Final Exam Study Strategies

We are reaching the end of the school year and many students need to take final exams. Unfortunately, too many students have never learned effective study strategies to prepare. Even worse, many of us as parents and educators are giving bad advice when we say things like “re-read your notes” or “look over the study guide.”

Effective studying is more than putting information into the brain. Students have to practice getting that information back on demand. Simply looking over and re-reading frustrates students and usually doesn’t result in better exam grades.

Fortunately there is a solution that will make studying more effective (and hopefully less boring.)

You may know I co-host a weekly education podcast with Gretchen Wegner, an expert in learning theory and effective study skills. I’m sharing a few of our top episodes on preparing for final exams. Hopefully you and your student will find a handful of tips to make this year’s finals less stressful and result in better overall grades.

189: How to Make an Anti-Cram Plan for Final Exams

We all know it’s bad to cram for finals.  It is bad for your brain and usually creates more stress and panic than results. But what should you do instead? Plan, of course! (And start thinking about studying differently– make it an ongoing system rather an end of the semester, term, or unit cram.)

During this episode of the podcast, Gretchen, my co-host who is a study skills expert, walks us through the steps to get ready to rock your finals, including:

  • Mistakes teachers & students make when preparing for exams
  • Why the Study Cycle is so important, and how to teach it to students
  • What the Study Senses are, and how to incorporate them into your study plan
  • A simple formula for how to learn, so students can identify and fix their weakest link, and
  • How to create a final exam study plan that (hopefully) kicks cramming to the curb

134: Easy Tips for Prepping for Finals Over the Holidays

We recorded this episode before winter break last school year, so the title refers to fall semester finals, but the information is relevant to spring exams as well.

Listen to find out:

  • How to put in more effort to studying without feeling like you’re working too hard
  • The importance of testing yourself using “spaced retrieval”, and a few simple ways to do this over the holidays
  • How to get yourself organized so you don’t waste time later finding important study tools
  • A crucial tip for how to use your notes so that you’re actually learning (rather than just faking it)
  • and more!

084: Everything You Need to Know to Rock Your Finals

It’s time to study for final exams! Are you ready?

In this episode, Gretchen outlines 7 tips for how to plan and study for your finals, while saving time to have some fun too. Here’s the short version of Gretchen’s tips; tune into the podcast for more details about how to put them into action.

  1. Map out your entire approach to final exams on one page, so you can see it all at once.
  2. Plan in breaks so you don’t forget to have fun
  3. Practice breaking down each final exam into actionable parts, so that you’re clear exactly what you need to do each day to study.
  4. Organize all your papers and supplies so that you locate notes, worksheets, and old tests that can serve as quizzable study tools.
  5. Study in the manner of the test, and plan backwards.
  6. Build in incentives so you follow through with your plan.
  7. Create clear study routines that are attached to a) things you already do or b) things you like doing.

014: How to Study So Well You are 100% Ready for Every Test

Tests are boring to study for and stressful to take.

But they are the key to good grades…and to effective learning (according to some studies). In this episode, Gretchen lays out four key techniques that help students get great tests grades much more often with less stress.

1. Think Like a Teacher. Too often we assume that teachers are the ones who do the teaching, and kids are simply passive recipients. However, studying is a time when students are actually in charge of their own learning, and so it can help for students to think of study time as teaching time. It is very helpful to learn how to think actively about how learning works, the way teachers do, and the next three techniques are examples of how to do this.

2. Study in the Manner of the Test. This may seem like a “no duh” point, but studies prove that students perform better on tests when the way they study looks exactly like the format of the test. Gretchen explains in detail how students can apply this technique to their study processes. She also refers to Quizlet as an effective tool for creating your own multiple choice tests.

3. Make a Quizzable Study Tool. Too often students fail to think about how they can prove to themselves that they have mastered the information and skills on which they will be tested. An answer to this is to create a study tool that is formatted in such a way that they can easily test themselves. Gretchen describes several different types of study tools, and how students can use them to prove that they are ready for the test.

