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A Final Exam Cheat Sheet and Season Survival Guide

Karie Fay
Commentary Editor     

Photo by Latoya Shelton
Final Review - Myeong Kim reviews the final exam in his class with students. Exams begin Monday, Dec. 10 and end Friday, Dec. 14.

   Does the thought of final exams make you nervous?  Perhaps you blank out when the test lies in front of you.  Maybe everything rests on this grade, and the pressure feels immense.  And if this semester is your first in college, you might have no idea what to expect.

   Followed by Christmas, it's all too easy to get caught up in the rush and grind: cramming for tests, shopping for gifts, worrying over things, putting up the tree, visiting with all who demand our time.  The next thing we know, we feel overwhelmed.  Anxious.  Perhaps fearful or depressed. 

   There’s methods for coping with things though – both preparing for and taking the exams and handling the pressure of the holiday season on top of it.  And there’s ways to just plain make life a little easier… if you want to know the secrets.   

   Following is the closest thing to a final exam cheat sheet you can find.  You can’t carry it in with you – but then, you really wouldn’t want to. 

   And I have gleaned the mind of Laura Hughes, director of Counseling, Testing and Career Services, to learn the secrets of staying focused and preparing for the test, without panicking and surviving the stress of the month. 

   The rest of this, especially any grievous errors made (except if they lead to lawsuits, claims of mass suicide or involve chainsaws) unless otherwise noted, contains my own ideas. 

Preparing for the Big Days of Exams 

   “Test anxiety is a general uneasiness or dread” and the “perceived helplessness that frequently leads to diminished performance on tests," according to J. Scott Harr and Karen M. Hess in "Careers in Criminal Justice and Related Fields, from Internship to Promotion." "Test anxiety is a reality for most people.  Recognize it’s existence and take control of it.”   

   Preparation is essential.  The first key to being prepared consists of having things organized, especially your time.  A personal trick that will allow you to prioritize and add to your feeling of control is simple: schedule what you need to do.

   The thing is, when you have it on paper in front of you, you can visualize what needs to be done, prioritize and see where there is room to play with also.  You also will not lose track of things or feel as overwhelmed.  It's an excellent trick - try it.

   When it comes to final exams, “the fewer surprises a test-taker encounters, the less anxiety” they will feel, notes Harr and Hess.  “Test performance can be improved through practice and repetition … The more practice you have … The better you are likely to do.” 

   The night before the exam, get plenty of sleep.  Don’t dismiss this – a rested mind will perform better in testing.  Besides, if you studied consistently in preparation, last minute cramming is not necessary; a quick review of the material should help cement it in a well-rested and prepared mind. 

   Make sure to eat. When your body has the proper fuel and rest, it can work at performance level.  And a noisy stomach can distract everyone. 

   It’s also important, Laura Hughes said, for you to keep things in perspective with final exams, Christmas and everything else you deal with.    

   “Do not let the stresses of school seem so overwhelming that you can’t recover,” she said.   

   Always remember, things are temporary.  Situations change.  In the end, a bad grade, a fight with a loved one, a bill that’s high or any other event will work itself out – it’s not the end of the world.  Refer to Stress Busters or Surviving Christmas for more information on this. 

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The Cheat Sheet: How to Test Your Best

   Of course, hopefully as you attended the classes and participated, you developed a feel for the instructor and their way of testing.  You should have an idea if that professor likes long, well-developed answers on essays or short and concise.  You should have noticed if they throw trick questions at you, or if you can use some questions to answer others.   

   All of these observations are among the tricks of the trade of students who test well.  However, there are strategies for each of the types of tests that you may not know. 

   Study Guides and Strategies offers more: 

In General 

  • If directions are provided for the test, read them carefully.  This holds true for individual questions also.  Don’t let carelessness lose you points.   Instructions, especially, would not be provided if the instructor did not think them important.
  • Look over the test quickly.  Then answer easy questions first, to build confidence, quickly gather points and to make associations for other questions.  Sometimes questions in the exam will help answer another, more difficult question.  Be aware of this.
  • When you finish the test, take the time to review.  Make sure you answered all questions, didn’t mis-mark your scantron or some other simple mistake.  Proofread your essays.  I often see students hurry out of the exam, as if the first done wins.  Then I often see them get a poor grade.  So take the time.
  • Don’t second guess yourself, unless you are positive you answered wrong.  According to Harr and Hess, “Research has indicated that your first hunch is more likely to be correct.”  You should only change your answers “if you originally misread them or if you have encountered information elsewhere in the text that indicates … your first choice is incorrect.”

