Midterm and exam anxiety: How to keep your calm and your hair when the big tests roll around

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When it comes to school-year anxieties and overwhelmed students, Leigh-Ellen Thomas has seen it all. Now that midterms are in full-swing and exams are looming in the distance, stress is on the rise, which means more students are seeking help to ease their minds. Thomas, the student development coordinator at UNBSJ, has many tips and tricks to keep students organized and on track during those hectic weeks so that they can stay relaxed and in a good mood when times get tough.

Believe it or not, preparation for midterms and exams doesn’t just happen during the days before the big test. “Don’t think of studying as what you do the day or two before the midterm. The entire semester is actually helping you prepare for these tests,” says Thomas. Lectures, textbook readings, even assignments—if you stay on track with them, you may find exam preparation a whole lot easier than you thought it would be. However, staying on track doesn’t mean putting the information away as soon as you’re done learning it. Quickly reviewing old notes on a weekly basis can keep them fresh in your mind, so that when it comes time to study, you’ll already have a general idea of what you need to know.

But how do we stay on track when most of us have classes, jobs and extracurricular activities to keep on top of? One of the most common things Thomas sees in her office are students looking for ways to better manage their time. According to Thomas, time-management is one of the most important ways to keep students ready for not only testing time, but the entire school year. This is where an organized schedule can be very useful.

Calendars are an important tool. Use them make sure you have a very clear view of what is coming up in the next week, a pretty good idea of what is happening over the next two weeks, and a vague idea of your whole month’s schedule. That way, due dates and test times won’t take you by surprise, adding to your stress level. Important class dates can be found in your syllabus, so keep that on hand–the professor gave it to you for a reason. Knowing your calendar allows you to plan your study, work, and downtime in advance, creating structure and killing anxiety.

“One of the best ways to stay on track is to write down what you need to get done for the day,” says Thomas. She suggests writing a to-do list that ranks your tasks in order of urgency. Get the most important things done first, and then move on to the less urgent items on the list. With the most important tasks out of the way, you’re more likely to relax. In fact, practising time management can help you in the long run. The better you become at it, you’ll find fewer urgent items at the top of your list.

When you can organize your time, you can organize your work as well. Keeping all of your class materials together saves a massive amount of stress when you start cracking the books for midterms and exams. Lecture notes are a huge part of your study material and whether you take them with a computer or a pen and a piece of loose-leaf, make sure you’ve got a good organization system; don’t let papers or desktop files float around on their own where they can be misplaced easily. Three ring binders are one of the best ways to keep your notes organized because you can insert handouts, completed assignments and tests to keep them safe.

Keep your notes and materials for each class separate, and for classes that don’t follow the textbook in chronological order, make sure to have coloured tabs to mark what needs to be studied. Remember: constant review of your notes keeps you from getting overwhelmed when it comes time to prepare for the big test. For larger study sessions, know your learning style. Visual learners may want to try different coloured pens and diagrams while audio learners may want to record themselves reading their notes. Everyone is different; try other methods and see what works best for you.

Thomas also suggests setting aside some time after midterms or exams to do what you love and let off a little steam. Whether it’s reading your favourite book alone, planning a trip or an outing with your friends, reward yourself for the work you’ve done and relax, “Just keep it legal, and healthy,” says Thomas with a laugh.

Midterms and exams can be scary, but if you use your time wisely and keep organized, you may find yourself wondering what you were worrying about in the first place. Exam-time worry is common, “You are definitely not alone,” says Thomas, “so many students are struggling with anxieties who are afraid to speak up.”

If you need help coping with stress and fears, or are feeling overwhelmed with too much on your plate, you can contact Thomas at lethomas@unbsj.ca, or stop by her office at Student Services, Oland Hall G16.



Emily is in her fourth year of Political Science. She loves studying and academics which follows into her research work. She's a stern black coffee drinker and is a proud Acadienne. When she's not working or doing school work, you can find Emily listening to 70s music on vinyl and watching Parks and Recreation. If you ask her about parliamentary institutions, she won't stop talking.