How To Conquer Finals Week: My Secret 4-Step Formula

We all know finals week (in all it’s stress inducing glory) is the most crucial time of year.

But does it have to be so insane?

I say no, and here’s why.

Finals is the time of year that you need to focus the most.

The large majority of your grade is about to be determined by a couple of exams that span a few hours at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, the workload and the pressure that go along with studying for finals are more likely to inspire us to sit on YouTube watching cat videos all day than to actually sit down and get to work.

If only we had some sort of formula that would tell us exactly what to do at each point throughout the weeks leading up to finals that would ensure us that the time we do spend is contributing to us getting a good grade, we’d be more inspired to get started working and we’d feel more productive when we actually were studying…

So in today’s video I go through the system that I used when I was in school to figure out how much time to spend studying for each class, and then invest that time as wisely as possible so that I could maximize my chances of getting the best grade possible on my finals.

Step 1: Figure out the minimum grade you need on each final exam

Our first step is to prioritize our classes in terms of what grade we need to get on the final exam to get an A for the course, pass the course, etc. (whatever your goal is). And to do this, we’re gonna use a super-duper grade calculator spreadsheet, which you can download here:

Demo: Calculating what grades you need for your final exams and prioritizing each of your classes

Now, here I’m actually going to go through an example of putting in the grades that I needed to get for my classes during first semester during my Junior year.

First off, I’m putting in my Heat Transfer Course, ENME 332, and then we’re going to go through the process of filling in the information that we need from the assignments and the exams from the beginning of the semester in order to determine what we need on the final.

So here I’m pulling up the syllabus and going straight to this section where it tells you the weighting of the different assignments that you have during class, so I’m going to take that weighting and I’m going to enter it into my spreadsheet. Then, I’m going back to all of my assignment grades and I’m putting those in as well. By putting these numbers, the spreadsheet is automatically calculating the weight that you’ve achieved from each of your assignments (i.e. out of 100% how much of that overall grade percentage you’ve achieved by getting the scores that you’ve gotten on the homework, quizzes, previous exams, etc.).

This is going to determine what you need to get on your final exam in order to get an A for the class and also to get a B for the class.

In this particular course, I’ve 93%, so I’m pretty well set. And because the final exam is worth 35% I actually only need an 85 on the final exam in order to get an A and I only need a 56 to get a B, so I can pretty much bomb it in this case and still pass the course.

Now on the other tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet, I’ve done the same thing for my 3 other courses that I have final exams for the semester.

This ENME 371 Product Design class, I also have a high grade point percentage, and the final exam is actually worth less, so I really don’t have to worry too much about this one.

This MATH 472 course is little bit of a different story because I’ve kind of been borderline B/A the entire semester, and the final exam is worth 40%, so my score on this final exam is going to carry a good amount of weight in determining whether I get an A or a B for the course. Because of this I need a 95 on that exam to pull out an A for the course.

Then finally, my philosophy class, Intro to Logic. I’ve done pretty well in the exams up to this point, but the final exam is still worth 50%, so I can’t totally disregard it.

I’ll still need to get a decent score in order to maintain an A average in the class, but fortunately I don’t have to get a 95 or a 98 in order to get that A.

Step 2: Prioritize your available study hours for each of your courses

Now that we’ve figured out what grade we need to get on the final exam in all of our classes, now we can start to prioritize our available study time. The way that I would do this is to de-prioritize any courses where I’m crushing it (and would only need like a 50% on the final), and to focus the majority of my study time on classes where I’ve been borderline all year (but could still pull it out with a high A on the final).

So based on the number of finals that you have, and the minimum grade that you need to get an A in those courses, we’re going to create a weighted scale that you can multiply times the number of available hours you have during the next couple of weeks to study for your finals. This will tell you how many hours ideally you should spend studying for those courses.

Demo: Determining how many hours to study you realistically have available

Okay, so let’s pull up our calendar and determine how many available hours we actually have for studying. First, obviously, we want to put in our final exam times.

Here I’ve done this for my 4 classes. Next, putting in time for eating. This is one thing that you can’t really get around, and so I’m blocking off time for both lunch and dinner (breakfast, you can kind of go on the fly). Other essential things that you need to maintain during finals week, sleep and time at the gym.

This may seem trivial, but do it anyway because you can often deceive yourself into thinking that you have more time to study than you actually do. By blocking off as much time as possible for these “essentials”, you’re going to prevent yourself from thinking you have more time than you do, and your schedule will be more realistic.