Multiple Choice 

   If you read the question and are not sure of the answer, next try reading the stem of the question with each choice.  Then,

  • Eliminate options you know are incorrect.
  • Be cautious of answers that grammatically don’t fit with the question.
  • Hesitate over options that are totally unfamiliar to you.
  • Question options containing negative or absolute words.  Try substituting a qualified word like "frequently" or "typical" for the absolutes "always" and "every" to see if you can eliminate it as a choice.
  • "All of the Above" answers are a strong possibility when you believe two or three options might be correct.  However, if you eliminate even one choice, do not answer all of the above.
  • Toss out the extremes in number answers.  The answer is frequently in the middle range.
  • When you see answers that are “look alikes,” one is probably correct.  (Note the use of a qualifier there.  Qualifiers make statements more likely correct and are a useful hint in answering multiple choice, true/false and essays, as discussed below.)  Choose the best look alike of the two, but eliminate choices that mean the same thing, and thus cancel each other out. 
  • With echo options, two choices are direct opposites.  Chances are, one of them is correct.
  • If the question you are answering contains a double negative, make it a positive and then consider.  Double negatives can be tricky if you don’t do this!
  • Once you have eliminated any answers you are sure are wrong, if you are still left with two or more choices, compare them for differences and attempt an informed choice.  At least you have increased your odds through the elimination above.
  • Guessing – ALWAYS guess when you have no other option (unless you are not penalized for unanswered questions – which is unlikely.)

True/False Exams 

  • Every part of a true sentence must be true.  If any part of the sentence is false, all of it is false.
  • Pay attention to qualifiers, negatives, absolutes and long strings of sentences:

Negatives can be confusing.  If the sentence contains words like “no,” “not” and “cannot,” drop the negative and read what you have left.  If the sentence is true without the negative word, it’s opposite is usually false.   

Absolutes are the opposite of Qualifiers. While qualifiers like “sometimes," "frequently" and "maybe” make the statement more likely true, absolutes like “no," "never," "none," "always," "absolutely," "entirely" and "only," imply it must be true 100 percent of the time.  These usually indicate false answers. 

Long sentences often include groups of words set off by punctuation.  Pay attention to each part; if one part is false, it usually indicates a false answer. 

  • Guessing – Often true/false tests contain more true answers than false.  However, either way, you have at least a 50 percent chance of getting it right.

Essay Questions 

  • Organize your time.  You don’t want to run out of time when writing.  Realize that you will usually receive more credit for six partially answered questions than for three complete ones.  Honest!  You can also try outlining answers you do not have time for.
  • Read the question well and note directions such as “compare," "contrast" or "criticize." Jot any points that come to your mind off to the side to refer back to as you are answering.
  • Get right to the point when answering.  I like to start off with a rephrasing of the original question.  This demonstrates a deeper understanding of what you are saying.
  • Watch your grammar, spelling, neatness and include paragraphs with transitions.
  • Each paragraph should include a key point, along with examples, proof and  more specific details of the point.  Professors love this.
  • Professors like compactness, completeness and clarity.  Remember the three C’s.
  • To know a little and to present it well is superior to knowing much and presenting it poorly, or to write on and on pretending you do.
  • Avoid definitive statements when you have any doubts.  Use Qualifiers instead.  For instance, say “toward the end of the 19th century,” instead of “during 1888,” if you have any doubt of your date.  First of all, qualifiers “connote a philosophical attitude, the mark of an educated person.”  Besides, “in many cases the approximate … is all that is wanted.”  And you avoid being wrong.
  • Use your last paragraph to summarize your essay.  Restate your central idea and indicate why it is important.
  • Re-read your essay and make any corrections necessary.

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Surviving Christmas

   “It’s such an emotional time,” as Hughes said.

