Focus on the solvable and be stress free during finals

Earlier this week, I stumbled bleary-eyed out of an official Educational Testing Service testing center, having just finished my first go at the Graduate Record Examination — better known (un)affectionately as the GRE. The four-hour test, of course, was a walk in the park compared to the six months of Mount-Doom-scaling prep work that preceded test day.

The whole experience reminded me of many a finals week spent pushing basic facts out of my brain to make room for test prep materials — I could not tell you whether Grounds For Change sold iced lemonade or how many friends I had named Megan, but I could write you a killer narrative of how oxygen levels shaped the diversity of life through the end of the Ordovician Era.

In light of the end of my struggles, I have decided to share a few tips that lent to my relative success at Allegheny, and which you will probably see reinforced on some Active Minds bulletin in the campus center.

Start studying sooner. I will start with the harsh stuff first — despite what you might think, in college you never actually have free time. I have been reproved on the job before for asking to go home early because “my work for the day is done.”

There is no such thing as truly being done with your work in the working world, and the same may be said for school.

While breaks from work are important — we will cover that later — it is equally important never to avoid working simply because you do not want to. There is a difference between disengaging from material after reading for three hours and taking a three-hour study break to binge watch “Westworld” after an hour of class.

Get sleep. My dad told me a story once of a friend of his who, during training as an Army ranger, was so sleep deprived that he found himself yelling at a tree because it would not accept his quarters in exchange for a Coke.

While the tale is an example of the extremes of not sleeping, sacrificing an hour here or there can still add up. You do not want to walk into the room test-day running only on caffeine and sugar — a stimulated sleepless mind will only come to the wrong conclusion faster.

Odds are, if you find yourself with no choice but to pull all-nighters to meet critical deadlines, either, 1) you have overcommitted, and probably need to cut something out of your schedule next semester, or 2) you did not start working soon enough.

Exercise. On Nov. 4, 1970, authorities discovered a California girl, 13, who had been literally locked in a room her entire life. She suffered from severe developmental issues. I am paraphrasing here, but essentially, psychologists love to invoke her as a case study for “why your brain needs to experience new things to grow.”

My point is, your brain craves variety, and exercise often has the double-benefit of getting you out of your room, class or McKin’s routine. A psychologist once told me he believes depression arises from the lack of stimulation to the brain — and that stimulation can be physical.

Not everyone can run a marathon, to use the clichéd trope. Exercise here simply means get up for at least an hour and make two changes in the three categories of what you are doing mentally, physically and socially.

Your brain will thank you later on in life for the extra stimulation. Do not believe me? Go find a psychology student and ask them for the full version of the case study “Genie.” Go ahead — I will wait.

Bend, do not push. So, you made it to test day. You have just sat down in front of your first final, you are five questions in and you have found you are stuck on what should be an easy question.

Here is a tip I picked up from a test-prep book for the GRE — just mark the stubborn question for later, and move on. The GRE itself is a rigidly timed test, and every 10-second interval counts. There is no reason to get caught in a spiral of answering every question in the arbitrary order in which your teacher chose to present them.

Besides, getting caught in a loop of “why can’t I solve this stupid thing” has the bonus effect of yanking the confidence from under your feet. Better to solve everything you can, than to waste time not solving the ones you cannot.