How to Relax and Ace Your College Midterms

Get study tips, and see how some schools are getting creative with stress relief.

Students at Roanoke College get their pre-exam good luck charm from a kicking post on campus.

At Roanoke College, campus lore says that students will get good luck by “kicking the post,” which is a three-foot cement marker between two buildings on campus that many students kick before exams.

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Slackers, listen up. You might think that studying for a midterm is just like studying for anything else—you might even opt to skip the studying altogether and just wing it—but these exams can cover half a semester's worth of material, and they can be just as challenging and important as finals, students say. We asked students, alumni, and staff from a variety of schools across the country what advice they would give to those who are about to sit for midterms, which usually fall around late February or early March. Surprisingly, their tips show not only that there are different ways to approach the exam but that colleges are trying out some interesting ways to throw some fun and relaxation into the equation.

Kathryn Turcsany, a graduate of Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., who is now a middle school English teacher, recommends incorporating multiple modes of learning—such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles—into your studying. This can reinforce key concepts and help you remember them. For instance, you can create your own charts and drawings to visually conceptualize the connections in the course material. "Have someone else quiz you orally on the information," Turcsany says, "since hearing offers another mode of learning." Also, scan through your textbooks and make sure that after reading the subheads you can summarize the content contained in each chapter or section. You might even want to try to predict questions that will appear on the midterm based on the textbook's review questions.

If you take notes, review and rewrite them immediately after class before your short-term memory fizzles out. But during class, if you have to choose between listening and understanding or taking notes, you should listen, says Cynthia Crimmins, director of the Learning Resource Center at York College of Pennsylvania. You can always get the notes later from a classmate or even from the professor directly, since more and more professors are now posting their lessons online.

Charles McElwee, a junior at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., recommends talking to students who have taken the course in the past. "They can offer advice on the best ways to study," he says. Don't be shy about reaching out to others who can serve as resources. If your college offers tutoring services, see if you can meet with a tutor to help you prepare for midterms in difficult subjects, says McElwee. If you're having trouble studying, meeting with your professor is another great way to get advice on the best approach to the exam. It also shows your instructor that you care about your success.

Students across the board stress the importance of time management. Matt Shaw, a junior at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, says that blocking out chunks of time to look back through various homework assignments helps him stay on top of everything. But don't go overboard. "Lengthy study sessions can be mind numbing," says Brittany Rathbone, a sophomore at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Fla. During breaks, she says she likes to engage in an activity that gives her brain some downtime without completely shutting off, such as playing the piano. If you're not musically inclined, think about going for a walk, exercising, or meditating.

Don't let studying interfere with your health. Mike Milliken, program director of college wellness at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, says that when academics and extracurricular activities pile up it can be hard for students to take care of themselves physically. You might feel like you don't have time to exercise, he says, but working a 20-to-60-minute session into your schedule can do wonders in helping you manage stress and clear your mind. Try to nourish your body with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins such as fish, tofu, or chicken, he says. 

[Read 7 Ways to Learn More Without More Study.] 

Fortunately, if you're living on campus, finding healthful and mentally stimulating things to do during your breaks should not be too hard, since colleges these days are really getting in on the action when it comes to stress reduction. In fact, it would be hard to find a school that does not at least offer some form of a "stress-free zone" during finals week and midterm season.