Acing Midterm Season: 9 Ways to Successfully Take Study Breaks

As midterms approach, Penn students all across campus hunker down in dorm rooms, libraries, and cafés to start cramming for exams. During my first midterm season, I remember thinking that the amount of studying I had to do seemed insurmountable in comparison to the time I had. At times, I would take a break from studying only to come back to my work and realize I had wasted 45 minutes mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. Other times, I wouldn’t take a break for hours on end, and my brain would end up so muddled that it would take me an obscenely long time to comprehend one paragraph. Learning to take breaks effectively was one of the most important skills I acquired last semester. Though studying is obviously important, breaks are critical tools that determine how much information you actually retain as you study. The following tips help me get the most out of my study breaks and, hopefully, will greatly reduce your stress this exam season as well.

Take a break every 60 – 90 minutes

It is best to take 10 minutes of break for every 50 minutes of studying, chunking study time into one-hour blocks. However, if taking a break every hour is too much, you can extend your continuous study time to a maximum 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, there is a marked decline in the amount of information you can comprehend and retain. By taking a break at least once every 90 minutes, you provide time for your brain to rejuvenate and sharpen its focus. If you find yourself forgetting to take a break, setting an alarm or reminder on your phone is an effective way to ensure you are giving your mind the downtime that it needs.

Eat a nutritious snack during your breaks

Instead of mindlessly shoveling food in your mouth as you study (as I remember doing all too frequently last semester) use the time during your break to actually enjoy a healthy snack. I always ended up binging junk food as a way to fill the emotional despair of midterm season, but it would leave me hungry and moody. Instead, try to find foods that you enjoy that are rich with proteins and healthy fats, while avoiding excess sugar or calories. Snacks that combine high-fuel food such as nuts, eggs, or yogurt, with more decadent sides such as fruit, chocolate, or cheese can be both filling and delicious. I like to eat snacks like trail mix, baked chips, or yogurt with granola. Simply enjoying the act of eating can help boost your mood. I know it can be difficult to interrupt your studying in order to go buy food; try to keep healthy snacks stocked in your room before you settle down and begin your hardcore marathon of studying so that they are always within reach.

Try to exercise during your breaks

During the week before midterms last semester, I not only survived on a diet of exclusively cookies and popcorn, I also barely moved from one position. I spent the entire week hunched over my books while sitting on my bed, affording my body almost no physical support. Sitting still in any one position for an extended period of time can lead to significant physical discomfort, terrible posture, and even a shorter life span. Try to use your breaks to move around or exercise a little bit. There’s no need to attempt a full workout; instead, doing quick activities like jumping jacks, sit ups, or even just dancing along to your favorite music video can help refresh both mind and body, releasing endorphins and breaking down stress hormones.

Go outside during your break

Try to go outside during your break, especially if the sun is out and the temperature is nice. A lot of the time, I find myself staying indoors during beautiful days because I assume I can enjoy them the next time they come around. However, taking a few minutes to appreciate nature’s beauty between study sessions can really improve your mental health. Fresh air has innumerable positive effects on health and can also reduce  feelings of lethargy. Leaving your computer or textbooks and looking at the vibrant outdoors also reduces eye strain. Furthermore, going outside can just be a good excuse to grab more snacks or have a brief conversation with friends.

Try meditation

Meditation can be an intimidating concept for many people, but you don’t need to bust out a yoga mat to meditate effectively. Meditation can simply be a time where you close your eyes, put on your favorite music, and focus on the present; a time where you don’t think about what chapters you studied yesterday or what exams you have tomorrow, but simply how you feel right now. Meditation not only reduces anxiety, but it is also an easy way to check in with yourself mentally and physically. Taking these few moments to ask yourself how you’re doing and whether you need any help is a critical aspect of self-care and self-love.

Do puzzles!

If meditation is not your cup of tea, it is important to give your mind a distraction. One activity I do during my study breaks that I find to be incredibly effective in helping me refocus is playing sudoku on my laptop. Doing activities like puzzles or word games - even on your phone and laptop - help distract your mind away from thoughts of tests or studying. This gives your mind a break, reduces anxiety, and helps with the retention of information. In addition, completing a low-stakes activity like sudoku helps me feel a sense of accomplishment that motivates me when I go back to studying.

Avoid social media!

Even though it’s extremely tempting to go on Facebook or Instagram when you take  a break from studying, refraining from using social media during study breaks helps you relax your mind. Scrolling through social media can be just as stressful as studying for exams, and therefore, prevents your mind from actually getting a break. Switching back and forth between posts, profiles, and apps has been linked to increased emotional stress and anxiety. In addition, we all know it is too easy to get sucked into the social media void and emerge from it much later than you intended to with all sorts of unwanted emotions.

Take a nap

If I end up in bed during my study breaks, I know I’m not getting up after at least two hours of sleep. In fact, if I haven’t entered REM and had at least two dreams, I don’t consider it to be a nap at all. However, if you’re capable of taking timely “power” naps, they can be incredibly helpful. They help reset and refocus your mind, and even bolster creative juices. If you have the willpower to roll out of bed, taking a nap is one of the best things to do during a break.

Call your friends or family

I call my mom every day and I try to reach out to an old friend at least once a week. Sometimes, we forget that breaks aren’t just about physical rejuvenation; they provide a brief, but critical, window of time to think about our mental health. Talking to friends and family is a great way to get a new perspective on a project or problem you’re stuck on. However, sometimes it’s just nice to hear the voice of someone who loves you; I think that is truly the best way to feel better, no matter how many exams you have.

I am sure we will all ace our exams, but it is important that we do not sacrifice our physical or mental health to do so. We, at Her Campus, strongly advise you all to make sure you take care of yourself and we wish you the best of luck this exam season!