Skip to content ↓
MIT student blogger Kevin S. '19

How to Finals™ by Kevin S. '19

How to survive AND thrive this finals season?!



Winter is coming. Oh, and so are finals.

It’s my 5th semester01 I didn't have any <a target='_blank' rel='noopener' href=''>Sophomore spring</a> or <a target='_blank' rel='noopener' href=''>Junior fall</a> and I sure made the most of the extra week. taking uni finals, and I thought this would be my last round, but alas, I still need to take 6.033 and it just so happens to have a final.

Anyhoo, I thought it’d be fun to share my study tips on How to Finals™: Survive and Thrive.

…and practice what I preach of course for my two exams this semester: 6.046 and 7.012.



If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. — Sun Tzu

Start early 

This time around I actually started studying for 6.046 the day before the last day of classes. I didn’t have anything due last week, so I thought, might as well get a heads’ start. No, I haven’t started studying for a final that early, ever, so maybe that took 6 semesters to realize starting early isn’t so bad.

This means that I’ve been studying in smaller, but more frequent and manageable blocks, and I can allow my brain to process and marinate the material overnight before my next study session.

10 1-hour blocks != 1 10 hour block

We don’t really have a “reading period,” just Thursday and Friday plus the weekend before the first finals start on the following Monday, so time is money, which leads to…

create a study plan

I start off each exam season by taking out my calendar and blocking off time each day devoted strictly to studying. I clear my calendar as well. Finals are my #1 priority! I note down what my goals are for the exams. Am I aiming for top marks? Or mastering the material for the art and pursuit and love of learning and and academia? Or just enough to pass and graduate? <- more like me right now.

I’ve found that it’s useful to identify your power hours, the time of day when you work best. For me, that’s an hour after I wake up (I’m awake enough to concentrate and focus with a clear head) and an hour after dinner (I’ve overcome food coma and I enjoy the dark and quiet evenings, perfect for studying in peace). Budget out more time than you think you need, usually 2x the amount, because somehow at least for me, I’m horrible at estimating the time it takes to do something and things do come up and things take longer than I think and there’s some room for error and readjustment.

Broadly planning out my study schedule ensures that I’ll be able to get to everything I want to cover, and it oddly gives me motivation to study because it’s on my calendar.

I do also make sure to leave some room for fun things, i.e. baking cinnamon rolls, exploring the city with a friend visiting Boston for 48 hours, dinner with friends, etc. Gives me things to look forward to, in between studying and a nice way to keep my mind off things like analyzing randomized algorithms02 I see u, 6.046.  and remembering resting membrane potentials03 I see u, 7.012. .

For my two classes, I created a list of topics I need to cover and material I want to revise. For example, for 7.012, we’re given a list of topics to review, which is a handy resource to start off with. We were also given practice exams for 7.012 and 6.046, so I blocked off time to work through those. I also prioritized what I want to revise, more emphasis on topics covered on psets and exams, and fully understanding the practice exam material and questions, rather than reading the textbook or lecture notes. I try to apply the 80/20 Rule or the Pareto principle — mastering the most important 20% topics will roughly produce 80% (read: majority) of your result on the exam — and figure out which topics those are.

I’ve also found through trial and error that working through actual practice questions that have shown up in past exams first thing help the most, not only as it’s a realistic indication of what’s to appear on the exam, but studies have shown that it’s more effective than passive learning (i.e.  reading notes, copying notes, etc.). Once I struggle through the practice problems, I know exactly what I don’t understand and what I need to revise, and prioritize those topics.

For me, it’s quality over quantity. Figure out your big ticket items and invest your time in those topics and examples deeply.

Gather all materials 

My favorite part about studying is the fancy stationery I can use and pretend I’m being more productive04 Read: fancy highlighters, sticky notes, different-colored pens, etc. than I actually am. Investing in some quality stationery definitely improves the quality of life during this tough, stressful time of any student’s collegiate career.

I also like to download all the lecture and recitation notes, pset answers, midterm solutions, and past exams, all in one folder on my laptop. I also find that for more cognitively-intense classes, i.e. 6.04605 Wow, this is really a recurring theme, students beware. , I prefer revising the material on printed paper, where I can scribble all over and flip back and forth freely and cross-reference other material on paper all-too-much. I usually keep all my printed material for each classes in a separate binder. Makes it easy to compartmentalize different classes.

