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Finals Advice from a Professional

Deborah DeMille-Wagman

Photo by Patrick Bradley

Way of Life

Nail biting. Cold sweats. Trembling number two pencils.

Academic Support Center counselor Deborah DeMille-Wagman knows the symptoms exam season often brings. After seven years in the Center, she has plenty of tips to help quell the rising stress that many students experience during this time of year.

The preparation starts with what DeMille-Wagman calls the “groundwork.”

“I think of [an exam] not as a separate exercise but something you’ve been doing all semester,” she explains. “I like to start with what I call ‘self-management skills’ which create the foundation going into finals or anything in life.”

These skills include living a healthy lifestyle – eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, self-care, and managing stress – as well as keeping in mind goals and how these exams fit in with those personal and professional goals. DeMille-Wagman also stresses the ability to create action instead of waiting for motivation to start something like a paper or review session.

“I think that action often creates motivation,” she says. “Think about physics. You get something in motion, it’s easier to keep in motion as opposed to the energy needed to start it into motion. So if you feel totally overwhelmed, like we all do sometimes, just think about one small thing you can do, and doing that will lead you to do other things as well.”

Exam Prep

Once these life skills are in the bag, it’s time to think specifically about the exam.

DeMille-Wagman emphasizes knowing exactly what the test will cover.

“You’re preparing to do battle,” she explains. “The more you know about what you’re up against, the better shape you can be in.”

 This includes knowing what the semester has emphasized subject-wise and even knowing what kind of grade needs to be achieved to positively impact a course grade. Another important thing to know is how to avoid cramming – a type of studying that has no longer-term benefit.

“When you cram something into your brain, you may be able to retrieve it for a short period of time, but you don’t really know it. You haven’t had time to process it,” DeMille-Wagman shares. “Rather than doing these massive study sessions, breaking studying into shorter periods and taking breaks really helps your brain have time to process the information. You’re able to stay on task, and you don’t get fatigued as easily.”

The Academic Support Center offers a number of resources to help students prepare throughout the semester. From tutoring and supplemental instruction for certain class sections to individual study skills meetings with counselors, students can make appointments for all types of support. For essay and composition aid, the Center staffs the Writing Lab, while the College of Arts and Sciences coordinates its own Writing Center through the Literature department.

Passing the Test

The classroom door shuts. The professor distributes the exam and starts the clock. Now what?

“Keep track of your time,” DeMille-Wagman says. “Look at the weight of the questions. How much is each section worth? Portion your time appropriately. If you have a complex essay, outline it with bullet points. If you haven’t finished writing the entire essay, put in the remaining bullet points. It’s not a bad thing to do.”

A tough question can send anyone reeling, casting doubt on an entire exam. When encountering a question that can elicit a cold sweat, DeMille-Wagman knows what to do.

“If you’re starting to panic, look through the test for an easier question to answer because it will get the gears of your brain going,” she explains.

After the pencils are put down and the papers handed in, most students breathe a bit easier. DeMille-Wagman believes that breathing easily throughout the entire semester is the key to a successful exam season and – in the end – overall college experience.

“Enjoy the process,” she says. “Think about why you’re here. This is your chance, your one time in your life when you’re an undergraduate student. Enjoy being here and don’t just think of it as a chore. Embrace the learning experience and the opportunity you have here [at AU]. Life is all about process and more than just arriving at goals.”