America loves having options. Chocolate or rainbow sprinkles? Guac or salsa? There’s great safety in seeing the answer choices lie right in front of you, especially during college exams. However, at some point in your academic career, you’ll have to ditch the multiple choice answers on a Scantron and craft your own Frankenstein of an essay for subjective grading in the form of the blue book exam. Whether you’re a freshman, a STEM major or a just a lover of the known right and wrong answers, the blue book exam can be a formidable beast. But luckily, with these helpful hints, blue book exams can become less of a beast and turn into a beautiful academic burrito.
Step 1: Throw your High School Study Habits out the Window
Back in the day, when you could still count your academic standing with numbers, tests weren’t that hard. You could go to cross country practice, eat dinner, watch the latest episode of American Idol and then crack open your textbook for an hour or two of studying. You could walk into the test the next day and just recite some facts and dates you memorized. Juliet was a Capulet, the Civil War ended in 1865, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. In college, exams are much different.
Denise Kozikowski, an academic advisor at the University of Michigan, describes how students tend to try “testing” their study habits from high school with trial and error methods in college to see how they stand. “Ideally, you’ve been implementing strong study habits the entire semester, but you may not know until you see your final grades. That is a very important time to reflect on the reality of your situation. Did you go to class? Do you understand your learning style? Did you study consistently and effectively? Do you need accommodations? Are there personal issues that you need to attend to? These are complicated questions and it may take time to find the answers,” Kozikowski said. Looks like you’ve outgrown those high school study habits more than your 10th grade gym uniform.
Step 2: Shift Your Brain
Instead of viewing your blue book exam as a trivia contest, imagine it as more of a puzzle from your younger years. Dump out all of the pieces, assemble what you know and try to make the gaps connect. Train your brain think beyond the “what” and along the lines of “how” and “why.” “It’s about trying to grasp a larger understanding. It’s more analysis based versus fact recollection. Multiple choice exams are more of an overview, and it’s picking answers in front of you instead of having the answers in your head and trying to piece together something else,” University of Michigan senior English major Lauren Stachew said. While you might find blue book exams challenging, look at them as a creative endeavor. You get to show how much you know about a topic while crafting your own argument in the process. Remember, the answer lies with you and not the scantron machine.
Step 3: Manage Your Stress, but Don’t Throw it Out Completely
For an exam that requires your brain to do more than just recall information, you need to make to sure to take care of yourself and the ol’noggin before the big test. Get enough sleep, eat healthy carbs and for god’s sakes, put down that fourth cup of coffee. As important as it is to relax, don’t feel bad if you feel stressed. Stress is healthy. “We often hear about the negative effects of stress, but stress isn’t always bad. You actually need a certain amount of stress to be at your most productive and optimum performance level,” Kozikowski said. “Think of a time when you were really engaged and excited about an assignment. It may have been challenging, but you were focused, eager to solve the problem and you likely felt that you had the ability to complete the task. This feeling is called self-efficacy. This type of stress is called Eustress, and it’s the good kind of stress.” So before you start panicking about your panic, find the beauty in your concern–like broccoli, the distaste you initially experience can actually help you out in the end.
Step 4: It Takes Time – and that’s ok!
To ace a blue book exam, you have to channel that inner Maria von Trapp–you have to have confidence. Get rid of all of those nagging thoughts: “I’m an engineer” or “I’m a bad writer” or “I’m just a freshman.” Recognize that perfecting your blue book exam takes time. “The good news is that writing is truly a skill, and the more that you practice, the easier and more satisfying it becomes. Think about what it would mean to be able to express your ideas powerfully, without barriers or misinterpretations,” University of Michigan International Studies Professor Greta Uehling said. Yes, during a blue book exam, you’re going to feel David Bowie amounts of pressure, and you most likely won’t have the time to carefully revise your work. The good news is that professors take that into consideration when grading. “Remember that even the most experienced writers make multiple revisions and have numerous drafts before they are happy with their words. Few get it right on the first try,” Uehling said. It might take a few blue book exams before you get that first A, but that’s ok!
So how can you do well on that first blue book? Prepare to think critically. Brace yourself for a challenge. Plan ahead. Believe in yourself. And most importantly, forgive yourself. After all, Chipotle doesn’t pull their burritos prepackaged out of the freezer. Each one is a little different. Take advantage of the creative opportunity and attack the blue beast like you would that burrito bowl.