For some students, final exams are always a surprise—even when they’ve been announced at the beginning of the semester.
What makes final exams is so challenging is that:
- they are an accumulation of a semester’s worth of content, and
- they seem very far away (and therefore are easy to ignore) until just before they arrive.
When students don’t plan ahead for final exams, they end up cramming in the last few days before the test or pulling an all-nighter. This approach adds significant stress, isn’t effective for learning purposes, and leaves you physically and mentally exhausted on test day.
Fortunately, we’ve got a better solution for exam preparation. The Signet method does require you to put in consistent effort over time, but the payoff is that many students find they only need minimal studying when finals actually arrive. Without further ado, here’s a quick overview of our signature study process. You can find a comprehensive summary in our Guide to Successful Studying.
1. Study throughout the semester. When students fully learn concepts and keep materials organized over the entire semester, they significantly reduce the need to study right before the exam. Take a little time to review concepts on a weekly basis. It’s far easier to refresh your memory than to relearn a concept at the end of the semester.
2. Realize studying effectively is a repeatable process. Studying is not magical or mysterious: it is a process with a beginning, middle, and end. A good study method will be applicable to any subject and can even be adapted for projects and papers. Through repetition, effective studying can become an academic habit.
3. Create a study plan as soon as an exam is assigned. Creating a study plan right away gives you the maximum amount of time to prepare for the test. Preparation should include gathering information on both the content and the format of the exam. This information will help you determine how to best use your time and materials.
4. Build a mega study guide. For each class, you should first identify specific concepts or material you need to learn, then compile those materials into one resource: a mega study guide. Having just one packet of material to work with per class helps you easily benchmark your progress and avoid distractions.
5. Break learning down into discrete tasks and schedule them. Break your study plan into smaller chunks of work, then schedule those tasks into your calendar to make sure they get completed. It’s best if study items are “”actionable””—a directive you can take action on—and specific. “”Study for chemistry test”” is broad and vague, while “”read and annotate study notes from chapters 1-2 of chemistry book”” is specific and actionable. Students should match the size of the task with the amount of time allocated, which may take some trial and error; this is a skill that improves with practice.
6. Allocate specific time to study for the exam. Short, regular bursts of studying (between one and two hours) are best: you can study daily, a few days a week, exclusively on the weekends, or in some other regular format that works for your schedule.
7. Stick to the plan. While this is the most straightforward step, it’s not necessarily the easiest! You can create a checklist to track when you’ve completed each piece of your study plan, or enlist an accountability partner (study buddy, parent, or mentor) to help you stay on track.
8. After the exam, reflect. Since studying is a repeatable process, every new cycle of studying should be more refined than the last. Once you’ve taken an exam, spend some time looking back on the entire experience, identifying things that went well and areas where you could improve. Students should incorporate what they uncover in their reflections into the next iteration of the study process.
What if Finals Are Just a Few Weeks Away?
You can still follow our process for studying effectively if final exams are coming up! Note that you’ll be a bit behind on steps 1 and 3, but that’s okay. Do the best you can: be an incredible note-taker from this day forward, set up your study plan and build your mega study guide ASAP, and dedicate time to studying consistently from now until your exams. And next semester, start the process on day one!