   Surviving final exams, making it through college, dealing with changes at home, now that you are grown up – so many circumstances make it more difficult.  But knowing how to handle things and preparation can make it easier. 

   For students going home, things can be confusing and uncertain.  Perhaps you are treated differently now that you have moved out and are attending school. 

   In other families, the student now feels independent, but coming home for the holidays means entering an environment where they are still treated like, “the baby of the family.”   

   It’s important, Hughes said, to continue being who you are, regardless of how the family perceives you.  Use your manners, and be patient; in time, they will come around. 

   While you might always be the baby or they may expect you to not be as dependent as you once were, in the end, you can only change or control yourself.  But if you stay true to who you are, they will eventually acknowledge this, and your relationship will grow. 

   Make realistic expectations.  Expectations, it might be said, are premeditated resentments.  That is, expectations usually disappoint us.  Be prepared to be flexible. 

   Remember that you are changing and growing.  Things change too.  This can be difficult – but so rewarding. 

   Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by comparing this Christmas with others in the past, Hughes said.  Instead, always try to find the positive and focus on it.  This helps with so many other things in life, too.

   For those who have cannot go home for whatever reason -  remember Christmas is in the heart.  You simply must make the most of it. 

   As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I am firmly convinced that most people are about as happy as they decide to be.”  He said this and believed this, in spite of having a depression disorder. 

   Remember, if you are displaced, someone else is too.  So find something to do - visit friends, volunteer somewhere or share a meal with someone else.  You might find you receive as much from the experience as you give.

   Finances can also cause concern this time of year. Don’t feel like you have to go broke to show your love – you don’t.   

   As Hughes said, “Your family and friends know that you don’t have a lot of money to spend.  They understand.” 

   Instead, consider making gifts or giving a one-for-all present, like a blanket for the whole family.  Candles and items from the dollar store also make excellent presents.  But in the end, just being together is enough.

   Family activities help make memories.  And isn’t that what you remember most from your childhood – not what you got, but where you went or what you did?

   Single parents in college especially struggle with financial concerns at Christmas.  Consider inventive ways to make memories. 

   It’s important to pace yourself; don’t spread yourself too thin.  Likely you will have a million and one things to do and people to see.  Find ways to include what’s important without draining yourself. 

   Perhaps suggest everyone meet at one house so you can see everyone at once.  Schedule your demands so you can deal with them better. 

   And most of all, renew yourself – Christmas is not about what you spent or how much you accomplished.  It’s about sharing love. 

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Stress Busters

   What if you feel let-down during or after the holidays?  Stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations and bitter disappointments can lead to depression.  So can the over-commercialization of Christmas, loneliness or poor grades.   

   Seasonal Affective Disorder can also contribute to problems at this time of the year.  Simply, with SAD, the body doesn’t get as much sunlight, the clocks adjusted, and we get “out of whack.” 

   Hughes identified the signs of depression as headaches, excessive drinking/using drugs, over or under eating and insomnia.  But again, there is hope – and help.

   First of all, do anything that makes you feel good to ward off sadness and renew your batteries.  Get up and moving or slow down and relax.  Listen to some music, read that book you never find time for or take a long hot bath.  Go shopping, go work out or go for a massage.  Anything that makes you happy is what you need.

   If you notice someone close to you who doesn’t seem quite like their self, or if that someone is you, then talk.  Talking can do wonders; sometimes, just talking to someone – anyone – can make all the difference. 

   “Most of all, be good to yourself,” Hughes said.  “In the end, you must please yourself.” 

   So, “look at all things as a growing experience – and forgive yourself” for the mistakes you have made or the ways you think you fell short. 

   Each person is different.  But we all struggle, with exams, families, expectations, needs - any number of things.  We have all been there. You can, and will, survive.  Just keep a positive attitude and remember to see the good.  It’s so important. 

   If you, or someone you know, is experiencing depression, struggling with issues or feeling overwhelmed, talk to someone.  Get help. 

   Here at UAM, you can always contact Laura Hughes in Harris Hall Room 201.  You can get a depression screening, talk to a counselor or get more information or ideas. 

   But do have a Merry Christmas.  And come back next year, ready to smile and succeed!

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ŠThe Voice 2007
01/13/2008 03:12:24 PM —