Pillbox

Advice for Awkward People

**Hey Ruth,

So, we’re getting into October and all of a sudden all of my classes have midterms. All of them. And for some reason my professors keep scheduling them all right next to each other, which is really annoying. As a result, I’ve become trapped in this awful cycle of last minute, desperate studying for each exam. I take one, do less well than I probably needed, and only have 24 hours to prepare for the next! I’m running out of energy and I don’t have any time left to hang out with people or relax. I barely have time to get food! How am I supposed to take care of myself when I’m facing an endless line of midterms?

Please help,
Straight Outta Sleep**

Dear SOS,

It’s basically a law of nature that every exam will be surrounded by other exams. All of us have experienced the midterm pileup, be it through exams or projects, and if there’s sure-fire way of getting through it and coming out better than you went in, well, I don’t really know it. There are, however, a couple of things that can help you face an exam pileup with as little fear as possible.

First, start early. I know this isn’t useful advice now, in the beginning of midterm season, but it still stands. Unless you are one of a select few, the best way to study for an exam is to do so in small pieces spaced out through a reasonably long period of time.

Don’t just study the material — study for the exam. It’s a nice thought that you’ll just learn the material so thoroughly that you’ll be able to understand any question thrown at you, but if you can actually do that you are light years ahead of me. Instead, make sure you’re doing practice problems (or short answers, or essays, or what have you) that are as close to what will be on the exam as possible. If your professor is good, this usually means you can redo old homework problems or practice questions from the textbook.

Finally — please don’t forget to take breaks. If you, like me, have that niggling voice in the back of your head saying you should be studying anytime you do anything else, remember that taking breaks is actually good for your retention. Our brains remember things best when we’re repeatedly reminded of them — but not all at once. We need time in between to process and store our memories. That’s why everyone recommends a full night’s sleep before a big exam. Not because you might fall asleep while taking it (although that is also not ideal), but because we remember things better after we’ve slept on them.

But not all breaks have to involve sleeping to be worthwhile. Studying isn’t actually about quantity, it’s about quality. Two hours of focused studying followed by a break is much better than an hour of actual work spread over three because you burned out. You have to take care of your mental health if you expect your brain to perform well.

Now, this is not to say that ignoring all the work you need to do under the pretext of mental health is a good idea. Sometimes self-care is taking a YouTube break, and sometimes self-care is putting in the work so you won’t fail your classes. Most of the time, it’s a mix of both. (If you are actually at the point where your mental health is interfering with academics, please talk to your professors and reach out to CaPS. This is not something you have to suffer through alone.)

Your academic performance is not actually a measure of how valuable you are as a human being, but that doesn’t mean we’d all be happy failing every exam. It’s admirable that you want to do well and that you’re willing to put in the work to get there.

Good luck,
Ruth

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