Photo of a student studying near a wall of glass.

No matter what classes you’re taking this semester, these tips can help you prepare, stay focused and ace your finals.


Before your exams

The most effective way to prepare for exams is to start early. Give yourself plenty of time to study, sleep, eat and take breaks. Keep in mind that everyone studies, learns and retains information in different ways. Study methods that work for your classmates or friends may not necessarily work for you, so it’s important to find what fits your own personal study style.

Here are some helpful tactics you can use to maximize your study sessions.

Prioritize your time

Are some of your classes more challenging than others? Prioritize your time to make sure you can cover the most important or time-consuming subjects.

  • It can be helpful to start by writing down a rough list of each assignment, deadline and exam date you have coming up.
  • Next, organize your list based on deadlines and how long you think it will take to complete each task. If you feel overwhelmed by all of the things you need to accomplish in the next week, start by identifying three top priorities.
  • Now that you know which assignments you want to work on first, schedule time to study or work through them.
  • To keep everything organized, try using a planner, phone calendar or to-do app.

Keep in mind that prioritizing your time can also mean prioritizing things like sleep, eating regularly, taking breaks and spending time enjoying your last week on campus before break.

Use the Pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro technique can help you break up your time and take meaningful breaks to help you retain information. 

Here’s how to do it:

  • Choose an assignment, subject or study guide that you want to tackle.
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes to focus on only that task before taking a 5 minute break.
  • Repeat this cycle three more times (25 minutes studying, 5 minute breaks).
  • When you get to your fourth break, extend the time to 20 or 30 minutes.
  • You can repeat this technique multiple times throughout the day if needed.

This method can help you be more effective because studying in bursts often helps us maintain our concentration and energy levels. Plus, you have built-in breaks to help you stay hydrated, enjoy some food, catch up with friends or go for a walk.

Create your own study guides

If your professor doesn’t provide a study guide or if the study guide is sparse, try creating your own.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Choose a topic that you think might be on the exam and create five to ten practice problems or questions related to that topic. You can also use questions or problems from previous quizzes, exams, presentation slides or homework assignments.
  • Do this for each important section of material before going back to see if you can answer them all.
  • To add an extra level of practice, work with someone from your class to come up with questions, quiz each other or create a shared study guide.

During your exams

Have you ever sat down for an exam and felt like you’ve suddenly forgotten everything you studied last night? 

Here are a few strategies to help you stay cool, calm and collected during high-stress exams.

Try square breathing

As you wait to start your exam, consider doing a quick guided breathing exercise or meditation. You can follow along with a video or use the square breathing technique outlined below. Remember that this technique can also be used during your exam if you start to feel anxious or stressed.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for four seconds.
  • Hold your breath for four seconds.
  • Slowly exhale out your mouth for four seconds.
  • Hold you exhale for four seconds. 

Practice this technique throughout the day to help you remember the steps. It’s okay to repeat as often as needed. If you start to feel lightheaded, try to breathe more slowly.

Pace yourself

Try to keep track of how much time you’re spending on each question and how much time you have left to set a good pace for yourself throughout the exam. This can help you determine how much time you can spend on each of the remaining questions.

Here are some more tips to help you pace yourself.

  • If you’re struggling with a specific question, skip it for now and come back to it later. This will help you stay on track and not spend too much time on one question.
  • You can also think of your exam in terms of milestones. For instance, you might want to set a goal of being halfway through once your time is halfway over.
  • If possible, give yourself enough time to review your answers before the end of the exam time. This will help you catch mistakes or answer questions you may have skipped before. If you’re using a scantron, be sure to double check your answers against the bubbles you filled in to make sure they match.

Look for question clues

Sometimes when we feel stressed, it can be easier to miss key information or directions. 

Here are a couple of tips to help you answer each question thoroughly.

  • Read each question carefully. Underline or circle any key words or phrases that can help you select the right answer. For instance, you may be directed to: “Provide three examples…”, “Identify which of the following did not occur…”, etc.
  • If you’re taking an exam online, use your cursor to highlight keywords to check your understanding before answering the question.

After your exam

For many of us, finishing an exam can leave us feeling relieved, exhausted, anxious or a mix of emotions. Regardless of what you’re feeling, allow yourself to disconnect from the test in an intentional way.

Here are some strategies you can use to feel better after an exam.

  • Take some deep breaths (use the square breathing technique if needed).
  • Let go of what you wish you could have done better.
  • Remind yourself that you did the best you could with what was available to you.
  • Take some time to do something you enjoy.
  • Move your body to relieve anxiety or stress (take a walk, stretch, go for a bike ride, etc.).
  • Enjoy dinner or coffee with friends.

Disconnecting intentionally can help relieve the heightened emotions we may have experienced during finals. It also allows us to celebrate our successes and appreciate how far we’ve made it this semester.

Finals resources

For a full list of support resources, events, study spaces and additional tips, visit colorado.edu/finals.

Additional resources

Let’s Talk

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) provides free drop-in services through Let’s Talk. Counselors are available in person and online to help provide insight, solutions and information about additional resources related to academics, stress, anxiety, substance use, relationships and more.

Peer Wellness Coaching

Meet one-on-one with a trained peer wellness coach to set wellness goals and connect with campus resources. Coaches are available to help you create a plan to study, reduce stress, manage your time, create a sleep schedule or routine, practice self-care and more.

Disability Services

Disability Services is dedicated to providing students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in university programs, courses and activities through reasonable accommodations and services. If you’re planning to use testing accommodations, make sure you’re on the same page as your instructors about how they’ll be administered.

Workshops

CAPS provides weekly workshops that can help students develop healthy coping skills related to stress, anxiety and other painful or distressing emotions. All workshops are covered by the mental health fee. Join virtually by signing up online at MyCUHealth

Weekly programs

Health and Wellness Services offers weekly programs to help you develop healthy habits, participate in self-care and take a break from academics. Programs are available throughout the week and are free to all CU Boulder students.

Tutoring services

CU Boulder offers a wide variety of tutoring services. Some are specific to classes, departments or groups of students, while others are available campus-wide. Many of these services are free to use. If you aren’t sure where to begin, be sure to check your syllabus, and ask your professor or course assistant for help and referrals

Writing Center

The Writing Center provides free one-to-one tutoring sessions with professionally trained writing consultants, individualized guidance and feedback, as well as time-saving skills for writing and presentation projects. The Writing Center is available to all CU Boulder undergrad and graduate students for free.

Grade Replacement Program

This program allows degree-seeking undergrad and graduate students to retake a course in which they earned a low grade in an attempt to improve their cumulative GPA. 

AcademicLiveCare

AcademicLiveCare is a telehealth platform that allows students to schedule and attend mental health appointments from a smartphone, computer or other mobile device for free. Easily schedule virtual visits with licensed psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, or other providers. Please note: AcademicLiveCare does not provide crisis or emergency care.

WellTrack

Health and Wellness Services has launched a new mental health app for students, staff and faculty! Download WellTrack to track your mood, practice skills and complete modules.

WellTrack is available on the App Store and Google Play. Sign in with your IdentiKey for free access.

Figueroa Wellness Suite

The Wellness Suite is a great place to rest and reset. Whether you need a nap, want to pick up free health and wellness supplies, or if you just want to find a quiet place to study, the Wellness Suite provides a relaxing environment for students.

Free Finals Week at The Rec

The Rec Center will be hosting free activities and events for all students with a Buff OneCard during finals week, including ice skating, bouldering and climbing shoe rentals, fitness classes and more!