My Breadth-Not-Depth Mantra in Exam Prep

I was waiting to publish this until I tested it out with a few friends, but opening signs are looking very good as finals season starts to wrap up. I’ve been mentoring folks in undergrad and grad school at varying degrees of formality since I was an undergrad myself. These days I keep it pretty informal, and I tend only to focus on helping the highly motivated, mostly because they’re the type that seek help. Some of these guys are taking on way more than I did, some are just trying to learn topics that for whatever reason particularly vex them. I say all this because I want to emphasize that what I’m about to discuss is a mantra to help those that really love to learn, rather than those that love to slack–I fear the latter group will take all the wrong lessons away here, but having realized that this warning applies to everything I discuss, I’ll leave it for another blog post. Now where were we?

Final Exams are Painful Final exams get overwhelming; My experience was no exception at all. Do they have to be? Maybe… but I think we can make life a little bit easier, a lot more successful, or at least less stressful. I believe that, given my experience and that of some of the folks I help, it’s of course the sheer magnitude of content we have to deal with that makes the whole experience so challenging (and horrible). This is apparently particularly true of comprehensive exams (comps) in grad school, where one has to demonstrate basic expertise across one’s entire field, full-stop.

The Problems of Content Magnitude: The more fundamental problem here (beyond the obvious, “it sucks”) is that many of us (again, myself included) simply lack the brain capacity to be able to get everything perfect, or remember everything in detail, with that much content–especially if we’re taking 5 or 6 classes.

The very thought of trying to memorize and recall an entire semester’s worth of learning, of data, of arguments, equations, etc. is so daunting that it drives incredible procrastination in most students. Again, myself included. It’s emotionally difficult to charge forward in the way that we need to. Beyond that, practically speaking, there’s little chance for most of us mere mortals of retaining 100% of the information we absorbed during the semester.

So what’s to be done?

We Gotta Find a Way to Limit Our Scope: This will seem obvious to some and ridiculous to others, but the winning move is very much not to “just be better.” Those who simply try to will themselves to be better fail—there’s good science here and it’s just how the brain works.

Working within reality, we’ll need to limit our scope to win. This means we can’t read every page of all our textbooks in the week before finals, or re-solve every math problem.

The trick, of course, is taking advantage of the 80/20, or Pareto, concept.


Getting the Breadth to Win:

We of course don’t want to limit our scope by ignoring concepts altogether. We want to limit our scope by covering all the key concepts, and not getting into too much detail. Sounds a little scary, but I’ll explain why.

Professors are usually trying to test competency in the subject matter, rather than memorization of the mass of the subject matter (medical students are cringing at me as I write this). What this means for you is that you want to focus on understanding the concepts and how to apply them. For those of you that weren’t goofing off all semester, this can actually be fairly easy. (For those of you who were, I cannot magically solve your woes here.)

So let’s invest some smart time up front to have a great plan for each final to study for breadth and enable us to work competently with whatever the professors throw at us:

1)      Identify the key topics from your semester (the syllabus will likely help you structure this pretty well) – stick ‘em on a list.

2)     Prioritize fiercely which concepts to focus on. The metrics for this prioritization should be a combination of how comfortable you feel with them, and how much emphasis is likely to be put on them in the exam. For the latter metric, there are usually pretty powerful hints here from the professors, including any notes or past exams they’re giving you to prep for your final.

3)     Define the key understanding/concept necessary for each topic. This is of course the tricky part, but your experience from the semester will help you here. Make sure you boil down the topic into a really root, abstract concept that you’ll want to make sure you understand. Having a deep understanding of the key concept will allow you to take on any version, form, or iteration of that concept that gets thrown at you. This is the way by which you achieve mastery over your finals—better results and less time than cramming.

4)     Plan time for each topic… in priority order. Having this time set aside means you’ll be able to give at least some time to each of those really important topics. If it’s unrealistic at this point to do them all, then let the lowest-priority stuff go, or simply give it way less time (spent a day on topic #1, and cram the last 5 into a day—something like that).

Then the work actually begins. I recommend my webinar from last semester, “How to Ace Finals Without Breaking a Sweat,” ( for a more thorough approach to the whole finals process.

When you’re studying… make sure you know where to draw the line for each concept and say “enough.” There will be tons more pages to read, more problems to practice. But be results-focused, not activity-focused. Put the book away when the time is right.

Respect your plan and be ready to triage. The toughest advice for my friends/mentees to follow was letting something go and moving on before they were comfortable. But the results were great. Everything that came at them looked familiar, and they were able to re-derive the details where they needed to. Final exams got A’s, comps were passed with distinction, and everyone even got to have some social time in the week leading up to the mayhem.

It was a good thing.

About efogg

CEO of MidTide Media Curator and Considerate at Blogger at
This entry was posted in Grad School, How to Crush College, Studying, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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