Thanksgiving break is lovely, always has been, and always will be. Unfortunately, it also happens to be the harbinger of the most stressful time of the year for many students: finals. For first-year students, this will be their first college finals period; I wish them good luck, and I promise it will be alright. But for the class of 2023, this is the last winter finals season of our undergraduate degree program. To me, that is very difficult to believe. With the long transition back to normalcy due to the COVID pandemic, it feels like I just got here. The fall semester of 2019 feels like it happened in another lifetime. I lived in a different dorm, had an entirely different group of friends, didn’t have a major, was planning on waiting until the last minute of my sophomore year to declare one, and had never heard the phrase social distancing before. But now, I feel more connected to that moment than I have in years. For the first time since 2019, I am going to deal with a stressful finals season under somewhat normal conditions, an ordeal I would otherwise have experienced in two additional years had things gone differently. Even though most of my finals seasons have been weird, I think it is helpful to reflect on my previous experiences in the hopes that someone might find it comforting or valuable for their own life.
Finals season always tests me mentally, emotionally, and physically. I push myself to the limits of what I can memorize and repeat succinctly and coherently on my exams. Final essays, which always take up the largest chunk of time compared to any other assignments in those last two weeks, require incredible endurance to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time, watching the lines of text march painfully slowly down the document, or not at all, depending on the severity of writer’s block and procrastination. If I have any presentations to give, I have to do my best to balance my tendency to stutter when speaking publicly, which slows me down, against my nervousness, which speeds me up. I have learned that the fear of failure is quite a fickle thing. It can be an incredible motivator that overcomes all obstacles getting in the way of studying and working, or a paralyzing feeling that stops everything dead in its tracks. And on top of all that, without fail, I have fallen very ill every finals season, but especially bad in the fall semester ones. In medical terms, stress is just bad for the immune system. It makes you susceptible to pathogens that are also transmitted much easier because everyone hunkers down in indoor common areas as the weather gets colder. I sometimes imagine it as my body mutinying against my lack of sleep and irregular eating habits.
To deal with these challenges for this fall semester’s finals season, I have developed a handful of helpful tips.
First, make a plan of action by prioritizing your tasks ahead of time. I have had several challenging semesters where by the end, I never felt like I was caught up with anything; the last month was a constant process of juggling being behind in everything and working through it in a manner akin to triage. So do the absolutely most pressing things first unless it is too overwhelming and would derail all the other work, in which case you should save that for later while you get the smaller issues under control.
Second, reach out to your professors if you need it. I have never had a professor here at Swarthmore who I thought wanted to see me struggle and burn out. If you tell them that you need things to be rearranged or altered somehow, they will work with you to find a solution that does not involve all-nighters or a whole week of staying at the libraries until closing. For many people, reaching out is the hardest thing; I know it was for me in my first semester. I felt like I was admitting defeat and showing myself unworthy of their class or the college. Asking for help does not mean either; it shows courage to acknowledge one’s limitations and to work to deal with them productively.
Third, collaborate and commiserate. Working with others improves the whole experience, as loneliness is detrimental to one’s mental health. Obviously, do not copy answers or ideas from people in your classes, but do discuss the materials. Go over old homework together, quiz each other on material for the exam, and proofread each other’s essays. If nothing else, it is often cathartic to talk to someone about how difficult or strange a shared experience is.
Fourth, take real breaks. I see it all the time when people hang out in libraries with a textbook and notebook open or a laptop with a lesson paused while they spend hours watching videos on their phone or lying with their heads on their crossed arms on the desk in front of them. It does not help with anything to do this since you are neither getting substantive work done nor are you getting real rest. Suppose you are tired and cannot focus. In that case, it is better to take a nap in your dorm or just block out an hour or two and dedicate it entirely to watching a show or a movie on Netflix rather than unsatisfyingly delaying your work while you are in the library.
Fifth, accept things as they happen. It is going to be a stressful time. I can almost guarantee that for everyone. There will be small and even not-so-small things that go wrong. For example, I have missed deadlines and received disappointing exam results, but that is okay. We can move past these things. The fall semester finals season is particularly conducive to feelings of doom and gloom just because of the environmental changes. When everything looks gray, bleak, cold, and snowy, it isn’t hard to fall into negative thought cycles about how things are going. However, the dreary scenery builds a much more fitting end-of-semester vibe than the blooming flowers and singing birds of spring semester finals.
So, I wish good luck to everyone this finals season. I know we all need it. And to my fellow members of the class of 2023, let us all take solace in the fact that we only have to do this one more time.