More than five years removed from my last final exam, I write another one tomorrow. Am I nervous? I sure am, but not the most nervous I’ve been before.

During my undergrad years, I wrote approximately 56 final exams (the minimum required by mechanical engineering), and I think anyone would have learned a thing or two about finals after that.

One thing to realize is that a final exam situation can be different depending on the circumstances. Two common siutations are: “the A is for you to lose” and “the A is for you to get”.

The former situation is more rare, though admittedly more desirable. Here, two things are true when entering the final exam: you have 80% or more in the class and the final exam is worth less than 50%. In this case, it is not necessary to even get an A on the final to maintain an A on the final grade. For example, say you have 87% in the class when the term ends and the final exam is only worth 40%. When you write the final, you only need to get 69.5% to maintain the A. If you were able to get 87% during the term and you can’t even get 70% on the final, then you deserve to lose your A. On the flip side, it can be a nice feeling knowing that three-quarters through an exam, you’ve written enough to get an A.

The latter situation is the one that’s more common. Here, you’re hovering around 80%, perhaps one or two points below an A. The final exam is worth more than 50%. In this situation, you have to get at least an A on the exam, but not much more than that. An overall A is just within your grasp, it’d be crazy to let up now. It’s a far cry from those mathematically impossible situations where you need like 150% on the exam to get an overall A. The problem is you’re so tantalizingly close to your goal, it can be maddening if something goes wrong and you wind up losing the A.

I’ve been in both situations. For ELEC 263, everything was going right for me in that class. In the final, I had an hour to go and I knew I had done enough to get at least 80%. I was tempted to leave just to get something to eat or to study for another final, but I stayed and wrote the whole thing. For MATH 254, some very bad things happened on the day of the final. I had like 77% or something going into the final, and I was pretty confident I could pull out an A. I had plenty of time to study, I understood the material, and I got lots of sleep. During the exam though, it just went poorly. I didn’t freeze up which I know people do, I was able to remember all the material and steps to solving the problems. Things just didn’t calculate properly. I was like, “that answer can’t be right”, and “I know my steps are correct, but this number isn’t round like it should be”. The whole thing wound up being a mess and I think I got 70% on the exam. Needless to say, I did not get an A for multi-variable integral calculus. Those damn Navier-Stokes equations!

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