Widgets Magazine

On pre-midterm uncertainty and post-midterm bliss

Imagine your last midterm. Now imagine how you felt in the hours leading up to that midterm. (Yeah, yeah, I know — midterm season just ended, and I’m making you relive it, and I’m sorry.)

My last midterm was for CS 106B. (Nota bene: If you’re taking it this quarter with me, I am truly sorry. No one deserves this.) I felt like I was legitimately going to fail. Completely, totally, seriously fail.

My entire body was literally aching with stress. I had a headache; I was weirdly sore and painfully fatigued, and my stomach was in knots. I felt heavy. (And if you’ve ever been as stressed about failing as I was, then you might recognize the telltale signs of the “I am freaking out even though this will be over in a matter of hours” deal.)

Midterms, put bluntly, are a pain in the ass. They are the worst kind of exam: They come right smack in the middle of things, when work for every other class is coming at a relentless, unyielding pace.

Midterms, for me, also mean that I cannot focus on any other regular classwork because this giant, ominous “Midterm Examination” is taking up too much damn space in my brain. (This means, of course, that I am even more stressed than I would otherwise be because subconsciously I feel as though I am falling behind, always.)

Post-midterm, though, everything is glorious. The birds are fluttering, the trees are swaying, the sun spills lazily across Main Quad, the breeze is cool and sweet, and I feel light as air. (Alternatively, as my experience was last time, when my midterm ended at 10 p.m., it could also be nighttime, pouring and dark. But even so!)

Life feels so much better — the weight that had been pressing down on my mind, my shoulders and my chest has been lifted entirely.

Now that’s just me — and I’ve inherited what I like to call the “Worry Trait” from my mother (thanks, Mom!), which means I stress and worry and agonize a LOT. It’s helpful to notice when I’m doing this, but I haven’t quite gotten a handle on controlling it.

I have noticed, though, at least in my dorm, that a lot of other freshmen seem to get all stressed out like I do whenever midterms rear their ugly heads.

My RA, Ryanne Bamieh ’18, says that midterms are a “kind of trial by fire. By the time you’re on your eighth midterm, it’s hard to be as nervous as you were for your first because you know the world isn’t ending and it’ll be fine.”

Megan Calfas ’18, another one of my RAs, tells me that “it [now] feels lower stakes. I feel like I’ve succeeded and failed on enough midterms, so I feel like I can handle both outcomes.”

So what does this mean for a freshman? That we just have to struggle and stress until, eventually and inevitably, we fail? And then learn to chill out before our next midterm?

Coming to terms with this is hard. As a freshman, grades still, frustratingly and depressingly, mean a lot. That last sentence is particularly bothersome because I told myself after high school that I wouldn’t let grades define, hinder or bother me. And yet, it seems, they still do. I even preach to others that a bad grade isn’t the end of the world, when in reality I’m just echoing the sentiment that my parents have (wisely) ingrained in me without really coming to terms with it myself. Because, truthfully, it’s hard.

Now, getting a bad grade back after the fact is fine. I’ve learned to deal with bad grades before. But it’s the possibility that I’ll do poorly, before the midterm even starts… That’s what’s really the worst.

“Uncertainty,” Ryanne says, “is much worse. Because [once you get your grade back], even if you do badly, you have friends to commiserate with … and it’s like, ‘My first C at Stanford! My first D at Stanford! My first F at Stanford!’”

But before those milestones, I’m stuck in this constant “I-must-keep-my-GPA-up-or-so-help-me-I-will-never-get-far-in-life.” Which, I concede, is a foolish thing to think. But it’s also a difficult thought pattern to break. Old habits do eventually die hard, it seems. But before they die, they go down kicking and screaming. And biting. And scratching. And causing general, havoc-wreaking, stress-inducing mayhem.

Megan also says, “You’ve trained yourself to be nervous over years of high school and middle school. You might [still] have this physical response of ‘Now I have this number two pencil, and my hands are sweating.’ Even if you feel like, rationally, your grades don’t matter as much, it’s easier to do that when you’re grounded in the reality of what happened… It’s still a natural human response to be afraid of failing and to want to protect yourself from something that might hurt.”

This rings true. I’m the type of person who always wants my grades back immediately, not because I want to get a bad grade, but because I want to know. I want closure — I want to learn about a bad grade and deal with it.

As my last pre-midterm panic showed me, I stress out a lot when I don’t feel sufficiently prepared — and that stress, I think, is linked to the uncertainty ahead — about not really knowing whether or not I’ll do badly, but knowing that I could, quite possibly, fail.

And failure is something that I, admittedly, no matter what I preach or what I tell my friends, am not quite comfortable with yet.


Tell Matt Bernstein about your midterm-induced stress at mbernstein ‘at’ stanford.edu.