13 May

Additional study sessions, constant stress, excessive caffeine consumption, trickling time paranoia, in a nutshell, is what finals week is all about. In college, final exam preparation can be very taxing on students, but by planning an effective study routine one, can more easily navigate the finale of the semester and achieve academic success.

Likewise, many undergraduate students would identify their first finals week as stressful, pressure-intensive, or chaotic. Though, students who plan accordingly—like determining a study space, identifying course objectives for each class, eliminating distractions and procrastination, etc.—are always more likely to perform exceptionally.

Furthermore, it is important to note that certain study routines and finals preparation may work for one person, but not for another, and ultimately that everyone’s definition of “finals week” will differ.

Nonetheless, anyhow, the atmosphere of the concluding semester will always be the same for everyone. Libraries and popular study venues will be filled with stress-ridden students, TA sessions and finals workshops will hold more attendants, energy beverages will be purchased from every vending machine on campus, and time will be seemingly working against you!

My spring finals week at Berea College unfolded very similarly, and I wish to share some unique study tips and exam insights that I picked up along my journey to a successful semester.

Preparing for the Final Week

The week before finals week, classes continued as they usually would—presenting new course content and assigning subject matter—but a weighty ambience has enveloped the students in a new sense of urgency. 

For many students, especially first-years, navigating through the conclusion of the semester can be difficult, but certainly manageable.

In the preceding week to finals, I had carried out my schedule as I routinely would and adjusted accordingly to the occasion. For me, this would mean continuing to wake up at 5:30 every morning, studying in the evening as I typically would, but heavily reducing leisurely screen time and eliminating distractions, stress, and all other impediments of productivity.

Moreover, some professors, who were keenly aware of the circumstances, had generously lessened their assignment material, whereas other instructors decided to continue as they had all semester, causing student havoc and anxious hair-pulling. All professors, nevertheless, will always accommodate to the matter of finals week.

Additionally, for some courses, the said “final” may be a project, a presentation, or the infamous term paper. Others, the version of a “final” may be an exam, an assessment, or a practical. Sometimes courses will have a hybrid of two or more. 

Understanding which type of final you will have and preparing for it can greatly reduce test anxiety and set you up for success in the long run.

Piece of Advice: in college, the course syllabus will almost always identify the type of final enrollees will take at the end of the semester. It is crucial to prepare ahead of time!

I had also devised a productive routine for the following week. In college, the final exam schedule is often determined by the course period (I’ll explain in detail later); hence, I adjusted my study sessions and work schedule (for students who still need to fulfill their labor responsibilities) to suit the available time.

Another characteristic feature before college finals week are the so-called study-periods, which are scheduled days-off provided by the college in hopes of inciting students to utilize the time productively at the wrap of the term. At Berea, they are deemed as “Reading Periods”. 

Characteristic for the advent, peering around each corner of campus, anywhere that a seat can be comfortably occupied for study has been fulfilled by fervid students. The library, for instance, is perhaps the unanimous study space chosen by students at all institutions.

Here, this image of the Hutchins Library lobby was captured during relatively less prominent days of the semester, but in the weeks leading to finals week you can image the spaces being filled by stressed individuals, a coffee and snack table set up along the dividing back wall, and the playing of classical study music in the background. 

I genuinely appreciated the available resources that the campus venues provided for its students, and I often took advantage of the open opportunities, as did many others. But after a full week of finals preparation came the ultimate test itself.

My Finals Week in College

On Monday of finals week, I had woke up at 5:30 to the sound of my alarm, typical of my regular college routine, but I had a different energy to my waking than normal. I felt slightly more determined, more enthused by the week’s challenges. Unfortunately, the confidence came a bit too early, as I was not scheduled for any finals on Monday. 

However, after readying myself, I left the dorm around 6:15 and migrated to the Woods-Penniman Building to begin my day early. The Alumni Building (where the dining hall is located), which was near, did not open for breakfast till 7:00, so I often spent an early study session in the morning to kill the time.

Once I finished breakfast, I would then clock into work and fulfill the labor responsibilities needed for the final week of the semester. There was never much intensive labor at the conclusion of the academic term, so I worked a brief two-hour shift.

By that time, it was still early in the day—about 10:00 in the morning—so I, like virtually everyone else, decided to snag a caffeinated beverage from the vending machines. Consoled and reenergized by a Starbucks Mocha, I would officially begin my several hour study sessions.


May it be mentioned, I believe that the environment, the study space, is one of the most crucial elements in determining whether one will have a productive study period or not. Hence, I often chose the study spaces most isolated or individualized and that suit a cozy, mind-comforting environment (but not too comfortable, i.e. the bedroom).

For the rest of Monday, I would study intensively and prepare for the remaining exam schedule of the final week. For me, that would be Calculus II on Tue. at 3p; Organic Chemistry I on Wed. at 3p; Biology on Thu. at 11:45a; and a Writing Seminar II Paper due by Wed. at 2p.

