Surviving Midterms

Of particular relevance is how to survive midterms. Those nasty things that generally happen 2-3 times a semester, despite their name-sake. Whether you’ve survived? your first set or are anticipating midterms next week, this post is relevant for you.

Midterms generally count from 20-40% of your grades in whole, and while that is a lot, the bulk of your grades are actually coming in after the “midpoint” of the semester. (Finals and final papers are worth a ton, and you still have all those response papers / psets.)

So, I’ve just survived my hellish batch of 3 midterms in 2 days (why I haven’t posted in a while). This post will touch on the strategies you can use to make your studying more efficient.

(A post on surviving post-midterms will be coming up soon).

1) Basics:

  • Take the time to study
  • Find a good study spot
  • Find a study buddy
  • Don’t procrastinate
  • And so on, things you know already

2) Midterms at Harvard

Generally, most freshmen come into Harvard not quite understanding how they should be studying. They may be used to memorizing, but most classes, as you have probably seen, care more about whether or not you can apply the material. Knowing how to apply the material is dependent on whether or not you understand the material.

This is sort of a trickier concept to explain, but take Ec 10 for example. A typical high schooler’s approach would be to memorize all the curve shifts, and then, said high schooler will do fairly poorly on said midterm because it gives you NEW problems that you haven’t quite seen before that you need to solve based on what you know about economics.

On the other hand, a sophomore or junior, well-versed in the ways of the midterm world, has done the practice problems, pondered the reasons why the demand curve slopes down etc. etc., and probably does a lot better than the previously mentioned high schooler/freshman on the midterm.

Point of the lesson? Some midterms require you to really understand and absorb the material. The trick is to try to figure out what is essential to your understanding and what is nice, but trivial details.

3) It’s okay to say no

For people who’ve taken on a full plate of extra curriculars, it is okay to say that you’re going to be otherwise occupied for whatever hell-weeks you have. We’re all students here. We understand. Just let your higher ups know, and if you find yourself taking time off every other week, you may just need to reconsider your schedule.

4) It’s not okay to be a douche

No other way to say it, but please don’t neglect basic considerations to your fellow mankind. If you’re studying in the dining hall, clean up after yourself. I walked into breakfast this morning after Physics night at Leverett, and it was horrifying, the number of plastic cups and napkins strewn everywhere.

Similarly, be considerate to roommates, friends, family, acquaintances etc. There really isn’t a reason to be a jerk. Really. Trust me on this one. That means no “borrowing” the textbook from the library and keeping it for longer than you should the night before the midterm.

5) Office hours!

Go early so you’re not surrounded by stressed out Harvard students trying to hog the TF’s attention. And go when you’re stuck on a problem/question/issue that you cannot reasonably figure out on your own. If it takes you 3 hours to figure out on your own a question that a TF can easily explain in 10 minutes, you should go to office hours.

6) All that stuff they give you…

I’m not entirely familiar with how classes in the humanities work, but for classes where problem solving is the general norm. You MUST do the practice exams and any practice problems they give you, and you MUST understand and be able to replicate your problem set answers. I’ve noticed that in some cases, professors use practice exams to (ha) better teach a particular lesson that they didn’t have time to cover in class.

And if you don’t have the time to do all of it, figure out what’s most important to understand, prioritize and conquer.

7) Sleep now, work later

The later you work, the less you get done. Do you really think you’re going to understand matrices at 3 AM? Try to be more aware of that point where your productivity plummets, and then just go to bed. It cleans out your mind etc. etc., and then you can just wake up earlier and shift your study time from midnight to 3 to 6 to 9.

For some, doing work early is an impossible feat, but we all managed to survive high school, didn’t we?

8) Stop stressing

I hit a C in the middle of my Moral Reasoning course and managed to bring it up to a B+ with lots and lots of hard work and nagging my TF to please understand why I can’t reason, morally, or morally reason, or something.

A lot of courses can be forgiving of students who just start off the semester with the wrong foot.

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1 Response to “Surviving Midterms”

  1. 1 Chuck

    Good advices. I don’t go to Harvard, but I’ve found your blog useful anyway.

    Also, for a foreigner, it is interesting to see the routines of a uni like Harvard.

    There are a few advices in this post I have not yet tried myself, and also I’d like to say big thumbs up for your “How To Learn Math” post. Most of it we should all know beforehand, but sometimes it’s the littlest things that make a big difference. “Don’t assume everything will work out” got me thinking, and it applies to everything, not just math. Now I don’t go further before I’ve understood all the material.

    So thanks, and keep up the good work! Hope you did OK on your midterms.

    - Chuck

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