8 Clues to Figuring Out That College Midterm

College exams don't have to be stressful. Student can get a leg up if they know how to prepare.

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Midterm time is test time. And, for some college students, nothing will match that moment of terror when they look down at their test and find questions they've never even thought of staring back at them. But at that same moment, there's usually a student in the room feeling smug satisfaction at having sussed out the exact questions in advance. How can you figure out what's going to be on the midterm—and dramatically increase your chances of acing that test? Here are 8 clues from behind the curtain:

Clue 1: Professors test what they talk. Students often think professors are out to trick them by testing picky, obscure issues. Nothing can be farther from the case. Professors usually try to teach the most important material—and then test it to see if students have mastered it. Kind of makes sense once you think about it, doesn't it? Look over your notes and see what the prof spent the most time on; that's likely to provide the most fodder for the test.

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Clue 2: Professors ask what interests them. In many courses, you can detect some issue that really excites the prof so much that he or she brings it up again and again, even as the course moves from topic to topic. It's a good bet that your prof's obsession will pop up on the test in some form or other.

Clue 3: Professors drop hints. Much as we try to keep mum, most professors can't help themselves. They have high-value information that throngs of adulating students are eager to get—and that they are eager to give. So, take seriously comments like, "Wow, this would make a really good test question" or "and speaking of ...nudge, nudge, wink, wink." It might all sound like a joke, but it's not.

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Clue 4: TAs spill the beans even more than professors. They're usually younger and less experienced, and they would like to be liked. So, they'll usually cave quickly if you ask them a few questions after class or in office hours—or just show up to section meeting. No bribery necessary!

Extra Pointer. Be sure to write down in your notes—hopefully, word for word—any hints your professor or TA drops in lecture, discussion, or an office hour. Come study time, these hints, including their exact phraseology, can prove gold mines of information for what will be on the test.

Clue 5: Professors are lazy. Professors are pretty busy and don't have much time to write entirely new exams. With the result that many times profs will simply reuse—or modify slightly—questions they asked last time around. If you can dig up one of the old exams from a friend who took the same course, from library reserves, from fraternity or sorority files, or (if your stars are aligned) from the prof directly, you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect.

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5-Star Tip. Be sure not to use Dr. O.'s exam to study for Professor P.'s upcoming test—even if both teach the same course. Most likely, Professor P. thinks Dr. O. is a bozo and would never be caught dead asking such idiotic questions.

Clue 6: Professors tell it up front. The syllabus often lists the educational goals of the course, which can give pretty good clues about the test questions. After the first day of class, you might never cast another glance at the syllabus, but it can actually give you an idea of what the professor thinks is most important—and what he or she's likely to test you on.

Clue 7: Professors recycle. Not only questions from previous years, but questions or problems from the homework, quizzes, and problem sets often reappear in slightly different form on the test. Hey, everybody's going green these days.

5-Star Tip. If the professor hands out a study guide or "sample" questions, well, that's a no-brainer. Those kinds of questions—or sometimes those very questions—are bound to appear on the test.

Clue 8: Professors "review." If the professor (or TA) is holding a review session, well, that's a gift from God. Often, the professor will have just made up the exam that very day, so the questions will be in the forefront of his or her mind. And in the process of "going over" the material, he or she is bound to drop a few giant hints about what's going to be on the midterm. Rule of thumb: one hour of review session equals three hours of studying.

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