At the beginning of Tuesday, I had readied myself similar to Monday’s routine, but slightly more anxious. I felt stressed, but not too overwhelmed. Worried, but not out of hope.

This Calculus II exam was to be my most difficult final. All year, the content had become increasingly more complex and sophisticated, yet it was still manageable. The class was instructed by one of the most enthusiastic mathematics professors I’ve had, and that aided my knowledge retention considerably.

Also with that, however, this professor has been notorious for offering a unique instructing style. By his philosophy as my Calculus II professor, he considers the course—and I will quote—“not a math class”. This statement alone makes his exam material a bajillion times harder.

Therefore, the level of preparedness I felt was as though I had studied relentlessly on my own, yet wondering if that would even amount to a passing grade. It was as though my degree of understanding was nothing more than an illusion.

Of course, by experience, we have all had exams like, or similar, to my Calculus II final, and they will only become more commonplace the higher the educational journey. Perhaps this course was a preview of how all my future medical school courses will be instructed. If so, then everyday will be a day for Starbuck’s Mochas.

As Wednesday approached, I felt slightly more at ease with course exams; however, a different type of final—the notorious term paper that students cringe at the thought of—was due by 2p in the afternoon. A ten page research paper attributed to the subject of Appalachian environment and identity, race, gender, or class. 

To be honest, however, I must admit that I enjoyed preparing this paper throughout the semester because it provided me with boundless versatility to research a topic and to write about it professionally. It was great practice for the type of science writing I would do as a physician-scientist; that is, especially, due to the topic I chose.

As the hours winded down before the deadline, I was reading over the text of my paper for any last moment mistakes, checking references and figures, and reading over my Likert scale data. 

The topic I chose was Environmental Medicine, and I assessed how the multidisciplinary field could be implemented in healthcare to address/alleviate disproportionality afflicted communities in Appalachia. I was able to do this by building a Likert scale survey (those “strongly disagree to strongly agree” type surveys) to correlate Berea College student responses of where to direct the next steps of environmental medicine.

Much more will be provided on the topic in a later post. But after proofreading the written content, I successfully turned the paper into my professor.

Piece of Advice: when it comes to writing college term papers, always choose a topic of interest to you. This will make the assignment seem a duodecillion times easier!

After submitting the research paper, which was admittedly kind of last-minute-ish, I then turned my attention to the upcoming Organic Chemistry I exam in less than an hour.

What is unique about college Chemistry exams is that they are distributed by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and are used by American universities and colleges to assess the student’s knowledge retention over the semester.

The ACS exam has its own set of restrictive rules for administering the exam, the time limit in which it is taken, and it is on a scantron sheet; hence the score will be posted within a day or two.

At Berea College, particularly, there is often a practice ACS exam administered by the Department of Chemistry during reading period (which I took) and it is simply a different version of the exam, so students basically receive a preview.

Because the ACS is considerably more difficult than any other exam administered at Berea College (per popular opinion that is), professors will often curve the exam. The way in which it is curved, if at all, depends on the course and the professor (grading curves may occur at other institutions and other courses as well, but I am unsure).

For me, a chemistry major, and one who enjoys the subject, I did not feel too overwhelmed. As I entered the room on Wednesday at 3p, I felt confident and left the exam room feeling great. Hence, as a standard precedent, if you go in confidently and prepared, then you will likely perform really well and have nothing to worry about.

But then comes Thursday.

It was the final exam day and Biology was the only final I had yet to complete.

Intuitively, one would think that a first-year biology course for an enrollee pursing medicine would be relatively easy, and traditionally that is so, but then there are tricky cases as mine.

At this point in the semester, I have taken a CRISPR Foundations course, I have performed a cell wall engineering technique on wood so as to induce its moldabilty, and I am an active weekly reader of Science, Nature, and Cell Journals.

What makes this additional circle of knowledge more difficult, counterintuitively, is that I often consider the “difficult” concepts of the course to be easy, and some of the basic concepts of the course to be so elemental that I often neglect their potential to be “proper” exam material.

In such a case, especially when the final exam consists primarily of free response questions, answering sufficiently with the level of knowledge being tested can be tricky. For example, when discussing amino acids, proteins, and genetic mutations—concepts of the central dogma of molecular biology—I often overstate what I know and understate what is being tested.

To halt briefly, I must state that this is in no way the fault of the course curriculum, the professor’s instructing style, nor the exam material. This is a prime example the importance of studying the right content and understanding the course objectives that responsible students would know. I was not responsible in this manner, I admit.

Piece of Advice: from experience, it is crucial to understand the course objectives at the level of which they will be tested and to know what could be exam material. Hence, looking over previous exams and quizzes is imperative for your readiness!

Lastly, I must humbly mention that my Biology grade was on the borderline of an “A” and “A-” (due to much of the same reasons), which I certainly don’t want reflected on my transcript. Thankfully I was able to finish the semester with a 4.0 gpa.

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