The hours remaining before the exam dwindle as you drown in a choppy sea of anxiety and stress -- with no lifeline in sight.
Chances are, you aren't alone in this predicament.
William Knaus, a psychologist, estimates that 90 percent of college students procrastinate. Of that number, 25 percent are considered chronic procrastinators and might eventually drop out.
And with finals approaching, more and more students are looking for a life preserver in effective, last-minute study methods to keep their heads above water.
UNC professors discourage cram tactics but say they realize there will always be students who put off studying. So, they have their own ideas on which study tactics do and don't work in those final, crucial hours.
"I remember cramming when I was in college," said biology Professor Kerry Bloom. "It is not the best way, but if they can pull it off, more power to them. It is just one of those things that is always going to happen."
Bloom posts old exams on the Internet for his students. He said practicing previous tests reduces anxiety by presenting a picture of what can be expected on the real final.
Bloom also said his old exams highlight major points covered in each chapter and could be especially helpful to those who might not have the time to study details.
Students in a time crunch also are likely to skim their class notes. But economics Professor Boone Turchi said a little extra effort with notes can help in the long run.
"The best thing you can do is religiously recopy your lecture notes," he said, noting that this process allows students to identify gaps they might have in understanding concepts and discover where they need help most.
Relying on their own notes might not be an option for students who have been absent from class or inattentive during lectures. But there is still hope.
Ram Book & Supply sells class notes for almost 50 large lecture courses. The notes cost about $35 for an entire semester.
Store manager Steve Thurston said he has received positive feedback on the notes, though professors stress this should not be considered a substitute for going to class.
"For the most part, virtue is rewarded," Turchi said. "Virtue is not using someone else's notes."
Other professors believe the trick is not in the notes or practice exams but in the methods used to study.
"Memorizing isolated dates and facts doesn't work well," said history Professor Jay Smith. "It is always better to synthesize. The more connecting you do, the better shape you will be in."
Smith said to synthesize, a student must connect general themes and think about "the big picture" -- a method especially helpful on essay exams, he said.
Memory experts call the practice deep processing or elaborate rehearsal. Psychology Professor Ute Bayen said this method is more effective than repeating material without thinking about it. "The more you think about information, the deeper you process it," she said. "The deeper it is processed, the longer it is retained."
Even if a student thinks he has a concept down, Bayen said it is helpful to continue studying it.
"There is some value to overlearning," she said. "If you study something for a half hour and know it all, rehearse it again. It helps consolidate it in your memory."
Bayen also said that encoding information is an important part of memory processing.
She said the more encoding conditions overlap with retrieval conditions, the better a student does.
For example, Bayen said if a student studies in the same room the exam will be given in, he or she will do better. Though this is not always possible, mental reinstatement -- or imagining the test-taking environment while studying -- also can be successful, she said.
"It is not the amount of information in the memory," she said. "The trick is in how to retrieve it once it is there."
Practice exams and mental reinstatement might allow procrastinators to make the best use of a small amount of time, but some could still face other obstacles such as stress and anxiety.
"If a student has waited this long, they are going to have a hard time no matter what, especially if they are already prone to anxiety," said John Edgerly, a psychologist and director of the UNC Counseling and Psychological Service.
Mental strains might be a procrastinator's worst nightmare, but Edgerly said there are ways to keep such feelings in check.
"The more structured students can make their study efforts, the better off they are going to be," he said. "This gives them a sense of control, and anxiety comes from losing this sense of control."
Edgerly also said it is important to stay healthy while trying to catch up.
This includes maintaining a good diet and staying away from caffeine when studying in wee hours but also means keeping up physical activity.
"You should establish a routine with exercise and time out proportionate to what the task is," he said. "Take charge of as much life space as you can."
For students who still feel they can not get a handle on things, CAPS offers an online stress management module and takes walk-ins for "urgent consultation."
As finals lurk in the future, some students forget the methods and guidelines while cramming and just look for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Senior Jennifer Cox said, "You just have to think about what you can do after the exam when everything is over and you get to take a break."
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