building momentum with smaller tasks. What’s one small task you can complete in the next 5-10 minutes? Start there so that your brain gets to feel a small sense of accomplishment. From there, pick another task and continue to build your momentum.

The Pomodoro Technique can be a huge help for beating procrastination as well. It’s one of my favorite techniques for overcoming procrastination and getting a great deal done in little time. Plus, the method emphasizes and prioritizes breaks, which are vitally important to maintaining your focus.

For more on procrastination, check out my articles and videos on 7 Steps to Cure Procrastination and 5 Types of Procrastination (& the Cures).


Mistake #4: Sleep Deprivation

The fourth mistake is limiting your sleep. All-nighters are rarely ever going to do you any favors. In short, all-nighters make you sluggish during the test and rob you of the benefits of REM sleep. I have spoken about sleep stages and the importance of memory consolidation in a number of articles:

While most of us are not pulling all-nighters regularly, most of us ARE depriving ourselves of sleep on a nightly basis. I would argue that there are even fewer reasons that you should be restricting your sleep leading up to and during finals week.

Yes, you heard that right. Leading up to finals, you should be getting more sleep, not less. Class tasks and assignments are on the decline, and during finals week, there are generally no classes to attend.

If you are sleep deprived leading up to finals week, I can point to one or two things that are the likely culprits.

First, you’re not using active learning when you study because active learning is exhausting. It’s extremely challenging to go the whole day using active learning, especially when you start getting tired later in the day.

Second, you are not effectively using a schedule to organize your study days and plan of attack. With proper scheduling, you will be able to accomplish a great deal of studying every day while still maintaining enough time for errands and sleep.

In short, you’re not getting enough sleep because you are not being efficient with your studying or your time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Efficiency is king. Master efficiency and everything else will fall into place.

Remember, to consolidate facts into our long-term memory and make them stick in the brain, we need deep sleep and REM sleep. Robbing yourself of sleep is therefore robbing yourself of the hard work you put in while studying. If you study and get a good night’s rest, you will remember more of what you studied than if you study and get less sleep.

There have been some fascinating studies comparing sleep deprivation to alcohol intoxication. In this study, researchers demonstrated that after 17-19 hours without sleep, performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. Response speeds and accuracy were significantly poorer than if someone was at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, performance dropped to the equivalent of a BAC of 0.1%.

Another study came to similar conclusions. The scientists demonstrated that moderate levels of fatigue impaired performance to an extent equivalent or greater than is currently acceptable for alcohol intoxication. Going into a test lacking sleep is the equivalent of going into a test drunk—don’t do either.

If you still insist on depriving yourself of sleep, check out my post on sleeping smarter, which will help you get higher quality sleep, even when you aren’t getting the recommended 7-9 hours.


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