4. Plan Backwards. Too often students simply start studying, flipping through text book pages and notes as a way to study. A more effective process is to work backwards, understanding what content and skills will be on the test, planning your quizzable study tool, and calendaring the specific actions you are going to take to study. Gretchen explains in more detail how to create a Backwards Plan for yourself before every test.

Take a little time to make sure you are studying effectively for your remaining exams!

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Necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors

Two weeks ago I was speaking with my daughter, a high school junior, and we were talking about college visits. She’s narrowing down her choices somewhat, but there are still a number of potential schools we have not visited.

I said, “We can see them over the summer.” Then I looked at the family calendar.

Between speech & debate tournaments, a mission trip, family vacation, a week at a psychology immersion camp, and a family reunion, we only had three weeks available. That’s three weeks to cover 6 schools across the state of Texas and 4 other colleges in Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

And that’s when I felt like the client instead of the professional.

I’ve seen so many families with good intentions (and plans) fall behind because they didn’t realize how little time they actually had for college visits, attempts at the SAT or ACT, or applications. Today’s article will outline some of the optional and necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors. If you have a freshman, take notes because you will need to start planning soon.



College Planning

We’ve all seen plenty of college planning timelines. I’ve written articles on the subject. But it only becomes real when it is written on the family calendar.

It is easy to think, “We can do that over the summer.” Or, “She / he will have time for that next year; college is so far off.” But once we are in our routines for the school year or summer, it is easy for time to slip away.

Here are the college planning activities I would encourage you to pencil in for your family:


For Current Juniors:

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who has already finished with testing. Congratulations! But many students are still preparing and working towards a score goal. Here are the remaining test dates:


  • April 14, 2018
  • June 9, 2018
  • July 14, 2018
  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)


  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018
  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)

Plan which test(s) you can take. Remember to watch for conflicts with AP Exam weeks (May 7-18), prom, final exams, vacation, and fall activities.

The sooner you finish testing, the sooner you can devote your full attention to the next step: applications.

For Current Sophomores:

You have the luxury of planning ahead right now. Next year when will you have the most time and interest to prepare? Try to avoid competition season for sports and activities. Consider the time demands of future Advanced Placement (AP) classes. (AP exams are always the first two weeks of May.)

Students who complete Algebra II as sophomores will have enough content knowledge to take the ACT or SAT in the fall. Students who are currently taking geometry and will take Algebra II in the fall may want to consider

  • Taking the ACT which does not include higher level Algebra II concepts and / or
  • Waiting until the spring to take these exams

Other than math, most students will not learn anything in school that will help on the ACT or SAT. So you don’t need to wait for spring in order to test. Many of my clients are done with testing. Some finished back in September and October when they earned top scores on these exams as juniors. The key is finding the time that is right for you.

Here are the test dates for next school year, so you can start planning. Keep in mind many students will take their choice of exam 2-3 times.


  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018
  • December 8, 2018
  • February 9, 2019
  • April 13, 2019
  • June 8, 2019
  • July 13, 2019


  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018
  • December 1, 2018
  • March 9, 2019
  • May 4, 2019
  • June 1, 2019


College Visits

It is not a requirement to visit every school on your list before you apply. But it is a good idea to visit a minimum of 3-5 colleges so you have a better idea of what different schools offer and how your interests may be met differently at specific schools.

There are so many variables when it comes to finding schools that are a good fit. I always say a college visit is like test driving a new car or trying on a new pair of shoes. You can read websites, compare rankings, talk to neighbors, and get the advice of experts. But when it comes to making a final decision, the only opinion or ranking that matters is yours.

I understand time and money are limiting factors in making college visits, but I also know the more informed you are, the better you can decide. Part of the evaluation process is where to apply, but the other part is where to attend. Notes made on trips during your junior year might save you a last-minute rushed visit in the spring of your senior year as you try to make your final selection.

