Midnight Midterm Madness: How (Best) to Cram for Midterms

We've all been here. Fret not: here's what we recommend.

Quinn Library and midterms claim another victim. (PAULA MADERO/THE OBSERVER)

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So your professors are starting to mention midterms at the ends of your classes, and you’re confused because the semester only started a week and a half ago. “Whatever,” you think to yourself. “They’re not for a while anyway.” You go to an NYU party one night, you watch six consecutive hours of “Black Mirror” the next, you go home to New Jersey that weekend and before you know it, your midterm is tomorrow. You have that one moment: that one instantly recognizable sensation of pure, unadulterated fear running through your body like water. So what do you do? Luckily for you, I have the definitive list of steps you can—and should—take when cramming the night before your midterm.

1) Freak out. It will take a few minutes (or more), but if you skip this step, you will be filled with anxiety and regret for the rest of the night, which will make it much harder to study. The feeling is similar to how your body might react to spicy food, but the repercussions are worse (if you can believe it). Take as long as you need, but not really. Keep this down to a half hour.

2) Check your social media. Sound ridiculous? It’s not. Catch up on all your Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and other social media feeds. That way, you won’t be tempted to see what’s happening in the world while you study. Check the news, too, but just the headlines. Cap the time you spend on this part at 20 minutes: you have no time to waste.

3) Make your own personal cheat sheet. Open Microsoft Word or a Google Doc and change the font size to six. Copy the professor’s study guide—by typing it, not by copying and pasting—into your document and underline the key terms. If your professor didn’t provide a study guide (which is often the case), use your notes, the course outline, the slide decks or something similar. Fill the document out in its entirety. Define key terms, explain complicated concepts and the like. Without checking social media or texting, this could take you a few hours. Optionally, give yourself a personal limit for how many pages this cheat sheet can be. It allows you to hone in on the most important information, and it cuts down the amount of time you spend on this part. (Note: I deliberately chose the term “cheat sheet” over “study guide” because we all know the best way to cheat is to memorize the information in your head beforehand—the professors never suspect a thing).

4) Study, study, study. Increase the font size to 12 and change the font to Garamond, Times New Roman or Arial, the most easily readable fonts. Print out the sheet, as you will no longer be reading from your screen—this is harder than reading in print and you will be more tempted to check that Instagram feed again (don’t do it!). Close your laptop, take out a pen and uncap your trusty neon yellow highlighter. Read your cheat sheet slowly and highlight the names of key terms and concepts. In pen, put a big ol’ star next to anything you don’t quite understand just yet, even if that’s just about everything. Read it over a second time, focusing specifically on the concepts you starred. Read it over a third time, mostly skimming this time since now you mostly get everything.

5) Ask your friends for help. Okay, so you probably don’t get everything. That is okay. Yes, really: don’t panic (yet). Now is the time to text your friends and classmates you don’t really know all that well or like all that much. Subtly include some sort of equal return to make sure you don’t look lazy or forgetful or moochy (even though you are definitely all of those things). Most frequently, offering them a peek at your cheat sheet works swimmingly. A draft is as follows: “Hey [Gullible]! I made a study guide for stats and there are just a couple of things that need improvement. Can I share this Google Doc with you and let you know what I need help on? I would really appreciate it!” Even if it is midnight by the time you get here, if you have enough phone numbers, Instagrams or Snapchats, you will absolutely get through to somebody at some point. Five out of five college students sleeping before 1 a.m. is unheard of.

6) Add finishing touches. Once you make your final edits to your cheat sheet, read over the hardest concepts one last time. This should only take a few minutes, because now you REALLY get everything.

7) Celebrate. But not too much—it’s probably 2 a.m. at this point. You have now just dedicated an entire night to studying. Hell, you just packed half a course into one four- or five-hour study session—a feat attempted by many and accomplished by few. You deserve a reward. My suggestion? A nice, home-cooked meal consisting of cereal and crackers. I mean, what else can you make in the wee hours of the morning without waking up your suitemates?

8) Ace the exam. All the information is fresh in your body; now you just have to vomit it all out into a blue book. Make sure you eat breakfast when you wake up and lunch if applicable. Have a snack in the moments before the exam, like a granola bar. Drink plenty of water. Now go in there, ace that multiple choice, nail those calculations and rock that essay like the well-prepared, responsible student you appear to be. Your secret’s safe with us.