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Surviving the frenzy; Students share personalized strategies for making the grade; Students take on finals week

May 3, 2004, Monday

Byline: Mike Cronin , The Salt Lake Tribune

Jayson Estrada says his roommates rub the belly of a Buddha statue for luck before every exam.

Anita Lui has an Asiago cheese bagel and some orange juice before each final.

Chris Wharton, however, does something that probably no one else at Westminster College -- or, perhaps, anywhere -- does. He brings a plastic GI Joe action figure to particularly difficult tests.

"I don't put him on the table every time," said Wharton, a sophomore at the Salt Lake City college. "Sometimes I keep him in my pocket.

"I usually only bring him when I'm really nervous," he said. "I didn't need him as much this year."

While Westminster and Utah State University undergrads have finished their final exams, University of Utah students will be in the thick of it this week.

Beyond the requisite advice -- get enough sleep, eat well, exercise -- there is no catch-all strategy to study effectively for finals. Students must mold their own approaches.

Or not.

"I consider myself a gross underachiever," said Barry Roberts, a 26-year-old senior at the U., while sitting on the grass last week at Olpin Union Plaza. Students staged a "One More Day" party to celebrate the commencement of exam week. Activities included juggling, eating free food and listening to live music.

"I shoot to do the bare minimum," said the interpersonal-communication major with a 3.2 grade-point average. "It's when I aim high that I usually screw myself."

What Roberts means is that if he organizes himself and begins studying early, he gets "too wrapped up and it doesn't come together."

That method is impossible for someone like 19-year-old Megan Tolman, a Type A, first-year student at the U., planning to go to veterinary school. So much of her nonclass time is spent studying, Tolman complains that she does little else. With six finals this semester, Tolman feels like she leaves her house only when she's on her way to and from a test.

Yet it's not the workload that creates Tolman's stress. It's the fretting after the exam that eats away her insides.

"I go over the questions I was iffy on and if I got any wrong, I convince myself I got them all wrong," said the Salem native with a 3.94 GPA. "I feel like a failure, buy a big tub of ice cream and cuddle with a dog named Sofia."

Despite a self-described sputtering performance on her "Attitude and Persuasion" test last week, U. senior Megan Smith's response was more cavalier: The 23-year-old senior went outside to play.

"I did pretty bad," said a barefoot Smith after a ride down an inflatable slide at the U. party. "I didn't feel like studying."

Smith, who has about a 3.6 GPA, said she used to cram all night in the library and show up sleepless to take her tests. "Now, I know it's just as important to get some sleep," she said.

Estrada, the Westminster student, learned long ago how to operate without sufficient slumber. Five years serving on submarines in the U.S. Navy disabused the 27-year-old junior of attempting to get the doctor-recommended eight hours a night.

In addition to his nursing course work and clinical assignments with geriatric patients, Estrada is Westminster's student body president, in a ROTC program and maintains a 3.0 GPA.

"You have to deal with it slowly," Estrada said of getting ready for finals. "If you do that, then you'll be fine. You can't be stuck in a room all day studying or you'll burn yourself out."

Few know that more than Andy Dilley, a senior history major at USU in Logan. When the academic intensity gets too high, he watches some baseball. Then, while Dilley's watching America's pastime, he breaks out the toothpaste.

"Because when you brush your teeth -- you don't think about anything when you brush your teeth," he said. "What do you think about? How old you were when you first learned to tie your shoes. It totally refreshes your brain."

Unlike most of those enduring the pressures of finals, U. junior Betsy Beltz, 21, doesn't allow circumstances to dictate her behavior.

"I don't like thinking of having to do something," said Beltz, a 3.8 GPA student double-majoring in philosophy and history with a minor in Asian studies. "I can't write a paper unless I'm in the mood. I have to do it when I'm feeling it. Otherwise I won't do well."

Her 24-year-old sister, Suzy -- who calls Betsy "a genius" -- preferred a different tactic to survive finals frenzy before graduating in 2002: self-deception.

"I'd tell myself that the exams were just practice and didn't count," she said.

Tribune correspondent Tyler Riggs contributed to this story.