Once I work through the practice exams, I like to create a Source of Truth for each class. Some classes let you bring crib sheets to the exam, but for the classes that don’t06 Bio, ahem. , I still like to create one. I call them Sources of Truth because that sounds fancy. I summarize the key points for each topic and copy down key examples that have shown up on past exams or psets. I like to add key points I miss or good examples I find to the Source of Truth as I study.

Once I get a solid foundation going, for the classes for which I can’t bring my Source of Truth to the exam, I like to use the quiz-recall method and try to write down everything I can remember about a given topic and all the relevant examples that I have written on my cheat sheet.

I also like to apply different forms of active learning, such as explaining things out loud or writing things on a whiteboard. It helps keep things fun and engaging07 And more importantly, from me dozing off. .

right environment, right mindset

First, I cannot study when I’m sleep-deprived. If I am, I will nap first, and then start studying. I often even nap08 Ok usually it's for 20 minutes, but I've become so good at napping at will at the libraries when I trick myself in thinking I'm sleep deprived but actually I'm just trying to procrastinate. Productive procrastination? At least I'm getting some rest, or that's what I tell myself, and by studying via diffusion and osmosis, I'm learning new material as I nap on my practice exams, yea?  in the middle of a study session.

I also can’t be hungry when I start studying, or else my mind wanders, and all I can think about is food. But also don’t make the mistake of eating too much and hitting food coma. Then you’ll find someone like me taking a nap in the midst of a practice exam. Keep your energy levels constant throughout the day, snack lots, frequently and in smaller portions. Stay hydrated too!

Exercising is also nice to keep my body and mind sharp and focused.

Another pro tip is to wear comfy clothes and dress in layers, so you can be prepared for any study spot you find yourself in, whether it’s too hot or too cold.

Speaking of study spots, I like to study by myself, in a quiet, quiet, deathly quiet isolated spot. I most definitely can’t study in my room or anywhere close to my bed. I also can’t focus if I’m studying with friends. I do message out in case I need to ask some questions or want someone to talk through a topic with.

A less-trafficked study cartel in a lesser-known library is usually my top pick. I rank my study spots based on volume of traffic, noise levels, and access to a cafe, bathroom, and a printer.

Other tips: create a study playlist. I’m currently into lo-fi beats, and usually listen to soundtracks or classical music. Block out distractions: I deleted Facebook and email from my phone and usually put my phone somewhere buried in my backpack when I study. Set timers and take breaks every

Finally, treat yourself to something special, and have something to look forward to after major study session milestones and, of course, after the exams. 



Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. — Sun Tzu


I like to keep a notebook handy, in which I have my calendar and study timeline laid out visually and I can keep track of number of hours I’ve studied, what I got done, what topics I covered. I also use it to jot down random thoughts that come up and todos and random distractions to deal with later, after my study session is up, and celebrate the small wins. 

I use this notebook to keep track of questions that I want to clarify and ask about later, so it’s off my mind and I’ll remember to go over certain things later on with a TA or a friend.

Speaking of TAs, office hours are a great opportunity to ask questions about things you didn’t understand or to review your past exams (or even lectures you missed).


Training for battle means practicing deliberately and slowly. I always tell myself, my goal for each study session is to increase my chance of success in getting as much partial credit as possible for any question on the exam, as opposed to memorizing everything. For me, it’s all about getting enough practice and intuition that I can apply my newly-honed problem-solving skills and apply it to novel and more difficult problems that will inevitably pop up on the exam, especially the final.

So, that also means that I don’t have to be perfect! It’s okay to make mistakes. Make them now, learn from them, so that you’re even better prepared for your exam. Mentally, I tell myself to accept the fact that it won’t be easy, but pain is temporary and once its over, I can relax!

