Prepare for the finals countdown

Final exams strike fear into the hearts of all undergraduates, but there are ways to beat the stress. Nick Jackson asks the experts how students can make the most of their revision time
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The Independent Online

Finals are, for most of us, a nightmare. Terror at having to cram three or four years' learning into a few weeks and the fear of spending the rest of your life labelled a failure can make the whole thing a living hell if you let it. So don't. Make yourself a cup of tea, relax for a moment and work out a plan to survive.

One important thing to remember is that nobody else takes your grade as seriously as you do. The fear these days is that if you do not get at least a 2:1 you will never find a job. Nonsense. "Employers are more interested in students involved in different activities than exam results," says Gordon Campbell, an English professor at the University of Leicester.

Professor Campbell takes a very pragmatic approach to the whole thing. "What's being measured is not how good you are at your subject but how good you are at being examined," he says. "What we're not looking for are feats of memory. The best exam answers just answer the question." In other words, don't try and memorise your course notes.

Professor Campbell also points out that most questions will be "elegant variations" on old ones. His advice is to go through past papers, pick a few topics that come up each year, and practise, practise, practise.

Richard Barnes, a physiology don at Cambridge University, agrees. "So much of it is about confidence," he says. "The most important thing is to arrive expectant of success." To get yourself in the right frame of mind, Dr Barnes says that you should take one topic at a time, focus on what you have achieved so far and stay positive, rather than being terrified about what you don't know.

An added terror this year is the uncertainty created by a potential boycott of finals by academics' unions. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) and the Association of University Teachers (AUT) are in dispute with the universities over pay: Natfhe members are at present refusing to mark final exams, while AUT members, most of them at the older universities, are threatening not to set exams in the first place.

How many students will be affected is still unclear. But with universities facing the possibility of being sued by disgruntled students and the AUT under increasing pressure, not least from students, a resolution looks likely soon. In the meantime, the only thing to do is work as usual, make sure you know what is going on and hope that the academics will reach an agreement.

Squabbling academics aside, your greatest enemy during finals is stress, which stops you thinking properly, makes you ill, and in extreme cases can lead to suicide. "During exams, people disobey the rules of life," says Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). "They don't eat or sleep enough, then good pressure becomes bad stress."

The best way to avoid exam stress is by finding a balance between work and play. "You need to alternate between tension and relaxation," says Hodson. That means concentrated study (he recommends dividing your day into study periods of 40 minutes with five-minute breaks between) and constructive relaxation. Spend time with friends, do some charity work, or just go to the movies. "What's not a good idea is getting drunk, doing drugs, watching TV, and not getting any sleep," says Hodson.

Getting to sleep can be a problem, however. Study brain waves are different from sleeping ones, so do not expect to be able to switch off straight away. "It's very quick to get in to tension," says Hodson. "It takes about twice as long to get out of it." If you are going to work until you drop, make sure you allow yourself a little time to relax: change the lighting to candles, play music, chat with friends, or just breathe deeply.

Once you've stopped panicking, it is time to work out how to spend the time you have. "The first technique is to eat that frog," says Jonathan Jay, life coach and author of Sack Your Boss!. The frog here represents the worst imaginable breakfast. What Jay means is that you should get the worst done first. "Procrastination is the biggest evil here," he explains. "It's a complete waste of time. You'll always feel a lot better when you've got it out of the way."

Once you've had a good chew on the metaphorical frog it is time, apparently to have a go at an elephant. "How do you eat an elephant?" asks Jay. "One slice at a time. Do things bit by bit. When you see them in bite-size sections, before you know it you've done it."

To study effectively, you must have the right environment, and clearly separate work from play, which means no reading in bed or the sunshine. Set aside specific times to revise, turn off the phone and get yourself a designated work area - a table and chair in your room will do. Minimalism is the key here. "Clutter - get rid of it. All of it. Now," commands Raymond Catchpole, a feng shui consultant and chairman of the Feng Shui Society. "Get rid of everything that is irrelevant to study or isn't directly essential to everyday life."

Finally, stay healthy. Exercise experts recommend a brisk walk or run at lunchtime, and before each exam, to reinvigorate your brain and beat stress. And watch what you eat. Grazing on crisps and chocolate will give you brief sugar rushes that leave you more tired than you were before. Try dried apricots instead.

Make sure you drink enough water, get your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, enough red meat or green vegetables for iron, and plenty of oily fish for protein and omega 3 fatty acids. Before an exam, nutrition experts recommend complex carbohydrates such as baked beans and wholemeal bread, which release energy gently over several hours. But they add that if all this talk of protein and iron is putting you off your food, ignore it. Just remember to eat.

Most of all, don't panic. Finals are not the be all and end all. Even if it all goes wrong and you do not get that 2:1, it will probably make no difference to your life. Whatever you think of Tony Blair, the fact that he got a lower second did not do his career much harm.

First-class: tips for success from graduates who got a top degree

Nathan Sansom, 24, got a first in modern history from Oxford University in 2003

It wasn't an insurmountable challenge. You need a clear strategy of how you need to do on each paper to get the mark you need. Do you need to get 60 in all your papers? If so, focus on your weaker ones. Do you need to get an average of 60? If so, you might be able to raise your average by focusing on your stronger papers.

Sonali Bahri, 26, got a first in psychology and social science from Nottingham Trent University in 2002

My motivation was just to work as hard as I could. I got hold of the syllabus and made sure I had all the lecture notes. I found out who was setting the exam paper so I would know whose revision classes were most valuable and what a first-class answer was to them.

Nisith Sheth, 33, got a first in engineering from Imperial College, London in 1995

I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed testing myself and challenging myself. If you have a goal after university, you know you're doing it for a specific reason and it's much easier. Plus, be very goal-directed in the exams. It's easy to get caught up in irrelevant detail. Don't spend too much time on basic knowledge, but practise exam questions instead.

Will Peacock, 26, got a first in PPE from Oxford University in 2003

Just sleep. Standards in finals are low because nobody has had any sleep for two weeks. If you can write a coherent argument without any factual errors you'll be fine. Don't memorise notes and organise topics, just read the books on your course. You just need to be confident. It's about the attitude that you go into the exam with.