Making the Most of the End of the Semester

stack_of_booksStudents often wait until the final week before exams to study, believing they will remember the material better if they study it closer to the time of the exam.  It’s true that the material will seem more familiar if they have seen it more recently, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to recall it on the test.  In order to remember what we’ve learned, we need repeated practice recalling it from memory and applying it to practice problems.

This makes sense if we think about how we practice a sport, or a musical instrument.  In these contexts, we intuitively understand short-term “cramming” doesn’t work.  Can you imagine a football team waiting until the week before playoffs to practice, and then staying up late – putting in hours on the field – to “cram” before the big game?  Of course not.  No team would practice that way…and if they did, they would certainly lose the game.

Yet, students often attempt to study hard right before their final exams.  In addition to leaving less time to study, “cramming” also causes students to…

  • Feel stressed
  • Worry about the test
  • Adopt quick and ineffective study strategies
  • Store the material they learn in short-term, rather than long-term, memory
  • Lose sleep
  • Experience more anxiety during tests, which impacts their ability to think logically, solve problems, and remember what they’ve learned.


Student in a library

The good news is that many these problems can be avoided if students start their preparation early.  Following a study timeline can keep a student organized and well prepared for exam week:


3-5 weeks before exams:
  • Look up your current grades in all of your classes, so you know exactly where you stand, and set goals for the rest of your semester.  
  • Identify & complete any missing assignments.  Create a checklist of your missing work, and make a plan for when to complete it.  Will you schedule specific days to do this work?  Or do 1 assignment a day until it’s completed? 
  • Meet with your teachers to discuss what you can do to improve in their class.  Ask if they have any suggestions about how you could study more effectively, or assignments you could do for extra credit. 
  • Create a calendar with the dates of all of your final exams, major projects or assignments, and post it on your wall so you can see what’s coming up, and how many days you have left until the end of the semester.
  • Organize your binders & folders, so you know exactly where to find past tests, quizzes, homework assignments, and notes.  This will make studying much easier and less time consuming.  
  • Make sure you have a good study space set aside where it’s easy for you to focus & complete your work.  Consider setting up a couple of different study locations, so you can rotate between them.
  • Schedule time to work on projects & papers by blocking off time in your schedule, the same way you would schedule time for soccer practices or tutoring sessions.  If possible, work on projects & papers earlier in the day, before you start your daily work. 
  • If you haven’t been studying outside of class, start setting aside some time to study for each of your classes.  For example, you might study Math & Lit on Mon/Wed, History & Science on Tues/Thurs, and Spanish on Fri.  Make sure the amount of time you’re planning to spend  reasonable, not overwhelming.  
2 weeks before exams:
  • Find out as much as you can about what will be covered on your final exams.  What topics will be covered?  Will they be cumulative, or just cover the information you’ve learned since your last major test?  What’s the format?  Multiple choice?  Short answer?  Essay? Etc.
  • Create a list of topics, or chapters, that will be covered on each exam, and put together a study schedule so you know what to study each day before your exams.
  • Use your study time to quiz yourself, and do practice problems, rather than looking over your notes.  The test will ask you questions that you’ll need to answer from memory, so the best way to prepare is to practice answering questions from memory, without looking at your notes…then checking to see if you got them right.  By testing yourself on the material rather than reviewing your notes, you can get far better results in less time.
  • Complete any study guides or practice tests the teacher hands out.  If they don’t hand anything out in class, look online to see if they’ve posted anything on the website, or ask them if they have any extra practice problems or tests you can use to review.
  • Cover up the answers on old tests, quizzes, and homework assignments and see if you can answer the questions correctly without looking at the answers. 
  • Talk with friends about creating a study group to TEST each other on the concepts from class. Set a date to meet, and plan to finish the majority of your studying before your study session.
  • Follow the schedule you created for your end-of-semester papers & projects.  Try to finish as much work as possible on your projects & papers this week, so you have more time next week to prepare for your tests.
  • Complete and turn any remaining missing assignments this week, so you can focus on studying for your exams next week.


1 week before exams:

  • Adjust your study schedule, as needed, based on how much information you have studied already, and what you have left to do.
  • Start mixing up your practice problems, by doing problems from a variety of units in one study session, since this is closer to what you’ll see on the test.
  • Quiz yourself to make sure you can correctly answer questions from any sample tests or study guides your teacher has given out, without looking at your notes.  
  • Schedule time to attend any extra help sessions your teacher is offering.  
  • Create practice tests for yourself by imagining you’re the teacher, and making up pulling problems you’ve missed from book chapters, past tests, old homework assignments, or online quizzes.
  • Spend a few minutes each day mentally rehearsing the exam.  Imagine walking in feeling confident + prepared, reading the instructions carefully, working efficiently through the problems, etc.  The more you rehearse this in your mind, the more likely you will be to approach the test day the way you’ve imagined.
  • Take care of yourself by exercising, eating healthy meals, avoiding stressful people & activities, and getting enough sleep.  This will minimize your chances of getting sick before your test, and help you perform at your best on exam day. 
  • Save the final day before the exam for a final self-test and review.  You shouldn’t have anything new to learn at this point.  Just do one last test on the things you’ve studied, then get to bed early.
  • Have a good breakfast on the day of exams, and go in feeling excited, confident & ready to do your best!
  • CELEBRATE…you’ve earned it!

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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