Here has been our college visit approach:

  1. Summer before junior year—visit a variety of schools (big, small, urban, college town, etc.), take good notes, make a list of likes, don’t likes, and must haves.
  2. Junior year—continue adding possible colleges and removing some for not meeting criteria. (For example, my daughter likes liberal arts colleges, but has decided schools with fewer than 1500 students are just too small.)
  3. Junior year—visit more campuses. Take advantage of school holidays and breaks. Look for colleges you might be near as you take family trips.
  4. Summer before senior year—narrow your college list. I’m nervous when students have fewer than 5 schools on their lists and I know most students don’t have the time, energy (or money) to apply to more than 15. (They Dorsey list currently has 10 schools. That might increase or decrease by a couple between now and August.)
  5. Summer before senior year—make sure you have done official tours with a minimum of three of the colleges on your list. Visiting friends and relatives doesn’t count. You need the tour and information session from the admissions office to count it as a college visit.

As I found, it was easy to imaging we would have time to make all these college visits—until I started to pencil them in on my calendar. Most admissions offices let you schedule campus visit online, so you can do this at anytime.

Note: Many campuses are in a transition period right now, so don’t worry if you can’t schedule summer visits just yet. The national date to inform students of college admission in April 1. Seniors have until May 1 to inform the colleges of their decisions. Many schools are still focusing on this year’s seniors and will get summer visit schedules online soon.


Ideally students should be involved in meaningful activities throughout the year. But sometimes projects, community service, and hobbies get delayed during the school year. Summer is the ideal time to catch up.

This summer my daughter needs to finish her Girl Scout Gold Award and she has a goal of earning more service hours. She will also attend a week-long psychology institute at Wake Forest University. And we can’t forget all those hours working on speech & debate!

What are your summer plans? What else can you accomplish?

When students tell me they are just going to hang out for the summer, I remind them they will still have time for fun AND activities. And if you need a little convincing, take a look at some college applications and see how well you can fill in the “activities” section.


I will cover the topic of applications in greater depth in another article. What you need to plan for is some time, maybe a couple weeks, to draft a resume and start working on college essays. Summer is a great time to get started, but keep in mind, most colleges don’t open their online applications until August 1.


For those of us with juniors, that senior year will be here before we know it. It seems like high school just started and now the reality of college applications is here.

Take a little time to actually put testing, college visits, activities, and application work on your calendar, so you don’t accidently fall behind.


Is NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars) a Scam or a Real Award?

We received a letter from the high school that our daughter is eligible for a membership in NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars). Is this worth the money? Should we do it?



No, it is not really that prestigious or exclusive—everyone you know got the same invitation letter. No, it isn’t really a honor—invitations were sent out to most students regardless of actual achievements. And no, you shouldn’t pay money for it because everyone in the field of higher education know this is really a scam.

Why do these “honor programs” exist?

So why is the National Society of High School Scholars or the Who’s Who of American High School Students letter an annual source of frustration for me and others who help teens and their families with college admission? These companies (and others like them) do an excellent job of marketing to the hopes and fears of parents.

“Acceptance” letters often come on fancy letterhead with gold seals and extra inserts proclaiming the prestige and opportunity of their offer. Who doesn’t want their child to be recognized? And too often parents and students want to jump at any opportunity to stand out when it comes to college admission.

Unfortunately these “awards” are no more than a purchased database of high school names and addresses looking to sell their accolades.

Can I list this as an award / honor on my college applications?

You shouldn’t. Colleges are not impressed with “awards” you have bought yourself.

Colleges want to see what you have DONE. If you have earned recognition for doing something, it is worth noting on your applications. But Who’s Who or NSHSS don’t ask you to DO anything other than pay for the privilege.

But what about the benefits they mention?

If you are looking for scholarships, conferences, discounts from business partners, or any of the other benefits, you can get them elsewhere. Search for scholarships online that don’t require a $75 membership fee to apply. (In fact, one sure sign of a scholarship scam is asking for money in order to apply.) There are dozens of youth conferences to help motivate, inspire, and challenge students in a variety of fields. And your local health club or Costco will have business partners willing to offer you discounts.

How to spot scams targeting teens and their families.

