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Make a Plan, Check it Twice

By Marcy Kraus, director of the College Center for Advising Services and dean of freshmen

It's as predictable as snow in Rochester in December. Mid-March arrives and everyone on campus breathes a relieved sigh—"spring break, finally!" As academic advisors we've learned that the spring break week divides the semester into two halves for many students: the challenging but optimistic first half of the semester and the intensely busy, sometimes worrisome, second half of the semester.

Successful students return from spring break with a plan in mind. They know that the last month and a half of the semester is often critical to their final course grade. Their phones and calendars contain a detailed list of upcoming assignments, projects and exams and, in addition to knowing exactly when these important dates will arrive, they have also anticipated when they will begin studying, writing and reading in preparation for the final stretch. While few students formally plan how they will spend each of the 168 hours available to them in any given week, the most successful students are strategic at managing their time, their motivation, their stress, and their study strategies.

  1. Time: It's not uncommon for students to have several exams in a week and then several papers due all at once as the semester comes to an end. What could be more overwhelming? Successful students anticipate, create a daily plan for what needs to get done, set a start and end time for their study sessions, and build in time for unexpected roadblocks. They prioritize their assignments and break up large tasks and projects into manageable smaller pieces. After completing a chunk of work, they take a break--to relax, to process, or to reflect. While successful students spend time with friends and socialize regularly they also find time that other students regularly overlook. Got 50 minutes between classes? Use that time to review yesterday's lecture notes.
  2. Motivation: Successful students use positive self-talk to motivate themselves and manage potential panic-inducing situations. They challenge negative thoughts, reframe their strategies and address worries head on. "I'll never finish this assignment by tomorrow" is replaced by "This assignment is very manageable if I outline the main points first and then write my summaries." Feeling "stuck" by your worries and don't know how to start that 20-page research paper? Successful students plan by taking baby steps when the big steps are hard. Soon enough that first paragraph becomes a page, and then two.
  3. Stress: Successful students recognize that the last month of the semester is inevitably stressful but are committed to managing that stress proactively: exercising, eating right, seeking support from friends, and taking time for themselves each day are all helpful ways to manage end of semester stress. The plan? Successful students don't let their long to-do lists derail the good habits that they've practiced all semester long.
  4. Study strategies: Successful students assess where they stand in each of their courses, identify what strategies they can use to improve their performance, and make a plan to accomplish these goals. They routinely analyze what went wrong on the first tests and assignments and ask their professors and TAs questions about these problem areas. Successful students utilize a variety of study strategies and resources to improve their grades—study groups, tutors, recitations, extra office hours, studying in a new place, review sessions, and working with a study buddy. They also remind themselves that effort, not luck, leads to academic success.