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What I’ve learned about midterms

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

They say life comes full circle, but lately I have been wondering if most of us here at Princeton live our lives on a different, less holistic trajectory.

As a senior, I feel like my time at Princeton has flown by, which may be partly due to the fact that I wasn’t physically on campus for 18 months of “the college experience.” But I also think it is because we here at Princeton don’t focus so much on coming full circle, but instead on riding the nebulous grading curve.

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As a first year, that grading curve haunted me. More specifically, I’d obsess about how I could remain on the right side of it, and what it would mean if, God forbid, I slipped backwards down that slippery slope where the crest of that imaginary wave seemed impossible to conquer.

Back during my freshman fall, I recall midterm week — and the weeks prior as midterms loomed — feeling like some swelling ocean of impending doom where it was literally make or break, rise or fall, succeed or pay the consequences. I recall the long nights at Firestone, the labeling of sleep as a luxury, and the guilt that accompanied my indulgence in the smallest of pleasures, like shutting my books so I could watch the last season of Game of Thrones as it went live.

During these latest midterms, I have to admit the stress crept right back in and sat there, familiar, like an old friend whose visits are never planned but always occur regardless. But this year, something was different. 

I suspect that the last 18 months have probably shaped the way I and many of my fellow seniors view the whole midterm process — and the Princeton experience as a whole. Perhaps we all took the lessons learned from the pandemic (and not the ones taught on Zoom) into our final year here at Princeton, and they gave us permission to be kinder, not just to each other, but to ourselves.

As a senior gifted with the privilege of studying the major I love, I am beginning to realize just how lucky we are to sit exams on subjects we feel truly passionate about. I appreciate the value of working together and finding strength in classmates and friends with whom I feel a sense of solidarity, not just in the time we spent together, but also in the time we were forced to spend apart.

I am fully aware that this is my last semester of full classes, which is admittedly somewhat relieving. But I am also, perhaps once again due to the pandemic, acutely aware that, while there was a life before Princeton, there will also be another one beyond it. This realization feels significant, as it allows me to place the stress of midterms in perspective.

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I think I am just less scared. I encourage you to dare to be unafraid, too.

I know if I’d slipped back into my old, worn freshman Converse this past week, I would have been thinking: “Just hold out until the end of the week, because what you do now will affect you later...”  And, while all things are clearer in hindsight, I realize now that “holding out” isn’t necessarily the best way to make the most of this Princeton experience. Rather, a big part of it should include being kinder to yourself, because not doing so, more often than not, has negative consequences.

These days, my friends and I find ourselves seeking help from our professors without being afraid of sounding incompetent, because we’ve learned that midterms are just a very small part of a long and fulfilling semester, that working 24/7 isn’t the best way to get results, and that your best is actually your best by the pure definition of the adjective. So, ask your professors questions, limit your working hours, and understand that your best will be enough.

Last week, when I finished my second-to-last set of midterms, and when my old friend Stress packed its bags and left a few of its favorite things in my top dresser drawer, knowing he’d be back for finals, I almost felt sad, understanding that this part of my life was not going to last forever.

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Moreover, I think we should try to bend that curve into a circle, knowing stressful times will come around again, and that, when they do, we’ll be able to handle them. Where we sit on any curve, at any given time, will not ultimately define us.

How lucky are we!

Claudia Frykberg is a senior in the English Department. She can be reached at frykberg@princeton.edu.

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