Okay, so now we have a baseline schedule that we can look at and use this to determine how many hours we think we have available for studying. Now, this is going to depend on a lot of factors: your routine, whether you have other projects, whether you have work that you have to do… but all we’re looking for here is an estimation of what our available hours are and then we’re going to use that to plug into our spreadsheet in the next step. Keep in mind here that in our example we’re just looking at the actual week of finals. You can do this exercise for as many weeks prior to finals that you want to start studying for your final exams. Usually, this means about a 2-week period…

Demo: Calculating the number of hours to dedicate to each course

Okay, so now back to our spreadsheet, there’s a summary tab called “Hours Calculator.” Here it’s giving me my 4 courses, the percent that I need on the final exam to get an A for the course and then based on this, it’s calculating a “study weight” (this is just a simple division of the score you need to get by the total amount of all 4 courses).

So let’s say that I’ve determined that I have 35 hours available to study for my final exams. Plugging in the hours available the spreadsheet is spitting outhow many hours you should study for your different courses based on the final exam score that you need.

Now, this is not an exact science. I just made up this weighting system, and obviously you can go in and play around the numbers here, but it’s giving you a good baseline in terms of, “Okay, I can spend this many hours total studying for finals. How do I want to divide those up based on the score that I need in my different classes?”

And again, this spreadsheet is available for you to download right here if you need it:

Step 3: Schedule in your planned study time for each exam

Now we’re going to block out those hours in our calendar, according to our final exam schedule and sort of play Tetris with our little 1 hour blocks, and fit them in so that we’re getting in those hours before we have that final exam, but then we’re doing it according to the weights that we’ve assigned to our different classes.

Okay, so back to our calendar. Now that we are armed with the amount of hours that we want to study for each of our courses, we can start blocking off times in order to do that studying.

Here, again, I’m just doing a crude example, so I’m going to plug in some bigger chunks of time for my different courses, but you can divide this up and make it as specific as you want to, and I encourage you to make it more specific (because the more specific you make it, the more likely it is you’re going to actually start your work). But this will just give you a general idea of what we’re trying to do here. I’m plugging in the amount of hours that I’m going to be studying for my 4 different finals that I have coming up and blocking them off in my calendar.

Step 4: Use principles from the Exam Prep Cycle to structure your study sessions

Finally, Step 4. Now that we have all of our time blocked off, we’re going to ensure that the time that we are spending studying for our exams for these classes is going to be as effective as possible. One of the worst feelings in the world is spending a ton of time studying material that never sees the light of day on an exam. Or getting to the exam only to find a problem you know you could have solved if you just spent 5 friggin’ minutes looking at it before the final.

To ensure that that doesn’t happen, what we’re going to do is follow what I call the Exam Prep Cycle.

Find problems, create a practice exam, and take it BEFORE starting to study

The first thing that you want to do before you do any studying whatsoever is to find problems that you think represent the problems that might show up on the final exam. You hopefully know the format of the final exam and so now you want to search for example problems that show up in class, problems from previous exams, problems from review sessions for your class and then lastly problems that you may have found online. Prioritize the ones that come from class, but any of those 4 sources you can use to construct a practice exam to give yourself to start off this process.

By giving yourself a practice exam and not allowing yourself to look at any supporting materials while you’re taking it, it’s going to give you the most realistic picture of what you do and don’t know, and that is really, really good at this point in time. It may feel crappy if you’re doing a problem and you get stuck and you know that the final’s coming up and you’re freaking out because you don’t know the answer. Don’t get discouraged. This “red flag” is telling you exactly where you need to invest your study time.

Use Reverse Learning to fill in the gaps in your knowledge

Once you’ve done this, now it’s time to go back to your notes and the textbook and YouTube and Google and really dig in deep on those areas where you do have the gaps in knowledge where you weren’t able to solve those problems. Use the Reverse Learning Technique. I talk about this all the time, and you’re probably tired of hearing about it, but this is the best thing you can do to build up that understanding of how to go from concept to solving an exam problem.

Use Active Recall to engrain your ability to solve exam problems

Then once you’ve got that down, now it’s time for the other thing that I talk about all the time and you’re probably tired of hearing about: Active Recall. Here, we’re doing problems that represent (again) the problems that you think you’re going to see on the final exam. Do them from scratch, and then using your performance on those problems to determine what you need to go back and spend time on (again).

Keep going through this process iteratively until you feel confident that if you did see that type of problem on a final exam, you’d be able to deal with it and work through it.


Okay folks, get out there and get to it!

That’s my formula for getting as prepared as you possibly could be for finals going into finals week. I hope it’s been helpful for you, and good luck on your finals.