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The college student’s guide to midterm exams

Published March 22, 2024| minute read
Dhara Singh

Senior Associate, JPMorgan Chase

    The hustle and bustle of college life comes with its share of academic pressure. According to the American Psychological Association, 87% of U.S. college students report education as their primary source of stress.

    Prepping for tests and completing homework assignments for your classes can feel daunting enough, but you may really start to feel the pressure when college midterms roll around.

    That stress during midterm season is often with good reason — midterms make up a significant percentage of your final grade in many classes.

    Keep reading as we cover answers to basic questions you may have about midterms, along with tips to set yourself up for success for these exams. From attending study groups to a professor’s office hours, there’s a suite of methods to help you prepare for midterms.

    What are college midterms?

    First things first, what are midterms? College midterms are cumulative exams in the middle of a class’s term (usually a semester or trimester) required by some college courses.

    The number of midterms you’ll have each term during college will depend on the courses you’re enrolled in during that term and on your college. Generally, if you’re enrolled in a college in which the academic year consists of two semesters, you may expect midterm exams for each class you’re enrolled in every semester. Overall, you’ll likely be taking midterms twice a year.

    Do all classes have midterm exams?

    Not all classes require midterms. Some classes may substitute these exams with projects or essays or not require them at all. Colleges usually leave this decision up to the discretion of professors.

    When are college midterms?

    College midterms usually happen around the middle of each term. The exact dates differ depending on the course and the college. Students on a semester schedule can expect fall and spring midterms.

    Fall midterms

    Midterm exams for the fall semester usually occur during mid-October, though depending on the class and your school, that won’t always be the case.

    Spring midterms

    Spring midterms usually happen during mid-March but can be earlier or later in the semester. For the most part, expect your spring midterms to occur before your school’s spring break.

    How do you find your college’s midterm dates?

    If you’re feeling puzzled about when your midterm exams are, you can:

    • Check your class syllabuses
    • Ask your professors (in person or by email)
    • Check your college or university’s website
    • Contact your academic advisor
    • Contact your college or university’s academic registrar's office

    How do midterms impact your final grades?

    How much your midterms impact your final grades will depend greatly on your classes and your college or university’s policies. In some instances, your midterm grade may be a high percentage of your final grade. In others, professors may place a heavier emphasis on projects, papers, and class participation.

    While the impact does vary quite a bit, it’s common for midterms to account for anywhere from 15% to 40% of your final grade.

    Because the impact of midterms on final grades will vary so much, be proactive in finding out how much it’ll impact your final grade for a class by checking your class syllabus or talking to your professor about it early in the semester to prepare ahead of time for how much emphasis to place on it.

    Tips for studying for midterms to set yourself up for success

    Because midterms may be an important part of succeeding in a class, you may want to take extra steps to prepare for these exams. Here are some steps to consider.

    1. Attend your professors’ office hours

    Often, professors offer opportunities where you can visit their offices to ask any questions about class topics you may need help with. You can usually find these hours listed in your class syllabus. These office hours may be valuable when it comes to getting extra help.

    2. Create study groups with your classmates

    Another strategy to set yourself up for midterm success is creating study groups with a few classmates. You and your peers may be able to quiz one another on a class’s material and solve practice problems together. If you have a question during your study preparation, you’ll also have classmates there to help.

    3. Start preparing early

    Preparing early for midterm exams can make all the difference for some students. According to a recent study on test preparation methods by researchers at the University of California Irvine and the Charles P. Darby Children’s Research Institute, students who spaced out their studying had higher grades than those who crammed in studying.

    While starting to prepare early for midterms doesn’t guarantee you’ll ace an exam, it’ll potentially be less stressful than cramming material and allow you more time to absorb material for an exam.

    4. Consider active test preparation strategies

    A study published in the National Library of Medicine by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Utah found that active studying strategies correlated more positively to exam performance than passive strategies. What does this mean exactly?

    According to this research, conducting self-quizzes, creating diagrams, and completing problem sets were more effective than passive strategies such as reading notes or watching lectures.

    5. Prioritize sleep if possible

    While getting sleep isn’t exactly a study strategy, it may be just as important as anything else you can do to prepare for midterms. A paper in the National Library of Medicine suggests that all-nighters harm a person’s short-term health. Because of this, you may want to ensure that sleep and rest are embedded throughout your midterm exam preparation.

    6. Lean on additional resources where and when you can

    There are numerous resources to pursue if you need extra help to prepare for midterms. Some resources to consider if you need additional help include:

    • Hiring or seeking out a free tutor on campus
    • Creating physical or digital flashcards
    • Taking practice tests
    • Sharing notes with peers
    • Utilizing study tools and apps to get organized
    • Reviewing previous tests (if allowed)

    Final thoughts

    Midterm exams may seem stressful since they impact your grades and ultimately affect your overall college grade point average (GPA). That said, they’re just one component of your grade, and poor performance can often be mitigated by excelling in other areas of the course, such as projects, papers, and the final.

    If you miss a midterm by accident, know that you may have to work a bit harder to ensure a positive grade in a class, but getting back on track may be possible even in this worst-case scenario.