Finals are coming up sooner than you may think. 

One study method is to cram the night before. It should come as no surprise that we do not recommend doing this. Another, more preferable, method is to be diligent all semester long, taking comprehensive notes and reviewing them regularly, so that you master your course material as you go. This way, you’ll be ready to do practice problems in the weeks before your finals and be in the right position to ace them. We’ve described this study method in detail in our post on preparing for midterms.

But, what if you’re somewhere in between the two extremes of needing to cram and being on top of your material from day one? 

Maybe it’s too late to be diligent—too much of the semester has passed! 

Here’s what you can do to manage new material and study for the earlier material that’s sure to be on your final:

1. Set yourself up to be an assiduous note-taker and reviewer from this day forward. (Hint: you’ll need to read that midterm post in order to do so.)

2. Two to three weeks before finals begin (the earlier the better), sit down with a blank calendar and your course syllabi. You’ll use these to plot out an organized and systematic study plan for the time between now and your finals.

3. Take one syllabus and break it into manageable units of material. We recommend creating units around two to three weeks of material.

4. Collect your notes, reading material, quizzes, and tests for each of these units. If you find something is missing or confusing, ask a reliable and responsible classmate for help or to photocopy their notes.

5. Once you’ve collected all the relevant content for each unit, mark a block of time (1–2 hours each day) on your calendar each day (or every other day) to review each unit, one by one, until you've carefully studied all of the material for the class, to the point at which you can reproduce it.

6. Since you’ll likely have more than one final to prepare for, you’ll need to repeat this process for each class you have and study for all of the finals in parallel. Make sure to leave blocks on your calendar for review of these other classes, as well. Your study blocks might vary in length based on your familiarity with the material in each class. Additionally, you can’t study all day every day, so be realistic and prioritize. We don’t recommend more than eight hours (absolute maximum) of study time in any one day.

7. In the end, you’ll have something that looks like this:

5-day calendar

I used Google Calendar to plot this out for history, French, and pre-calc finals. You’ll notice that I’m studying pre-calc every day in the first week—that’s because I’m a little shaky on some of that material. I feel pretty confident about my French class, so that’s why I’ve slated it for every other day, an hour at a time. I think my history final is going to be challenging, so I’ve marked off a lot of time for reviewing that material. Towards the end of my second week of focused studying, when finals are right around the corner, I’ve set aside time to review all the units for each class. This is when I’ll do practice problems as well.

Setting up a study plan like this takes an up-front investment: it will probably take you a day or two to collect all the materials you’ll need to study. 

But, even this planning stage has a big payoff! Going through your notes, filling in gaps, and pulling together past quizzes are all valuable ways to get your study muscles warmed up.

A caveat here: this is not necessarily an ideal way to study, but it’s much better than cramming. 

Whenever possible, start early and stay on top of your material as you’re learning it. However, for those times when you fall behind, step back, break your course content into manageable chunks, collect the relevant material, and work through it methodically to get yourself on the right track.