Next time you get an email or letter in the mail announcing an “opportunity,” here are a few ways to spot the scam:

  • If it is an honor or award, has my child done something specific to earn this honor? (writing a winning essay, competing in a national event, completing the requirements for an organizational award, etc.)
  • Have other neighbors or friends received the same communication? It can’t be exclusive or prestigious if a majority of students receive it.
  • Is payment required? You should NEVER have to pay to apply for or receive a scholarship. Membership in some national organizations may involve a registration fee, but most have a local chapter representative who you can ask (i.e. the debate coach who represents your chapter of the National Speech & Debate Association or the NHS sponsor who represents your chapter of the National Honor Society.)
  • Is this a recognized organization? It can be hard to keep up, so when in doubt, check the National Association of Secondary Principals’ list of activities and contests that offer actual academic value. These programs have to demonstrate some benefit to participating students.
  • Are you considering it solely to “look good to colleges”? There is no silver bullet for admission—no single activity, club, or award that will help you get in. Students should pursue interests and talents. This may be the most genuine way to avoid scams.


So you can throw the NSHSS letter in the trash. You aren’t missing a thing.

Colleges are not impressed. In fact, listing one of these “buy your own award” items on a college application or resume may backfire. Instead of looking accomplished, you look like the fool who got scammed into thinking this marketing ploy was a real achievement.



Honest (Sometimes Unpopular) Course Selection Advice

I’ve started a dozen versions of this article. In each, I try to balance the variations when students’ wants conflict with what they should take to be best prepared for college (and most competitive in the admissions process.)

Why so many drafts?

There isn’t one simple answer to course selection questions. When I meet a family for an academic consultation to work on academic planning issues, I ask a lot of questions and get feedback on that student’s specific needs, talents, weaknesses, and goals.

But this article is general– one size fits all. This isn’t a problem from the college admissions planning side; what they want is predictable. The challenge comes as I consider all of the questions I get from students (and parents) seeking exceptions. “I know you say to take four years, but what if…”

What you find here is my general advice. I know it isn’t always popular, but I know it works.

How to select high school courses

1. Make a Four-Year Plan

You don’t need anything fancy, but I like to make the options visual, so I use a blank sheet of paper divided into four columns (one for each year of high school) and a number of rows to equal the number of courses a student can take per year. So my daughter’s plan has seven rows because there are seven class periods per day at her school.

I like to keep my chart organized, so I assign the first four rows to the core academic classes: English, math, history, and science. The next row is for foreign language. This leaves the remains rows, two in my daughter’s case, for all other classes.

Here’s what the plan looks like today:

If your student is already in high school, fill in the courses completed already. I keep the chart handy and fill in courses as I discuss the remaining suggestions.

2. Four Years of English, Math, History, and Science Are a Must

Some schools, districts, or states will have different graduation requirements. For the college-bound student, four years of these core courses are essential. That means a student will take English, math, history, and science every year in high school, even if he or she started taking high-school level courses in junior high (Algebra I for example.)

This is non-negotiable for me. (And why my advice is sometime unpopular.)

Of course, the specific courses are up for discussion. A student who struggles in math may decide senior year calculus is too hard and take another math class instead. Some students will elect to take advanced, honors, or AP level classes in certain subjects. The specifics will vary, but all students should plan for four years in these subjects.

Do you HAVE to?

Do you want to be academically well prepared for college? Do you want to risk the potential red flag to admissions officers when they see you have taken the easy way out and skipped that senior year course? I’m not saying four years is a requirement at all colleges, but you should know that it is expected by most and anything less can work against a student at some colleges.

3. Four Years of Foreign Language Are Strongly Encouraged

This is a topic where I adjust my answer depending on the client. A strong student who is potentially considering top schools should take four years of the same language.

In my family four years of the same language was non-negotiable. (My daughter chose to take AP Spanish V next year because she has enjoyed all of her Spanish classes and thinks Spanish literature will be interesting.)

My general rule is that three years of the same language is essential, four recommended. However, there are some cases where I have given different advice to clients. I take into consideration the following:

  • Learning differences that impact language learning
  • Current grades in foreign language
  • Overall academic profile
  • College aspirations
  • What a student would like to take instead

A student who has struggled through the required years of language and would want to replace year four with another academic course can. But the student who has made A’s and B’s and just “doesn’t want to” because he or she heard the class “is hard” should take the extra year.

