Ask a Professor: How to Study for a College Midterm Exam

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Ask a Professor: How to Study for a College Midterm Exam
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Published on October 5, 2021


Midterm exams strike fear into the hearts of college students everywhere. But with a little planning, undergrads can avoid all-night cram sessions and walk into their midterms feeling prepared.

What is a midterm exam? Traditionally, a midterm tests what students have learned roughly halfway through the semester. But many college classes hold more than one midterm. Moreover, some use multiple formats, like midterm exams and midterm essays.

In many classes, only final exams make up a larger percentage of the course grade than midterms. Like finals, midterms offer valuable feedback on how well you've internalized the course material, so it's important that you take time to prepare for them.

Here, we look at some of the best methods and strategies for acing your college midterms.

How to Study for Midterms in College: 8 Essential Tips

What's the best way to study for midterms? Each student needs to find the study techniques that work best for them. That said, the following strategies can help all students prepare for midterm exams and improve their performance.

1. Start Early

Most students wait too long to start studying for midterms and find themselves cramming a day or so before the test. By starting early, you can avoid running out of time.

In fact, students can start preparing for midterms as early as the first day of class. Review the syllabus closely, checking whether the class has a midterm exam, a midterm essay, or multiple midterms.

Next, see what the syllabus says about the format and weight of the midterm(s). Midterms might make up 20% of your final grade in some classes, but 30-40% in others.

Finally, check the date of the exam. While midterms usually take place halfway through the term, some classes hold midterms as early as a few weeks into the term — especially classes with multiple midterms or classes following a quarter schedule.

2. Take Notes

Midterm exams test your understanding of course material. If you don't take notes during class, you'll find yourself scrambling for study material as midterms draw near.

Taking good notes represents a key part of studying for midterms. And that counts for lectures, discussions, and class readings. Think of note-taking as building a bank of study material. Instead of wasting study time searching for information, you can devote your energy to reviewing the material you've already collected.

3. Ask Questions

Every professor wants something different on midterms. Some may ask for an in-class or take-home essay. Others may use short answers, fill-in-the-blank questions, or multiple-choice formats. And some might require you to analyze case studies, solve equations while showing your work, or use evidence in a persuasive argument.

You can study smarter by figuring out what your professor wants on the midterm. Some professors make it easy by handing out review sheets and going over the format and expectations. If expectations aren't as clear, be sure to ask questions and gather as much information as possible so you can ensure you're studying the right material.

4. Create a Study Schedule

A study schedule helps students block off time to prepare for a midterm. Start studying at least 1-2 weeks before the midterm. From the first week of class, try setting aside an hour at the end of each week to review your lecture notes and reading assignments. Create a list of key concepts and ideas.

A week before the midterm, start taking practice tests or creating online quizzes using sites like Quizlet. Testing your knowledge improves retention better than repeatedly reviewing the textbook or your notes. Once you've mastered a concept or topic, you can move on to other areas.

Some good news: Spacing out study sessions — also known as spaced practice — helps students retain more information. Instead of pulling an all-nighter, break up your study sessions into multiple one-to-two-hour stints spread out over the course of a week.

5. Attend Review Sessions

If your professor or teaching assistant holds a review session, make sure to attend. Review sessions provide valuable information about what might appear on the exam. Instructors also typically use this time to answer questions about the content and format of the exam, as well as grading standards.

Plan to study before attending the review session. You should also put together a list of any questions you have about the material. Don't be afraid to ask for specific strategies to improve your performance on the midterm.

6. Form a Study Group

For some, studying with a group of classmates pays off. Study groups can help students break down complex concepts and divide up review materials. Research shows that explaining concepts to other study group members can improve learning.

Once you've formed a study group for your midterm, consider meeting even after the test. The same strategies that help students on midterms work well for final exams, too.

7. Go to Office Hours

Professors hold office hours to answer questions and review material with students. But most students never attend office hours — a major missed opportunity when studying for midterms.

Plan to attend office hours 1-2 weeks before the midterm. Be sure to study before going and to come with a list of questions. Keep in mind that the busiest office hours sessions tend to be the last session before midterms or finals. This, however, can sometimes work in students' favor: Reviewing concepts in a small group with the instructor can occasionally offer more insights than a one-on-one meeting.

8. Prioritize Rest and Mental Health

Many students find exams stressful. And test anxiety can make it difficult to perform well on midterms. By taking care of their mental and physical health, students can improve their grades.

Take sleep, for example. Cramming for midterm exams the night before can backfire. Students who get consistent sleep perform better on exams. In a 2019 study published in Nature, researchers found that "sleep measures accounted for nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance." Simply prioritizing sleep can mean earning a higher grade.

Similarly, taking mental health breaks, getting fresh air, and going for a walk to break up long study sessions can help students on their midterm exams.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Midterms

What are midterms in college? true

Midterm exams test student knowledge at the midpoint of a course. A midterm exam might include case studies, equations, short-answer questions, and/or an in-class essay. Some midterms use an open-book or take-home format.

When are midterms in college? true

Traditionally, midterms take place halfway through the term; however, this varies widely. Some classes schedule more than one midterm or a midterm exam along with a midterm paper. As a result, students should review the syllabus to see when their midterms will take place.

How much are midterms worth in final grades? true

The weight of midterms in a course varies. Some midterms might be worth 20% of the final grade, meaning students who earn a zero on the midterm cannot score higher than 80% in their class. Other midterms might be worth more. In general, midterms do not make up more than half of your final grade.

Feature Image: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / DigitalVision / Getty Images

We've compiled our favorite study tips and tricks for college exams to help students best prepare for midterms. A poor midterm grade in college can be disappointing. But with the right strategies, you can bounce back over the rest of the term. A few simple steps can help students improve their academic performance. Learn how to raise your grades in college with these helpful tips.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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