How to Survive College Midterms
By Emma Sarran Webster
August 19, 2016
The start of college can be almost overwhelmingly exciting. You’re in a new place, meeting new people, embarking on this awesome journey that encompasses your social life, your hobbies and passions, and your career aspirations. It’ll likely take some time — several weeks, or even months — for you to adapt to and get used to all of the changes, and reset yourself from being in the sort of “vacation” or “summer camp” mode that the early days of college can trigger into the “education” mode that, really, is the main reason you’re there. But the thing is: Your classes don’t wait for you to come down to Earth, and before you know it, your first round of midterms will be upon you. That first set of major tests in your college career can be a seriously scary prospect, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is to prepare yourself from the beginning, both academically and mentally. To help you do that, here are seven things you can likely expect from your first-ever midterms.
A Packed Schedule
“Your first college midterm will probably be held in the same week as three to four other college midterms,” Dr. Caitlin Faas, a college professor and career coach, tells Teen Vogue. “Don’t be too surprised, just prioritize your studying for each.” Dr. Faas suggests ranking your classes in order of the amount of studying you need to do for each, and then create a plan and study schedule based on that, so you make sure you allot enough time for each. “Often I see students get trapped in studying for just one college class midterm, when they need to study for all of them.”
That means it’s crucial to start early. You can’t expect to start studying for multiple tests a week in advance, and do well on them (without going at least partially insane in the process). “Studying and reviewing your material over the course of the semester, rather than waiting for midterms, will make it easier for you to handle the stressful week,” Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and Founder of IvyWise, tellsTeen Vogue.
And when you do get to that pre-test week, prepare to set your social life aside so you can get sleep, focus, and squeeze in any last-minute studying. “I tell students to pull up the calendars on their smartphones and pick several hours during the week before midterms and block out study time,” Dr. Sebastian van Delden, a department chairman at the College of Charleston, tells Teen Vogue. “Do not make plans during that time for anything except to study for the midterm. Treat it as you would any other appointment you cannot break.”
And then there’s the test days themselves. Don’t expect your midterms to take up small pockets of your days, leaving you plenty of time to rest and recover. More often than not, those exams are long, so it’s best to go into midterm week expecting that. “Professors are testing your knowledge of half of their entire course, so tests often last a good two hours,” Rachel Sinclair, a senior at Samford University, tells Teen Vogue. “Don’t forget to eat a good meal (or at least a granola bar) beforehand!”
A Serious Challenge
Put simply, midterms are not supposed to be easy, and they rarely are. “New college students can expect a healthy dose of reality,” Dr. Chester Goad, an administrator and graduate instructor at Tennessee Technical University, tells Teen Vogue. “College is different from high school, and the accountability and measurement of success is going to be different. It’s inevitable for many new students to discover that the same level of effort that has always been applied may not be enough in a college atmosphere to garner the same level of achievement.”
But, that doesn’t mean those challenges will come out of left field. “Midterms are not by any means unfair,” Bianca Ambrosio, professor at New York’s Plaza College, tells Teen Vogue. “Most college professors are very straightforward when it concerns course materials that should be studied. Students simply need to make sure that they do indeed study, and not only definitions and what is highlighted, but also that they use critical thinking skills.”
Everything is Fair Game
Professors aren’t out to surprise you with test questions or topics that they’ve never discussed or taught before. But, if, when preparing you for the test, they don’t specifically mention something that was taught in class, that certainly doesn’t mean it won’t be on the exam. “Everything that comes up in class is fair game,” Dr. Robert Furey, professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, tells Teen Vogue. “If discussion is part of the class, then discussion is fair game, too. Bottom line: Put down your video game, pay attention in class, and study. Every single professor in the world hates the question: Is this going to be on the exam? If it wasn’t part of your education, why would we do it?”
Not every midterm will be a traditional exam that has you sitting in a quiet classroom for hours, answering questions and solving problems on paper. Laken Brooks, a senior education student at Emory & Henry College, as well as a tutor and assistant professor, tells Teen Vogue that she’s had professors set up midterm exams in many different ways. In addition to traditional multiple-choice written exams, Laken says she has taken oral exams, and “written timed essays and presented group projects.”
And then there are the tests that don’t even take place in the presence of your professors: the take-home exams. “Take-home exams can be great because the professor wants to see how you can handle all the information and resources you have at your fingertips,” Cohen says. “It offers a great opportunity to do extremely well, however it is often graded more harshly because you often can open a textbook to craft accurate and thoughtful responses. What is most crucial is that you don’t talk to other students about your answers unless explicitly told you can do so — this is often considered cheating and breaks the trust code many schools have in place.”
So, how do you prepare for all of these different types of midterms? “Make sure that you are comfortable with the format of your exam after your professor hands out your syllabus [at the beginning of the semester],” Laken says.
An Imperfect Grade
If you’re going into your midterms expecting to ace each one, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. “Expect your midterm to be a benchmark exam,” Laken says. “Yes, it is meant to indicate your progress in the class, but rarely do professors give perfect scores on midterms.” Laken came out of one of her very first midterms confident that she got an “A,” only to later find out she was given a B minus. Shocked, she asked her professor what she could have done better. “He told me, ‘You performed excellently and you did not do anything wrong on the exam. You see, no one in the class received an A because an A shows that you have no room for improvement. I think that we can all improve by the end of the class.” So, while there’s definitely nothing wrong with setting lofty goals for yourself, adjust your expectations so that if you score less than perfect (or less than what you thought you would), it doesn’t mean your college career is off to a terrible start; rather, it means you’re in school for a reason — to keep on learning.
Midterms don’t have to only be about testing you on what you’ve already learned — they can also serve to help you gain even more knowledge. “This might sound counter-intuitive, but my best advice is to go into the midterm expecting to learn something,” Renee Ann Cramer, a professor at Drake University tells Teen Vogue. “You might learn that you and the professor have radically different ideas about what you’ve been doing for the first six weeks of the semester; you might learn that you’re bad (or good) at essay exams; you might learn that you have incredible time management and test-taking skills, or that you’re even better prepared than you think. The key is, if you go into the test curious, rather than certain, you’ll get more out of it and (gasp!) maybe even enjoy it more.”
Yes midterms are tough, and may very well be your first real, big challenge of college. But, if you put in the effort and energy throughout the semester, you should expect that your hard work will pay off. “Students should expect to do well, if they prepared appropriately,” Kimberly S. Bowman, assistant director of student affairs at Harrisburg University of Science & Technology, tells Teen Vogue. “Professors and instructors will help you succeed and give you all the information that you need to do well.”
When all is said and done, expect to be proud of yourself, to be encouraged to continue on your college journey, and embrace that sense of achievement. “It’s a big deal to get to college, and get settled and keep your head above water the first semester or even the first year,” Dr. Goad says. “As long as students are paying attention to feedback and adjusting as they move forward, they’re going to be ok well after midterm.”