Yes, colleges know third and fourth year courses are harder which is why it is good thing to do. It is also good because you will gain additional language skills, which are in high demand in many employment opportunities.

4. Plan for Additional Requirements

Every school has different requirements. If you attend a private religious school, you may need to plan for four years of Theology or Bible classes. My daughter’s school requires students to take a year of P.E. and a year of an arts course.

Figure out what additional requirements you need to meet and add them to your four-year plan.

For most students these are not the fun courses they want to take. I don’t think it is necessary to “get them out of the way” early, but you do need to plan for them.

My daughter’s schedule has been full with academic courses, Spanish, tennis, and debate, so she has not taken her required arts credit in 9th or 10th grade. We have penciled art in for 12th grade when she has an opening in her schedule because she will have completed Spanish 5, the highest level language class offered at her school.

5. Fill In Gaps With Electives (“Wants”)

Electives are the courses designed to allow students to test out interests, develop skills, and discover strengths beyond the core academic classes. Electives aren’t meant to replace academic classes; they are intended to supplement them.

  • Consider courses that pair with a student’s extracurricular interests: band, journalism, theater, debate, sports, etc.
  • Explore courses that relate to potential career interests: computer science, psychology, extra science classes for the student considering pre-med, etc.
  • Look for opportunities to develop leadership, communication, or interpersonal skills: JROTC, FFA, independent research, PALS, newspaper, etc.

For me, electives fill in the remaining openings in a student’s schedule. If you have done the first four steps correctly, you will find almost no time left for all the interesting electives your student wants to take.

This is the reality many families don’t like to face: there will always be more interesting electives than available time in the schedule.

6. Consider Course Content & Appropriate Level of Rigor

Content and rigor can help you decide between different options. Examples illustrate this better than any description.

Senario A

A student has completed biology, chemistry, and physics and needs to select a science course for his senior year. Should he take anatomy, AP Biology, or AP Environmental Science? All three meet the standard in #2 above (four years of core courses), so how can he decide?

Let’s add in that this young man is strong in the sciences, has been taking challenging academic courses on an advanced level in the past, and is considering medical school for the future. His interest in medicine would lead me to focus on either anatomy or AP Biology– both courses that will contribute to his future goals. While anatomy sounds perfectly suited to a potential pre-med student, I still need to consider appropriate rigor. A strong academic student may get more out of the AP class, making it my first choice for his senior year science.

Senario B

A student thinks she will study engineering in college and is trying to balance her interest in playing soccer and working on the student newspaper with the “Principles of Engineering” course sequence she sees in her high school’s course catalog. Does she need to give up either soccer or newspaper to make room for these engineering electives? What would serve her best in college? What do colleges want to see for admission?

The first step is to recognize that colleges (and their engineering programs) want core academic courses before electives. So four years of challenging math and science courses are the first step. Choose calculus over statistics; take AP / IB or honors when appropriate. Consider an extra year of science or computer science as an elective.

Next, if this student in interested in participating in soccer and newspaper (and presumably will take those courses during the school day), I would encourage her to continue. There is value in these activities: teamwork, planning, practice, leadership; meeting deadlines, working with others, accepting constructive criticism, time management, and so much more.

This is why colleges like to see students commit time to activities outside of the classroom. Yes, sometime students have more interests than time, but if possible, I’d encourage this student to remain with newspaper and soccer as long as they continue to be meaningful activities for her.

Finally, don’t feel compelled to take every course with “engineering” in the title. This student will not be limiting her future opportunities if she never takes these elective courses. And not all courses with “engineering” in the name will lead her towards her goal of a four-year degree in the field.

For example, at my daughter’s school many of the vocational classes include “engineering” in the title. These are interesting classes, but for admission to a university engineering program, higher-level math and science courses will outweigh vocational electives. (I’m not saying these are bad courses, but they aren’t worth this student dropping out of soccer or newspaper to take them.)


Following these basic principals will give you a competitive high school plan.

If you are still struggling or want more personalized advice, I offer individual 90-minute consultations for $225. I will answer your questions; n o need to commit to ongoing services. For more information visit my consultation page.