Opinion: Nine nifty tips and tricks for acing finals

Allison Cowie, Author

On Day 1 of following my finals study plan, I diligently follow my own guidelines, getting nice and comfortable and surrounding myself with snacks. Only time (and test scores) will tell how well I adhere to my studying schedule. Photo by Diana Cowie.

It’s that time of year — Palo Alto High School students are frantically preparing for the biggest event of December 2012.  No, it’s not the Mayan Apocalypse; it’s not even the fiscal cliff.  It’s the week before semester finals.

Due to the frenzied atmosphere that has taken over the entire campus, it seems appropriate to give a rundown on a personal recipe for success.  So, I’ve created a game plan that has worked for me in the past in the hope that someone out there can make some use of it.

1. Make a plan
Yes, it has been easy to get by the first 17 weeks of the semester without writing a single assignment down in the handy student planner we got on Picture Day way back when. However, now that finals are just one week away (gasp!), it’s time to write out a comprehensive schedule to plan out all of the hours of studying you need to cram in over the next 10 days.  Schedule a little of everything every day (except for Friday — that’s just too depressing). Breaking up subjects instead of cramming for one each day will result in better retention of the information, according to Kenneth Higbee, author of “Your Memory: How it Works and How to Improve It.”

2. Settle in
Now that you’ve looked at your plan and realized just how daunting the task ahead is, go ahead and make yourself comfortable — we’re all in it for the long haul.  Grab a blanket, throw in a pillow or two and make a nest in the corner of your bed.  Or, if you’re a classic worker, hunker down to your desk or grab a spot at the library and get cracking.

3. Write it out
As Paly students, it’s hard for us to remember the days of elementary school where we didn’t type everything up on a computer.  But, believe it or not, putting pen to paper helps you remember all (okay some) of those little details that you forget after only typing the notes up.  In fact, physically writing notes out instead of typing them “can improve idea composition and expression,” according to the Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University.

4. Highlight
Once you’ve got the dates to the major battles of the French and Indian War and all the steps to DNA replication written down, pop out those funky-colored pens you’ve been storing up just for this moment. The first highlight of the study session is like the first snowfall on a crisp November day; the tip of your pen dances across the page with simple strokes, clarifying clauses and coating the information into tidy bits and pieces.  Don’t hold yourself back by sticking with fluorescent yellow; he has blue, pink, orange and green highlighter friends who have sparkly cousins, all of whom are begging to be put to work.

5. Get outside
Woohoo! It’s December and chilly and wet! However, we live in Palo Alto and our winter is as mild as pico de gallo, so the weather is no excuse not to take a break by getting some fresh air.  Walk the dog, take a run, scooter around the block, whatever — getting outside always seems to help clear my head and if you join me, it might help make up for all of the junk you’ve been eating (see number eight).

6. Relocate
Even the calmest among us will eventually go crazy sitting at the same desk for 15 hours straight.  Designate various study places, like the kitchen table, living room couch or the Paly library, which has extended hours for finals studying.

7. Make a song
Not particularly known for my prowess in the field of freshman biology, I have yet to forget “The Kingdom, the Phylum, the Class and the Order, the Family, the Genus the Species!” (Only Lynn Hori alumni will get that one.)  According to Higbee, making up songs or mnemonic devices to remember lists of information comes in handy, from memorizing the uses of “por y para” to the visible colors of the color spectrum (remember Roy G. Biv?).

8. Stock up on snacks
If there was ever a time for comfort food, now would be a good time to start eating.  Having a steady supply of PB&J, apples, goldfish, Joe Joe’s — you name it — will make getting through both studying and the tests a wee bit easier.  If you’re like me, you probably snack on food all day. Unfortunately, unless your teacher is incredibly cool, you won’t be allowed to eat during your test, but having a snack waiting for you for the between-test break will help you survive the next two hours.

9. Take breaks
By 12:45 p.m. on Dec. 21, you will have survived up to 14 hours of testing along with countless hours of studying.  If you took one route and studied nonstop for the two weeks up to finals, you will be living (or should I say “non-living”) proof of the apocalypse, proving to all the skeptics that yes, zombies ARE taking over. Don’t be this kid.  Take breaks every hour or two; bake some cookies, watch an episode of “Parks and Rec” or do anything else that will distract you for a little while.  But then get back and press the pedal to the metal, because finals aren’t going to take themselves.

So yes, I may have just written all about my so-called recipe for success, but I’m not looking forward to finals anymore than anyone else at Paly.  Maybe this year I’ll actually stick to my plan and make it through these next two weeks alive.