Zen and the Art of Cramming

by Glenn McDonald

18 May 2008

You will highlight and underline, memorize and prioritize. And you will not blink.
"Cramming for Finals" by
©CF Benson found on Flickr 

For much of the planet, at least for those of us plugged into the academic calendar, the flowering of spring heralds another grim reality—final exam time. This harsh and brutal season of accountability stands in stark contrast to the returning sunshine and blooming flora. Such is academia’s extremely annual, extremely cruel joke. When it’s finally nice enough to go outside, you’re obliged to stay in—buried in books, syllabi and despair.

I’ve been out of the student loop for a while, very deliberately, but am sensitive to final exam time by virtue of living in a college town. Speaking with the undergrads, I note their sunken eyes, their defeated postures, and the telltale signs of espresso and amphetamine abuse. It’s tragic, really—but a rite of spring like any other, I suppose.

A lot of people don’t know this, but cramming is a time-honored and revered academic tradition, tracing all the way back to ancient Greece. Aristotle is said to have stayed up for three straight years while preparing his thesis on Poetics, and students at the Lyceum are generally credited with inventing the first form of Adderall.

While not generally the most effective way of assimilating information, cramming is a good short-term solution for an upcoming test. The idea is to jam your frontal lobes with as much relevant information as humanly possible, then vomit it back up within a day or so. Those of you who have been down this road know what I’m talking about. The amount of raw data you can functionally retain for 24 hours is amazing.

There are a number of ways to optimize your cramming performance, chemical and otherwise. As a rule, you should begin the process by defining your parameters. Is it healthy, or even possible, to attempt four months of cumulative reading in an evening? Am I willing to sacrifice pride for time by studying until five minutes before class and showing up in my robe with a cup of coffee? Am I prepared to risk permanent cognitive damage by revving my brain up to fifth gear for 14 hours straight? The answer to all these questions is yes.

Next you’ll need your supplies. Find out exactly which books you need to read, sequence them properly, and go straight to Wikipedia to read the respective amateur summaries. Purchase a set of multicolor highlighters, and set them aside for use throughout the night. Remember—the more acrid the ink fumes, the better they will keep you awake when you snort them.

Perhaps the most important element of a good cramming session is maintaining proper chemical parity. Caffeine will be your best friend for the next several hours, but you must respect her power. Don’t peak too early—a good rule of thumb is to consume one cup of coffee every time you turn a page.

All right, then. Time to settle in. Remove from your room all possible distractions—records, books, plants, roommates, furniture, home-brewing equipment and carpeting. By painting warrior-like patterns on your face with the highlighters and chanting everything you read out loud, you will achieve a Zen-like state of consciousness.

For the next several hours you will descend into a world of near omniscience, absorbing all information you come across. You will be able to photographically recall pie charts pixel by pixel. You will memorize entire chapters verbatim and calculate pi to 100 digits. You will highlight and underline, memorize and prioritize. And you will not blink.

Like an Apache from a sweat lodge, you will emerge hours later into the bright sun for your 9AM class. Then, in a mighty display of intellectual prowess, you will fill in little circles with a No. 2 pencil.

The down side, of course, is that within about an hour and a half you will have forgotten everything you learned. Oh, sure, bits and pieces will remain. Things like the atomic weight of tungsten and Maasai puberty rites will continue to kick around in your cerebellum for years, in that weird mental place where we store old PIN codes and ‘80s pop song lyrics. But for the most part, you will have no serviceable recall.

Not that it matters. A passing grade is a passing grade, thank the gods. You’ve lived to see another day. Now breathe deep, rejoice and go get drunk. You done good, kid.

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