5 Tips to Help You Through Your Exams

With final exams starting Monday, a Curry School professor offers UVA students tips for studying success.
December 06, 2019

Final exams can be a stressful time of the year.

UVA Today turned to Karen Inkelas, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development and a renowned expert on the college experience, for some advice.

Inkelas is the faculty principal at UVA’s Hereford Residential College, which is in its first year of a partnership with the Contemplative Sciences Center that aims to create a community that promotes student and overall wellbeing through mindfulness, social awareness and sustainability.

“Hereford has maintained a focus on social awareness and sustainability for some time now,” Inkelas said, “but we have added mindfulness more recently due to both increasing levels of stress and anxiety that today’s students are experiencing and our belief that one cannot robustly advocate for social awareness and sustainability without a healthy mind, body and spirit.”

For students preparing for their exams, here are five tips from Inkelas.

Location, Location, Location

Where you study can make a difference.

“This location differs for different people,” Inkelas said. “For some, it may be your room. For others, it may be a study lounge, or the library, or at your favorite coffeehouse. But wherever it is, it needs to be a place where you can get comfortable, have an adequate workspace, not have too many distractions, and where you can get down to work quickly and easily. Once you find that place, be happy in knowing that you know where it is, and make use of it as much as possible.”

Healthy Eating and Hydration

“When we become stressed, we often slip into some of our less-optimal habits,” Inkelas said. “For me and for others, this includes eating more junk food, drinking a lot more coffee than usual, and mindless eating (e.g., shoveling in a bag of chips while reading a chapter). Your body needs the kinds of nutrients that can best be found in proteins and fresh fruits and vegetables. So, make time to eat nutritious foods.

“In addition, it is crucial to keep drinking water. You should be taking in six to eight cups (or 48 to 64 ounces) of water or fluids per day. If you’re not sure how much water you are drinking, consider getting a water bottle with the ounces printed on the side to make sure you are getting enough fluids.”

Short Breaks

“The human brain cannot sustain concentration for hours at a time,” Inkelas said. “Trying to make your brain sustain a high level of concentration for too long a period of time will cause it to overload and you to become fatigued. So, forcing yourself to just sit in that chair and cram it all in for long periods of time may be the least effective way to study.

“Instead, take regular-but-short breaks from the stuff that requires heavy concentration and do something else for five to 10 minutes. Take a short walk. Go make yourself that healthy snack of fruits or vegetables (see above). Even a few minutes of slow, deep breathing and stretching can be helpful.”

Have a Plan

“I have noticed that some of the biggest stressors among students are things that could be prevented with a little advance planning,” Inkelas said. “Things like running out of paper or ink in your printer, or not knowing where to go to get your paper printed. Or, needing some supplies for a final project, but not having them on hand when you need them, and now all of the stores are closed.

“So, before the last minute, take a few minutes to think about all of the materials and supplies you will need and have them at the ready. Buy an extra ink cartridge and ream of paper now. Stock your fridge with those healthy snacks. Make sure you and your ride home are on the same page on when you plan to leave. The more you can take care of these things now, the fewer stressors you will have when the real crunch time begins.” 


“It can be easy to lament your predicament and wallow in your exam-time misery,” Inkelas said. “It can be easy to beat yourself up for not doing all of the reading over the semester and now needing to cram. We all do it from time to time. When you feel yourself start to slip into this kind of thinking, try to switch your train of thought to something you are grateful for. Think about the things that make you happy and, in the words of Marie Kondo, ‘bring you joy.’

“For me, it is playing with my dog. So, when I feel the negative thinking starting to overwhelm me, I try to replace it with the feeling I get when I am playing with my dog. Sometimes, I can even feel the sides of my mouth start to curl up when I think about us playing fetch or hide and seek. The process of changing your perspective to things that bring you happiness will help your lower your pulse rate, switch on the positive endorphins and help to clear your mind of negativity – all of which will pave the way for more effective studying … in your favorite study spot!”

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Whitelaw Reid

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications