To take the habit of postponing exams it is one of the most deleterious but also the most common things (after all it is a specific form of procrastination) that happen during the university career.
Yet, even though it happens so often and to so many students, it is also one of the least understood phenomena.
Try asking someone to describe you the typical student who keeps putting off exams.
It will probably draw you the picture of a boy / girl who studies little and badly, because he is affected by the triad of “laziness, lack of desire and low motivation”.
In short, a boy who spends his afternoons at the playstation, going out with friends, watching television or even just the ceiling ... as long as you don't put it in front of a book to study.
Now, this is a description in some way reassuring, but partly false.
Reassuring because basically it is convenient to think that study (and life, of which the study is only a particle) follows mathematical rules, equations of the type
I commit myself = I have Results
I don't commit = I don't have results
False because in reality low engagement is a problem only for a minority of students.
The majority instead, and I say this with the confidence of those who have now followed hundreds of them, is committed and how!
But he does it with strategies and techniques that are not adequate for his course of study, and therefore he makes a lot of effort more than necessary and in the end postpone the exam because he does not feel ready.
Which makes things even worse: because if you decide to skip an appeal after you've been fooling around all the time, it's easier to get over it (and in that case, go to my motivation guide).
But if you do it after you've worked hard it's really depressing.
Yet this is precisely what happens to many who continually postpone exams not because they have studied little, but because, paradoxically, they study too much.
And in particular, they study too many useless things:
- or because they want to know everything
- and / or because they don't know what to know and what not to decide
It also happened to me at the beginning of my studies, and I almost lost my degree….
When "wanting to know everything" becomes an iceberg
Published for the first time in 1858 in London, and now in its 41st edition (in the end not many, considering that he is 161 years old), Gray's Anatomy is one of the best known medical texts in the world.
Especially since, with an easy play on words, it has also inspired one of the most famous television series of the last 20 years (“Grey's Anatomy”, in this case written with an e).
Now, this worthy mega-book divided into two volumes, it was now more than 20 years ago the iceberg against which I nearly smashed my college career a few months after starting it.
Partly because of my mania for perfectionism, partly because I liked it at the time overdo it, I tried to digest a whole tome in a couple of months, which in that edition counted I believe at least a thousand pages printed in maxi format but written in small letters.
Three weeks after the exam, I was not even a quarter of the way through, with no chance of finishing on time. Yet believe me, not only had I been a brilliant student my entire school career, but I was also getting a terrible ass.
For the first time in my life I felt like I was in front of me a school rock which I was unable to overcome.
And this gave me feelings of frustration, despondency and dejection which even today, if I think about it, give me a shiver of physical discomfort down my spine.
By now desperate, I had almost resigned myself to postponing the exam, when I decided to try it all out.
I then went to the bookstore, to the mythical Minerva Medica in Turin, and against what until then had been my deepest nature I bought the shortest anatomy book that was recommended for that course.
I went back to studying from scratch, focusing only on the main things, and three weeks later I sat down for the exam and passed it (even with a bit of luck), breathing a sigh of relief at the narrow escape.
Here is the cover of the deadly book, English edition with vintage drawings. My edition uses my sister as a door stop.
Only years later, thanks to my experience as a coach for many students, did I realize that that day I escaped a potential danger far greater than I imagined.
In fact, if I hadn't put Gray's Anatomy aside, I would almost certainly have postponed the exam. And maybe I wasn't even going to show up at the next session. And not even the one after.
Maybe then I would have started to lag behind on other subjects as well. And to lose faith in myself, in my study skills, and in my ability to make correct choices.
And in the end, maybe, failure after failure, one day I would have dropped out of university.
Am I exaggerating? I think not.
Because I've seen this negative cycle of events happen to so many kids.
Do you study a lot and postpone the exams? It's time to go against nature
Postponing exams often depends on a true "attitude", on a way of being of some people who, at least in the context of the study:
- They set themselves on excessive standards
- They do not know or do not want to choose what is important and what is less important
Studying too much for perfectionism
Perfectionism is by no means negative.
