By Alexander W. Merrill

With exams around the bend, I thought I would share some areas that parents should be considering as they thinking about how to support their teenager or young adult in preparing for finals in high school or college. The most important areas of concern fall into three categories:

  1. Planning: By far the most important thing in the world to plan your time as a student. Any issues that plague you as a student are infinitely easier to solve a week before the exam or due date. “The night before” syndrome is common, but destructive in uncountable ways. While frustrating, it’s important to note that the teenage brain is not designed to think ahead. Their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking in this way is incomplete until the mid-20s.  Staying patient with slip-ups and being understanding of this reality is key for parents. However, by helping them to develop a system for breaking larger tasks into smaller ones, and planning them out in advance, and then further, demonstrating how that approach actually works and makes their lives easier in a dozen ways, can be powerful. Generally, they will be resistant to parents attempting to provide this wisdom to them, given that has been preached to them for years or even decades. Finding a subtle way to communicate the importance of planning can make a big difference.
  2. Healthy Life Habits: Once upon a time I thought drinking three red bulls was a great way to approach standardized testing (true story).  Works great for the first half hour, not so much for the other 2 and half…. A teenage (and young 20s) brain sees the first half of the equation but rarely sees the other half.  “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” is the mantra.  This typically applies to almost every facet of life, but its specific application for exams is eating, sleeping, and mindfulness.  They tend to see the tree in front of them (the exam) and lose sight of the forest (taking the exam).  If you mention these elements to good test preparation they tend to look at you with a glazed over look, as if you’re speaking Swahili, waiting for the sentence to be over.  But given how critical it is to eat healthy foods (or eat at all!), to sleep a reasonable amount (or sleep at all!), and to conduct mind-focusing practices, we must try to gently remind them of the importance of these practices. Not to be too repetitive, but as a parent, you’re generally not going to get this message through, given that it has also typically been a focus of your parenting for their entire lives. But finding ways to provide this message from outside sources, such as mentors, teachers, and counselors is key.  However, it must be done subtly; generally, if they get the sense that their parent is pulling the strings, they will resist it at all costs. 
  3. Study Habits: Probably the area that is most malleable in supporting a student in taking their finals is the approach that they’re taking to the academics themselves. For an exam, many students have no idea how to deal with a semester’s worth of material.  In their overwhelmed state, they typically will us very inefficient practices.  One example is to “re-read the text-book,” a usual practice of the ambitious, but such cramming frequently fails for obvious reasons.  These overly-ambitious students are the ones that tend to stay up late, or all night, which then results in much poorer test results than with more measured practices. Another technique is to procrastinate in the face of a mound of material until it’s too late to do anything about it.  While partially psychological in nature, some adjustments to approach can spark these students quickly. Another is to simply re-read the notes that they took in class and simply live with any of the confusion that they had in re-reading them.  This is an unfortunate way, as even the best notes, written with careful handwriting, take some interpretation.  Something written in September is likely to have some questions attached to it in December.  It’s important to cross-check notes with textbooks, consider review materials provided in those books or by the teachers, and above all, ask questions when they are confused.

The differences between the students that accept these lessons and adjust and those that continue to make these mistakes over and over is, quite frankly, the obvious difference between good students and mediocre ones.  With support, these lessons are teachable, but only with careful attention to the psychological underpinnings of the teenage brain. Ignoring these realities of teenage psychology will cause failure, relapse, and repeat.  But with the benefit of support, results can be stunningly quick and life altering for many students who would otherwise remain lost.