I Never Took a Final in High School: Here's How I'm Managing in College

When I was handed my first college syllabus, my eyes widened as I scanned the list of assignments. Included in the chronologically organized text was the schedule of readings, a dash of homework, and the two words that filled me with dread: “midterm” and “final.” 

Of course, my initial concern was followed by a sense of relief. All of my assignments were given out in advance, so I knew when everything was be due. There would be no surprise essays (my teachers in high school adored those), no unscheduled quizzes, no unexpected homework assignment. But I was still perturbed by the midterm and final— a.k.a. two dates that could send any college student into a panic-caffeine-fueled haze, but were particularly stressful for my because my high school was not a strong believer in the “college method.” Our school championed “project-based learning,” which meant the bulk of our grades came from large scale assignments that were given in lieu of midterms or finals. We still had plenty of exams in all of our classes, but as much as we focused on testing we also focused on collaborative and creative learning. 

I have my personal bias to this approach, but overall the official jury is still out on whether or not my high school’s method is “better” than others. However, studies show this pedagogical approach as promising, and from personal experience I found myself very engaged with the work I was doing. Writing a paper on the Odyssey is one thing, but having to create an entire TMZ-like news report judging Odysseus's character as though he was a celebrity was not only fun but also an exciting and fresh way to learn about a classic piece of literature. It’s not like our teachers completely abandoned traditional forms of teaching — we still had to turn in a research-style paper that analyzed the hero’s journey— and while doing both was certainly time-consuming, I gained a lot from the more elaborate assignments. Although each class was required to have at least one cumulative test per year, most of my teachers made their midterms and finals worth negligible amounts (I took finals that were worth 5% of my grade— not joking). For seniors, anyone with above a 90 average was exempt, so I literally had not taken a final in over a year when I entered college. 

Looking back, I am somewhat glad that my high school had some semblance of a finals policy, albeit with a softer approach. My grades were not contingent on large tests, but I could at least start developing the study skills needed to parse through an entire semester or year’s worth of work for a single test in college. While I completely understand (and in all honesty advocate) for project-based learning, it places an extra burden on students who enter higher learning and will need to learn how to study and prepare for exams that are worth an upwards of 30% of their grade. While I was skeptical in the past of midterms and finals, and afraid that I would wait until the last minute only to learn what I needed for the test, this approach actually made me super involved in my studies, but in a different way than collaborative projects. 

From my own experience, upon entering college I basically had to “re-learn” how to study, which meant reviewing material days in advance rather than the night before. It meant lots of hours of reading and studying alone, or working with classmates or TAs (sometimes at the eleventh hour). The procrastination bug still gets to me, but the gravity of each exam has motivated me to be more proactive in general. My past experience with project-based learning also allows me to approach my studies in creative ways and to come up with out-of-the box ways to understand concepts. So, to those students who had similar experiences in high school, do not panic! There will be a bit of a learning curve, but the best thing you can do is to start preparing early, address any questions, and speak to your professors and TAs when they are available. Studying in groups or attending study workshops are also a huge help. Whether you are about to take your first or eighth college final, start early, finish strong, and may the odds be every in your favor.