In fact, if you are a perfectionist you are meticulous, accurate, organized and try to leave as little as possible to chance; all things that they help you plan and execute your study activities in a precise manner.
But perfectionism is also a strange stuff, which risks turning into fussiness, in such excessive attention to detail that inevitably leads you to put everything on the same level of importance, making you run aground and get left behind.
Studying too much out of insecurity
Again this is not an absolute negative. Ask yourself questions, have doubts, not only is it the basis of the scientific method, but often avoids making blunders.
However, when insecurity is excessive, we become unable to choose. We try to do everything for fear of leaving something important behind.
And we give up our critical spirit (as if we were unable to decide what is important and what is not!) For fear of making mistakes.
When we try to do everything out of insecurity, we give up our critical spirit
Whether you are a perfectionist, an insecure person or, as is often the case, has a little of both of these character traits, if you don't want to find yourself studying like crazy and then decide to postpone the exam because you are not prepared, you have to learn to go against yourself and your need not to leave out anything and know everything.
As I did when I went to buy the simplest and shortest Anatomy book there was (and which was a decent brick anyway).
That is, you must:
- Learn to accept too lower standards than what you are used to (especially if you are a perfectionist)
- Take the risk of choosing and making mistakes (especially if you are insecure)
Passing exams is a question of probability
If you are someone who, when preparing for an exam, constantly spends time wondering if he has really learned everything, I will tell you a secret: you don't need to learn everything.
Indeed, I would say that it is infeasible. And any attempt to do so can only lead to superhuman efforts that ultimately yield poor results, potentially able to slip you into a vicious circle like the one I risked falling into.
You see, study, like everything in life, is not an activity that must be lived with the mentality of "certainty". Instead, it should be lived in a "probabilistic" way.
The perfectionist and the insecure think in terms of total control over the study material.
That is, they pursue the illusion of being able to answer any question.
Those who study effectively instead it pursues the goal of being able to answer 80, maybe 90 percent of the possible questions.
But he knows he can't know everything.
And so, if in the exam he runs into that 20 or 10 percent of things he doesn't know, never mind! He gets right and tries again on the next round.
I know that maybe you're horrified at the thought of failing, and to prevent this from happening you are willing to postpone the exam again and again.
To show you it's absurd then I think I'll use a little geometry.
The impossible climb of those who have the "postponement"
Look at the curve below.
It is a logarithmic curve that represents the effort on the X axis and the result in terms of "known things" on the Y axis.
This curve is true for study but also for any other human activity that comes to mind.
And it tells us that, in the beginning, with every little extra effort you get an appreciable result. And indeed the curve rises rapidly.
At a certain point, however, the curve begins to flatten: that is, once a certain result has been achieved, a considerable effort must be made to obtain even a small improvement.
Here, the student who studies too much tends, in every chapter, page of the book, sheet of notes, to try to climb up to the last extreme of that curve, making a tremendous effort.
That is, perhaps, he could stay on a page for about ten minutes and then move on to the next having learned 80% of the concepts and notions it contains ...
And instead he stays there for 3 hours, for fear of leaving behind some details, "you never know that they ask me at the exam".
The result is that he makes a huge effort, and in the end:
- If he goes well, he passes the exam but it takes a lot of time, and falls behind with the others
- If he goes wrong, he doesn't finish studying, doesn't show up for the exam, and falls even further behind
Learn to look at the university as a whole, not just the single exam
The problem that leads many students to spend too much time on an exam is the fact that, instead of seeing it in the broader context of their university career, they tend to see it as a single event.
The risk of being rejected is such a drama for them that, to avoid it, they spend much more time in books than necessary.
Because in order to indulge their tendency towards perfectionism or overcome their insecurities, they try to climb the curve we have just seen to its last, farthest bit.
But this attitude, even when it works, that is, even when instead of postponing the exam you pass it, increase your chances of failing your entire university career.
Let's do a little math exercise together, just to see what I mean.
And let's do it using the Pareto principle.
