It’s that time of the year on college campuses when emotions are running high and stress is all-consuming: finals. I’ve been at this for over 27 years as a professor and for years before that as an undergraduate and then graduate student, so this month marks my 35th year of finals. Some professors have done away with final exams and choose instead to assign final papers, projects, and presentations but many others still rely on them. But whatever it is, there’s always the sense that students and faculty are frantically, maniacally trying to finish and anxiously awaiting the holiday break. I hear students complain so much at this time of the semester, it has prompted me to reflect on what I’ve come to think of as the benefits of finals. Here, I identify seven reasons they may not be so bad after all.
1) The experience of preparing for finals is a quintessential opportunity for mastering time management and project management. It becomes an awakening moment. You have to figure out how best to get it all done. This might also serve as a reminder to seek out resources and support upon entering the next semester so that crunch time at the end is less frenzied next time. Examples of such resources might include tutoring, counseling, time-management workshops, meditation classes, meeting your professors in office hours, etc.
2) Finals is an opportunity to get better at stress management. This is a lifelong project, and every step helps. Most industries have high-impact periods where the stakes are raised, and this is preparation for that. The finals period is an opportunity to learn how to gear up for that, sustain the momentum of that, and find ways to stay relatively calm in the midst of it all and after.
3) Finals can help students make choices and become more discerning. As more and more information comes at us all the time, and as we are faced with increasing responsibilities as we get older, we have to learn to know how and where we can best cut corners and skim material in a way in which very little is compromised.
4) Finals don't go on forever. My stepfather always said, "This, too, shall pass," as a sort of mantra whenever I shared with him that I was stressed about something. At the time, I dismissed it as cliché but now I see how it's actually quite helpful and comforting and makes a lot of sense. It really is a reminder of how everything is impermanent and how preparation for finals, however arduous and tiring, is also something that does not last forever.
5) Sometimes in life, we just have to get through it, whatever it is. And, finals, both the act of preparing for them, and the act of taking and doing them, is good practice for that. It’s a reminder of how something not very fun can still usually be tolerated for a limited time. That way of thinking still serves me now when I have to push through a final professional hurdle in writing or editing, or even something in my personal life I prefer to avoid, like a medical procedure I don’t want to endure.
6) Perhaps the best part of finals is the sweet reward and pleasure afterwards. This can take many forms, like getting to sleep late, indulging in hedonistic activities, looking forward to play, having more time with friends, catching up on movies and shows, etc. When I was in college, I remember how we'd all ask each other when we'd be done to find out who we could get to hang out with or party with as soon as we finished our very last exam and before heading back home. I remember not wanting to immediately jump on a plane to fly home because the downtime with college friends with whom we had just weathered so much seemed worth savoring.
7) The ritual of finals reminds us we're not alone. There’s something about the communal experience of gearing up for finals, procrastinating and anguishing and somehow pushing through, coupled with the communal experience of the anticipation of pleasure-seeking, that is a really beautiful thing. It’s not that the stress itself is so fun, but there are aspects of those stressful days that can bring fun and funny moments built into them.
In my case, it was wandering from the Helen C. White Library to the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to get coffee and popcorn at 11 p.m. to keep me going and then talking with friends in the library lounge before getting back to work. We'd study there until the place closed at 2:45 a.m. and stumble home together, knowing that we'd be right back at it together the very next evening. Right below the surface of that hard work and exhaustion existed a durability of relationships undergirding it all. I don’t see that happening so much anymore, as there’s more holing up in rooms these days, or what the late sociologist Philip Slater would have referred to as the "pursuit of loneliness." Yet when the ritual of finals is a shared, collective, communal experience, and the relief and pleasure-seeking are as well, this really does mitigate the stress of it all.