It seems like classes started literally yesterday and I am already prepping for my first set of midterms. It’s the end of Week 4 and normally around this time everyone has an exam, paper, presentation, etc. Tension is high at Illinois as everyone tries to prepare.
Fun Fact: I had no idea “midterms” was synonymous to “exams.” When I first started at Illinois, I always thought there was only one midterm in the middle of the term and exams were spread out between the midterm and the final. I was wrong, exams are the same as midterms and vice versa.
So you might be thinking “I’ve taken a ton of exams throughout high school (or at a previous college for my transfer students), how is this any different?” I had this exact same mindset when I came to Illinois. In high school, I never found exams very difficult. I figured if I just kept my same studying routine as in high school I should be just fine. As you can probably guess where this is going, I was wrong!
My first-ever midterm was for my pre-calc class. I had taken pre-calc in high school, so I figured the class would be mostly review and I would do fine. Turns out, the entire calculus sequence at Illinois is taught without a calculator (for reasons which I learned to appreciate later but in the moment I was devastated). So this class I thought was going to be easy just got 10 times harder. I went to class every day, did my homework (and understood it), went to tutoring, and studied for about three-ish hours before the exam. I was set and ready to take this exam.
During the exam, I was expecting to see the same problems that were on the homework just with different numbers (because that was how all previous math tests I had taken were like). I remember the first part of the exam was a review of the homework and I felt really good. As I got toward the end of the exam, problems got harder but were manageable. At the end of the exam, there were problems I had never seen before and had no idea how to solve. I felt really upset leaving the exam, I thought “Why would they test us on questions we have never seen before, they’re setting us up to fail.”
A week later, I got the exam back and I was really disappointed. I really thought I had put in all the work necessary to get an A. The next lecture I talked to my professor. I recalled everything I did to study and was surprised when she told me the way I prepared was ineffective (ouch, right?). She encouraged me to study the concepts as opposed to just knowing how to do the problems. At the time, I didn’t really understand what she meant.
Throughout my time here, I have learned no other advice would be so valuable. In almost every class I have taken, learning goals/objectives have been the core to understanding the material and doing well on exams. The thing is, college is not about memorizing a ton of information (although there is some). It’s about understanding what you’re learning and applying it to new situations. So instead of teaching myself how to do something, I try to understand why something is done the way it is to then later apply it to exam questions and real life situations.
Don’t get me wrong, it took me a few semesters to figure this out and finally nail my studying method down. Here are some tips to prepare yourself college exams.
Tip 1: If it doesn’t work, FIX IT!
Let’s say you take your first physics exam and don’t do as well as you think you did. You have to recognize you didn’t study effectively and change your habits or nothing is really going to change. Try a new studying location, study with some friends in class, start studying sooner, incentivise studying, literally anything else to improve the way you prepare for exams.
Tip 2: Take advantage of your resources
You are going to be so surprised when you realize how little people take advantage of office hours. Office hours are the best times to ask any questions about the homework or lecture. In addition, The Office of Minority Student Affairs also offers free tutoring for all students.
Tip 3: Bare with it
It might take some time to nail down your studying method. Be patient with yourself; when you finally get it, studying will seem like a breeze!
As you start to think about your journey at Illinois, think about the things that are going to change (in this instance exams). Old habits may not be the best and might need some refining. Luckily, Illinois has made it so all students have the opportunity to succeed.
Well that’s all for this one friends. Good luck and stay warm!