I already told you about it in my article on how to study quickly, but it seems useful to go back to it for a moment.
It is an empirical law that explains the concept of efficiency, and argues that the 20% of the causes produce 80% of the effects.
This means that, for example, in a business activity 20% of customers usually bring 80% of the profits.
Or that when a task is carried out in a group, most of the work (about 80%, coincidentally) is developed by the minority (the famous 20%).
Or, that at the exam, 80% of the questions concern 20% of the program.
Or even that, in 20% of the preparation time, you learn 80% of the things to know.
Now, follow me: if the 20% of the causes produce 80% of the effects, then to produce the remaining 20% of the effects it takes 80% of the remaining causes.
That is, even if with slightly different numbers, we find ourselves in the same situation as the logarithmic curve as before:
- In the beginning with little effort (20% according to Pareto) you make a lot of progress (80%)
- While in the end to make little progress (20%) it takes a lot of effort (80%).
Now, imagine for example that, to graduate, you have to take 20 exams, and that to learn EVERYTHING in a single exam it takes 300 hours of work.
If you use the Pareto Principle, you study each exam in 60 hours (20% of the time it takes to know everything), with the result that 80% of the time you pass and 20% of the time you fail.
That is, you pass 16 exams on the first try while you fail 4 of them and you have to give them back.
At that point you give them back, applying Pareto again, and then you throw 3 and they fail you in one.
This last exam, for simplicity of calculation and because you are sure you want to graduate, you prepare it by studying it 100%, and therefore for 300 hours.
Result: you took your risks, sometimes you failed, but in the end you made it, and to take the 20 exams and graduate it took you 1440 hours.
Let's see what happens if you decide you want to know everything.
Well, obviously you will never fail, but to take the 20 exams it will take you the beauty of 20 × 300 = 6000 hours. About 4 times as long as it would have taken using the Pareto principle.
It means that a hypothetical partner of yours who has used it has already been working for a few years when you finally graduate.
Provided that, by now fed up and destroyed by too much study, you have not abandoned everything.
Here, even with all the precautions and distinctions of the case, because this is just a very simplified example, I think I have given you an idea of what can be the cost of wanting to know everything when you project it not on the single exam, but on your entire school career.
However, accepting not to study everything is only the first step.
The second is to understand what to study and what not to.
How to understand what is important to study
If you get stuck when it's time to identify key concepts to study, you're in good company. It happens to everyone, and not just for exams.
Understanding what is important and what is not is in fact part of the "zen" of life, and this is not the place to talk about it.
On the exams, however, I can give you some practical ideas that will be useful to you.
Take the lessons.
Taking the lessons is the simplest strategy to become a good student and to understand what is important and what is less.
If you can't for objective logistical reasons (for example because you work) that's one thing, but if you have the possibility, I highly recommend that you get out of bed in the morning and go to the faculty.
But be careful: being physically present is ok, but it's not enough: you have to be present "with your head".
Practice active listening.
During the lesson do not think about the afternoon soccer or spritz in the square with friends. I was saying a little while ago: be present with your head, pay attention to what the professor says.
It is very likely that his explanation will focus on the very core topics he will ask during the exam.
In addition, the opinion of your peers can also be useful:
- First, because they may have information that you don't have
- And then why, after all, decide if something is important or not to study it is in some way a "democratic" process. If so many think it is, it probably is.
You just have to be careful to understand who, among your companions, is reliable, and who is less so.
Take notes and rework.
The notes force you to pay attention, and are a fundamental tool for the subsequent study phases, because they convey on paper what the professor explains.
They allow you to fix concepts as they are expressed, to rework them later. You can then go and fish out those same topics in the textbook, for further study. There are several ways of taking notes: one that works very well - and I suggest you - is the Cornell method.
Skimming can be considered a reading technique, but in my opinion it is a real mental attitude of approach to study.
Basically, it consists of the search for text elements that help you get a precise idea of all its content without wasting too much time. In a few hours, thanks to this technique, you can identify the path to follow to get ready for the exam, immediately selecting the most important information. A little art, a little technical, skimming is not improvised but must be learned and practiced: go to this article to find out how.
