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Harvard Finals Week: Like Running Through Fire

Kenny Tao, Harvard

Having just finished the last test of my first college finals week, I have some breathing room for the first time in three weeks. When finals inevitably roll around, most colleges have a “dead week”, or in Harvard’s case, a “reading period”. The reading period begins after classes finish, approximately two weeks before finals, which gives students time to review old material or haphazardly learn new material. Most of my friends had an essay, one or two tests and then were on the way home. Somehow, I had the misfortune of having a test in every single one of my classes (four in total!), two term papers, and to top it all off a math project. It was a schedule that even my upperclassmen friends grudgingly admitted was hard, especially for a freshman.

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The legendary Harvard University Library, the largest academic library on Earth, with almost 17 million volumes

Just to give you a better idea, here is a basic timeline of my finals week:

  1. Ten-page research paper due December 7th
  2. Math project due December 10th
  3. Chinese Revolution final on the 11th
  4. Math final on the 12th
  5. English paper due the 13th (extended, by the way)
  6. Economics final on the 17th
  7. English final on the 20th

Now, I’d like to say that I’m that student who does every single assignment and goes to every single class, but I can’t. Harvard purposely gives you more work than is possible, forcing you to prioritize. Therefore, when it came to reading period, I was rather nervous about figuring out how to schedule this mountain of a workload. I was stressed about the impending stress, if that makes sense. I therefore resolved to give up tennis for a week or so (prioritizing!) as well as human interaction (prioritizing!) in order to dig myself out of this horrendous schedule.

I knew that I had to be disciplined, and I knew being stressed wouldn’t help my test scores. So I set a strict schedule for myself every day in order to kick my mind into a disciplined state. Every athlete is trained to think in the moment, and not let past experiences or future possibilities affect his performance in the present.

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All in a day’s work…

Over the next couple of weeks, I barricaded myself in the library to effectively and efficiently produce work. I measured my performance through results, not just through effort. Therefore, I set strict, tangible goals while writing my paper, attempting to write at least two solid pages each day. When I couldn’t write anymore, I’d look at some poetry for my English class or read some assignments for my history class. And when I got sick of studying completely, I’d hit the gym in order to stay in shape for tennis, or call up a teammate to go to the track for some conditioning. I’ve always found that I work far better when I’m physically tired: it gives me the mental stamina to stay in one place as well as a chance to look at work with fresh eyes. My papers always looked slightly different when I edited them a few days later, and I was able to make some really useful changes.

In order to make it seem that it wouldn’t be a never-ending period, I divided up my finals into two sections. During the first week, I finished my papers and two tests, and then had a weekend to “waste” before getting back into study mode on Monday for a test on Wednesday. Many achieving students, especially at competitive institutions like Harvard, have a tendency to overwork themselves, reducing the efficiency of their work and making their studying just that much more miserable. And so another piece of advice: reward yourself after periods of efficiency so that you don’t burn out and lose the mental stamina that studying requires.

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Life is in the pauses. Take the time to rejuvenate, so you are prepared for the next battle.

Of course, there was no better feeling than turning in my last paper, and finishing the last sentence of my final in English. During the holiday season, I rewarded myself with the warm California weather, playing tennis and seeing my old high-school friends. It’s going to be another long semester, and I know I’ll need all the rest I can get, so I’m gearing up to push my boundaries.

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