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Expert tips for handling stress during finals
stress info graphic

For university students, the holiday season often kicks off with a lot of stress, thanks to final exams and papers. Some stress can stem from concerns about time management or course materials, but students may also worry about what a “bad” result could mean for future goals, such as a desired career path or major. 

Finals are stressful, but they don’t have to cause distress. To help students build year-round resilience, Emory provides support in a variety of ways. 

Finding the right resources

One of the first steps can often be the hardest: finding the resources that are best suited to your needs. James Raper, associate vice president of health, well-being, access and prevention, suggests utilizing the Be Well, Your Way website which takes a holistic approach to health and serves as a hub for resources. 

“With stress and/or anxiety, some of us might automatically think about utilizing campus mental health offices (Atlanta campus: Counseling and Psychological Services; Oxford campus: Counseling and Career Services) or TimelyCare — and those are absolutely resources to consider. But stress and anxiety can also be indicators of other kinds of unmet needs for each of us,” Raper says. “The more we can identify our needs, and all of the resources available, the better we can match those two things up effectively.”  

This holistic approach is also what Gary Glass, director of counseling and career services at Oxford College, recommends. 

“I really want students to think about their well-being in the context of campus culture,” Glass says. “In our therapy sessions, we ask, ‘Who else are you talking to about this? Who else can you trust?’ We think about having a therapeutic campus, not just referring students to the counseling center.” 

That focus includes building community, developing student leaders, identifying organizations that give students a sense of community and belonging, and encouraging you to nourish your non-academic side through activities like going to the gym, hitting a nature trail or using a piano room. 

Putting it into perspective

Final exams and papers are the culmination of course materials — but they aren’t the end-all-be-all that they might feel like. Glass explains something all Emory students have in common: they were among the best and brightest in their high school. Then, many of these students are academically challenged for the first time ever. 

“The way I narrate that distress is that they’ve confused their performance with their identity. They don’t know how to make sense of what they used to refer to as an A student who isn’t getting an A,” Glass says. “But all along, they should have been referring to themselves as a student who has gotten A’s. When this distress happens, they become scared about not knowing who they are and not knowing whether who they thought they were going to be is even possible. They confused being a failure with experiencing a failure.” 

Instead of viewing grades as a currency or identity, Glass recommends seeing your grades as feedback.  

“Viewing grades as feedback reminds students that this is a learning process, one that takes place over the course of four years. Using that lens, grades have less impact.” As an added bonus, it emphasizes learning rather than a dichotomy of success and failure.  

“Know that you will work hard to do the best you can at this moment,” echoes Merideth Ray, director of Academic Success Programs for Emory College of Arts and Sciences. “If your semester ends well, celebrate and remember what helped you succeed for next semester. If it doesn’t turn out as well as you had hoped, know it is only one of many. Connect with resources and look for ways to make changes for the future.” 

Focusing on well-being throughout the year

Mental health and overall wellness may come into sharp relief during this season, but it’s something that Emory works toward every day.  

The Office of Health Promotion (OHP) offers year-round programming to build the capacity for stress management. The “Take a Break” event series, for example, emphasizes the importance of taking breaks from studying and taking time to connect with peers and fuel creativity and community.  

OHP director Brandi Benton says, “Our goal with these events is to encourage students to understand that breaks, connection and rest are an essential part of their overall well-being — which in turn supports their academic success.” 

If you find yourself struggling academically during the semester, reach out to your TA (teaching assistant) or professor or seek tutoring. Emory’s Academic Success Programs offer free services, including 1-on-1 peer tutoring, group-based learning assistance sessions, peer-led academic coaching, staff academic coaching, workshops and study halls. Most peer tutoring and learning assistance is course-specific, while academic coaches focus on skills like goal setting, time management, study tactics and more.  

Expert advice for finals preparation

It sounds obvious, but finals are easier if you stay on track throughout the semester. 

“During the semester, we strongly recommend attending class, staying on top of notes and homework and reviewing materials before and after class. It’s important to use resources like office hours, tutoring and study groups,” Ray says.

If the semester got away from you, there are still ways to strategize when preparing for finals.  

“We recommend spacing out your study and review so that your brain has time to process the materials,” Ray suggests. Test or quiz yourself in a format that matches the exam, reach out to faculty or TAs for clarification on class materials and organize your study schedule into manageable chunks with breaks. 

Keilan Rickard, executive director of CAPS, suggests a proactive approach to high-pressure situations. “Prioritize self-care, including getting sufficient sleep, proactively managing stress and taking breaks. Sleep has been shown to improve academic performance and increase retention of information,” he says. 

Expert advice for handling stress in the moment 

In addition to preparing for the actual academic tests, students can work to shift mindsets, which will help reduce distress and boost confidence levels going into exams. 

“When you’re afraid, you’ll try to overcontrol everything and you’ll worry about everything,” Glass says. “When you find yourself overcontrolling, consider trusting yourself as an option. Trust yourself to problem solve. Trust yourself to stay committed to your goals — even goals that might evolve. And when you’re in the exam room, be in the exam room. Don’t get into the time machine and start predicting what will happen in the future.” 

If you struggle to stay in the present, Glass recommends picking one of your senses and taking 10­–15 seconds to focus just on that sense. For example, what sounds can you hear? Are they loud or soft? This focus on your senses can only happen in the present. After a few seconds have passed and you’re back in the moment, go back to working on your exam. 

Raper offers students the advice he gives himself when going into a performance situation: “Whatever I have (or haven’t) done to prepare is in the past, so I need to focus on what I have control over. Get sleep the night before, eat and drink enough, and do my best when I show up. It’s simple and hard all at the same time.”

Events during finals

The end of the semester is tough — but there are some fun events happening to offset stress.

Friday, Dec. 2, 6 p.m.

AMUC 237

Register online

For more information on recovery services, email Willie Bannister at

Saturday, Dec. 3, 10-11 a.m.

Oxford Student Center, Green Forum 

Hosted by Dooley After Dark

Monday, Dec. 5, 6 p.m.

McDonough Field

RSVP online

Monday, Dec. 5, 6-8 p.m.

Oxford Student Center, Mural Room

Hosted by CAPS and the Office of Sorority & Fraternity Life

Tuesday, Dec. 6, 6 p.m.

Emory Black Student Union

Catering provided, RSVP online

Hosted by the Oxford Dining team, SGA, and Oxford faculty and staff

Tuesday, Dec. 6, 9-11:30 p.m.

Dining Hall, Oxford

From Dec. 7-14, Room E301 in the Math and Science Center will open from 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily

Academic Success Programs will be working to replenish study snacks

Hosted by Academic Success Programs

Wednesday, Dec. 7, and Friday, Dec. 9, 2 p.m.

White Hall, Suite 300

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2-6 p.m.

Oxford Quadrangle and Murdy Hall Kitchen

Hosted by BreadOx and BSA

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 9:30-11:30 p.m.

Oxford Student Center, Mural Room 

From Dec. 8-14, students can grab a snack in the break room (AMUC 237) from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. while supplies last

Friday, Dec. 9, 4-8 p.m.

Oxford Student Center, Mural Room and Taylor Plaza

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