Learn quick reading.
Another very useful trick, especially when the exam material is particularly abundant, is knowing how to read quickly.
When you are trained to read quickly, the main and most important arguments "emerge" from the text almost naturally. While when you drag yourself reading very slowly it is easier both to lose concentration and to lose the thread of the conversation.
Speed reading must also be trained, otherwise you risk just rolling your eyes over the words without understanding anything. Understanding is essential, if not how can you recognize the core elements of the speech?
Learn to emphasize only the essentials.
I am not a lover of underlining, I prefer other strategies.
However, if you are having a hard time selecting what is important to study, underlining can be very helpful. As long as you give yourself a fundamental rule: never underline more than 5% of the text on a page.
Because? Precisely because I have seen how, many times, those who want to know everything tend to underline everything.
If then you give yourself the rule of underlining only 5% at most of each page, here it is of course you have to make choices.
A strategy that I like much more than underlining, involves writing down some key words in the margin of the book.
They must concern the most important concepts and be as "evocative" as possible, that is, they must make you remember as exactly as possible the concept to which they refer.
In this case, the margin of the book acts as a "constraint": since it is not huge, you will have to choose some things and leave out others.
Ask yourself the purpose of what you are studying
Think about it: if you don't know the purpose of what you are studying, how can you choose what is important and what is less important?
If, for example, I think back to my Anatomy exam, I realize that memorizing all the tide of details that Gray tells about the musculoskeletal system of the hand it made no sense to a first-year medical student.
While he may have it for an orthopedics resident who is preparing to have his first carpal tunnel surgery.
But I was not at all clear about this.
Instead, I thought that EVERYTHING I was studying about Gray was really useful to me, that it was part of the "purpose" of that exam.
It would have been enough for me to pay more attention in class or to ask the professor or some student of the following years directly to realize that this was not the case (see points above). But in the end I would have been able to get there by myself if I had asked myself "but does it make sense that I now know all this stuff or maybe a lot less is enough?
Choose the right material
I told you about my Anatomy I exam: I had the most complete, famous and renowned anatomy book in the world, but actually for this very reason I risked never passing that exam.
So learn to choose your study material carefully, doing it on the basis of reasoning of effectiveness!
Go see other people's exams
This is a habit that, if you take it systematically from the beginning of university, really helps you to form an opinion of what is worth studying and what not.
Not only with respect to a specific exam, but to the whole university.
It also familiarizes you with the exam environment and situation, which can be good if you have a little bit of "performance anxiety".
Work on your self-esteem
I wrote a whole article on how to boost self-esteem.
Here I will limit myself only to saying this: if every time you fail an exam you feel diminished, it is clear that youyou will end up sitting down to give it only when you feel over-prepared.
But remember that exams judge, among other things in a very imprecise and subjective way, your preparation, not yourself. Your study method, not you as a person.
I say this in my class: the best students simply have a better study method.
Being rejected or not is not an ethical or substantive evaluation of yourself, but of how you studied. Is not the same thing!
Try to stop postponing exams
And after this long reading we come to the conclusions. If you often postpone exams because you don't feel ready enough, there is only one thing to do: try it at whatever cost.
You know Batman when he enters the cave full of bats because they are his biggest fear?
Here, you have to do the same thing.
Start preparing for an exam and, applying the strategies you have seen above, do not allow yourself to get lost in a thousand details but select only what is important.
Surely you will have a thousand doubts while doing it: ignore them!
As the exam approaches, you will inevitably feel not prepared enough: don't care!
The day before the exam will be the hardest time.
You will find a thousand very logical reasons to justify to yourself that "better go to the next roll call": resisted!
Hold on to your inner voice and still go sit for the exam.
And then, regardless of how things turn out, you will have taken a big step forward: because it doesn't matter if you don't pass the exam, however, you will have exceeded your limit, and sooner or later you will reap the rewards.