College Exams vs. High School Exams
I recently took a midterm for an advanced-level Economics courses, ECON 490: Economics of Terrorism, War, and Conflict. We’ve been economically modeling the behavior of terrorists/terrorist organizations and looking at the best implementation of counterterrorism policies. It’s the type of class I dreamed about getting to take as a wee Economics major.
The midterm probably didn’t go as well as I wanted because of my own studying procrastination, but the final verdict will be in when I get the grade back in the next few weeks.
It got me thinking about taking tests in high school vs. taking exams in college. And I think the terminology of “test” vs. “exam” is important.
In high school, you get tested on a lot less material at one time. Tests happen maybe every other week and cover a few chapters or a novel you just finished. As a senior in college, exams happen anywhere from every three to six weeks, and that means they cover around month’s worth of material at a time. That’s a lot of lectures, readings, and homework assignments to review.
Basically, college exams can be pretty high stakes compared to high school tests. The midterm I just took was 25% of my overall grade in the course. The final exam is 40%. In an upper-level English class I’m also in right now, only three assignments decide my grade: two papers and one oral presentation. English courses tend not to have many exams, so papers are weighted similarly.
Coming to Illinois definitely required a different sort of studying. I know a lot of people who are incredibly smart and got stellar grades in high school with very little studying who were a little shocked when that strategy didn’t work as well in college.
When your exam covers a lot more material and matters a lot more to your grade, that means studying more over many days, going to office hours, forming study groups, and more often than not, losing out on some sleep or something fun.
But don’t freak. Especially in freshmen courses, professors will help you narrow down what to review in class or through a study guide they provide. All your classmates are in the same boat, too, so work with them, talk to them. And sometimes there’s a curve—but never plan for one.
Most importantly, just because you do badly on one (or more than one) exam, doesn’t mean you’re doomed. In Calculus II freshman year, I struggled a lot on exams. I averaged an exam grade of a C or maybe C+, even though I always attended class and got help from the TA. Things just didn’t really click.
The key was devoting a lot of time and effort to that final exam, which was worth the most to my grade. I ended up with a B-! And you might not celebrate a B-, but that B- was the happiest grade I’ve ever earned.
Be flexible, work hard, and forgive yourself when things don’t go perfectly. You’ll be just fine.