I like to study in Pomodoro blocks, taking short breaks every 30ish minutes and longer breaks every hour. I plan out easier, more fun tasks to balance the cognitively-demanding study blocks in between my study sessions.  I try to avoid social media or the internet because I get super distracted09 I'm still guilty of going on youtube every now and then and getting sucked in. But when I do need that extra motivation, I do go watch random motivational videos that get me pumped. . I like to instead take a snack, go on a walk, go to the bathroom or water fountain, or call my mom.

For me, once I get into the flow of studying, I’m on fire. But it’s often hard to get into that state of high and intense focus, so blocking out distractions is key, including finding the right environment and getting into the right mindset. 30 mins of this flow state trumps 3 hours of distracted studying, so I try my best to set myself up for frequent maximal states of flow.

Then comes the hard part: struggling through hard practice problems. I always start by studying for any exam by working through a practice exam for that class. Usually it’s from the last semester it was offered, or an official practice that the professors publish. I find it’s the most efficient way to pinpoint exactly what you don’t understand.

I start off by working through the problems on my own, without any notes, and if I get stuck, then I try with lecture notes, and then if I’m still stuck, then I look at beginning of the solutions for any hints, and then keep at it, and if after 20 minutes I’m not getting anywhere then I review the solution and try to tackle it on my own. I like to summarize where I get stuck before I look at additional resources, so I can replay my train of thought and the key points or key observations that I needed to apply. If I’m still stuck, I flag the problem and try to go to office hours, email a TA, ask a friend, or ask on Piazza.

It’s a lot more effort than just reading through the solutions but it ensures that I struggle on my own first and gradually build up intuition on how to solve these problems.
Once I finish the practice problems, then I work on building my Source of Truth and add in more examples and summarize the key intuition points and make silly mnemonics to help me drill down the material.

This is the hardest, most grueling part about every exam season, struggling through, straining my eyes and brain to its limit. Put in the work, and trust the process!


To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy. —

Sun Tzu


Now that you’ve put in the work and well-trained, you’re ready for the final battle. I like to enter every exam with the mindset that I’m here to be challenged, to try to do my best at whatever they throw at me. It’s a time to show how much and how effectively you’ve prepared and how well you’ve mastered the material. Fake it till you make it.

As with my skating performances, I take deep breaths before and at the start of every exam to calm myself down. I like to bring some snacks too, to nibble on during the exam, and have cold water handy to shock myself awake.

I approach the exam by flipping through each page and reviewing each problem, getting a rough outline of the topics covered and questions being asked, so I can let my subconscious mind do its thing while I tackle the easy problems first.

I’m always going for the partial credit no matter what, so I try to think of as much as I can about a given topic that may be relevant, and see if I can find a pattern or think back to a similar problem from before. I always try to write something down, at the least.

Finally, I like to rotate between questions I’m stuck on, so I don’t spent too much time on each one.

Before you know it, the exam will be over, and you can live your life once again.

And that’s the patented 3 easy steps to survive and thrive this finals season. You got this! 💪


productive procrastination WATCHING
disclaimerHow to Finals™: Survive and Thrive is Brought to you by a senior trying to graduate this holiday season.
another disclaimer: I hope this reads coherently because i wrote this as a way to procrastinate studying but midway through realized it’s past midnight and i should get back to studying. 
  1. I didn't have any <a target='_blank' rel='noopener' href=''>Sophomore spring</a> or <a target='_blank' rel='noopener' href=''>Junior fall</a> and I sure made the most of the extra week. back to text
  2. I see u, 6.046. back to text
  3. I see u, 7.012. back to text
  4. Read: fancy highlighters, sticky notes, different-colored pens, etc. back to text
  5. Wow, this is really a recurring theme, students beware. back to text
  6. Bio, ahem. back to text
  7. And more importantly, from me dozing off. back to text
  8. Ok usually it's for 20 minutes, but I've become so good at napping at will at the libraries when I trick myself in thinking I'm sleep deprived but actually I'm just trying to procrastinate. Productive procrastination? At least I'm getting some rest, or that's what I tell myself, and by studying via diffusion and osmosis, I'm learning new material as I nap on my practice exams, yea? back to text
  9. I'm still guilty of going on youtube every now and then and getting sucked in. But when I do need that extra motivation, I do go watch random motivational videos that get me pumped. back to text