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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At Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, for instance, the Center for Leadership in Health Promotion hosts a study-break space in the library during exam period where students can relieve stress, refocus, and become energized. Free, healthful snacks, such as fruits, juices, and nuts, are offered, but the big draw lies in the $2 relaxation massages, art therapy stress management sessions, and instruction in relaxation techniques. Lori Morgan Flood, an assistant dean and the director of CLHP, estimates that as many as 100 students might take advantage of the services during test time.

"Colleges are aware that midterms and finals are high-stress times for students, and many are trying to offer them support in some way," says Morgan Flood. The art therapy program at Oberlin, for instance, was launched just this month and is designed to help students unwind through painting, drawing, and other creative ventures. 

[Read How Colleges Are Taking the Stress Out of Finals.] 

St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., also offers a stress-free night during midterms, which includes a session on handling stress, massages, a prize raffle, and snacks. Students can enjoy live jazz in a special relaxing "living room" setting, and a comedian performs in the dining hall afterward. And during finals week at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, the student council runs an old-school-style study break: It features a "PB & J" night when students can enjoy hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk. "Students can relax and engage in activities they haven't done since high school," says Stephanie Newsom, director of counseling.

Other colleges let students blow off steam in unconventional ways. At Roanoke College in Salem, Va., campus lore says that students will get good luck by "kicking the post," which is a 3-foot cement marker between two buildings that many students kick before exams in hopes that they will graduate on time. A similar custom takes place at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where students rub the nose of the statue of a horned frog—TCU's mascot—prior to taking midterms and finals. And at the University of Maryland–College Park, students rub the nose of a statue of Testudo, a diamondback terrapin that is the school's mascot.

The common theme at the heart of the traditions or programs is preventing and overcoming test anxiety. Mike Malmon-Berg, a psychologist and counselor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, says that as many as 20 percent of students report testing anxiety so severe that their performance on exams is adversely affected. But it's clear that colleges are taking steps—in some cases, creative ones—to combat this. "This generation of students is very intense," says Oberlin's Morgan Flood. "They need to learn how to slow down, relax, put it in perspective, and take care of themselves."

If you have a midterm coming up, here are some more nuggets of wisdom from students and staff:

"Do not panic. You might lose a few hours of sleep during midterms week, but it is only for a brief period. Focus on studying—it actually makes the time go faster!"

Charles McElwee, junior at Lebanon Valley College , Annville, Pa. "Hop, skip, and jump over a few phrases in the text to make sure you can distinguish key points from less essential information."

Beth Boquet, English professor, Fairfield University , Fairfield, Conn. "You can reduce stress by placing the word 'so' in front of such tormenting questions as 'What if I do poorly?', 'What if I fail the test?', or 'What if my score is low?' This tends to reduce tension and put the significance of the test in perspective."

Mike Malmon-Berg, psychologist and counselor, College of Wooster , Wooster, Ohio "Study groups are wonderful and effective, if the members involved stay on track with the subject matter."

Brittany Rathbone, sophomore at St. Leo University , St. Leo, Fla. "Be well rested and well fed. Use your favorite food as both a motivator and a reward!"

Carrie Nolte, alumnus, Fairfield University , Fairfield, Conn.