Sitting your first exam? 3 things I wish I knew...
Your first exam is a milestone. Do it right.
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At this point you’re probably thinking, “I know the easiest way to deal with stress, pal. Stop doing exams. Let me go outside and have a picnic.” And I’m sure we can all agree, that’d be absolutely ace. Who doesn’t love a picnic? Sadly, however, this really isn’t practical. Unless you’re taking exams in picnicking, in which case, carry on. I’m very jealous. For the rest of us though, there are some incredibly easy steps that anyone can undertake to reduce your stress levels and get you through your exam period as quickly and smoothly as possible.
Often when we think about how stressed we are, we get stressed about the fact we’re getting so stressed, causing a really problematic cycle. You might ask someone at school, “Why are you so stressed?”, and they’ll usually turn around and be like, “I don’t know but I’m just so stressed!”
One of the best places to start with dealing with stress is to identify what is actually stressing you out so much. Ask yourself questions about your stress until you’ve reached an end point – the most useful way to do this is to ask, “Why?” after every answer. For instance, if you’re stressed out about an upcoming math exam, you might ask yourself, “Why?” The answer may be that you haven’t done enough revision. If you ask, “Why?” to this, you may find that it is because you haven’t managed your time effectively enough. If you ask, “Why?” to this, you may find that you haven’t put together a proper weekly plan or timetable to structure your revision. By asking “Why?” and getting to the actual root problem, we start to find actual, tangible things that we can do to overcome our stress, rather than just blindly freaking out.
Stress is really just a bodily reaction to an event that is happening in our lives. It manifests itself mentally and physically, and if you look carefully enough, sometimes you can see the symptoms showing physically. The problem is we usually bottle up inside of us, and as a result the stress spreads from a mental state into physical symptoms such as headaches or tiredness.
A helpful way to deal with it is to get the stress out of you by either talking about it with someone or writing it down. By chatting about the stress you’re feeling with a close friend, sibling, parent or teacher, you might start to see that the situation isn’t as bad as you thought. You might also find some really simple solutions that will help you overcome the stress you’re facing. The friend or parent might have been through something similar and suggest how they dealt with a similar problem.
Writing down what is stressing you onto a page has incredible benefits. Often when we stress about something, such as an exam, the stress becomes consuming and it takes over us – in a way, we almost ‘become’ the stress. By writing it down on a piece of paper, all of a sudden you remove the stress from yourself and see in real terms what it actually means. Often by writing it down, we realize how trivial the exam stress actually is. More importantly though, writing down on paper what is stressing you allows you to create a list of solutions and clear actions that you can take to solve whatever stress you’re feeling. There’s a little trick to this – every time you tick off one of the tasks you’ve set yourself on that list, you get a little burst of satisfaction, which spurs you on to complete more tasks on the list. As you complete more tasks, you’ll feel more confident about your ability to do well in the exam and have done more preparation, as researchers have shown the feeling of ticking things off a list is actually addictive!
One of the toughest parts about doing exams is that there are a lot of unknowns – before we walk into the exam hall, we don’t know the questions, we don’t know the answers, we don’t know where we’ll be sitting or what the room looks like. When we don’t know information like this, it tends to freak us out and the consequence is usually stress.
There are some things you can control, however, and that is the routine you adopt before and during the exam. If you can make this routine into a habit, then at least you can take confidence into the exam that something you’ve done is familiar. Think about any habit that you do regularly – like brushing your teeth or tying your shoelaces. After doing them so often, they become second nature and you don’t even have to think about doing them! They allow you to focus your attention to other more important tasks. Exams are not uncommon – in fact, they happen every year in every school and university. Instead of being surprised each time, create the same routine for yourself that feels comfortable and normal. It might include having the same breakfast, walking around a local park, doing a small amount of exercise or reading a chapter of your favorite book. Once something becomes routine, we feel comfortable doing it and this confidence spreads to other parts of our day.
You can even extend routine to the exam itself. If you’ve done enough practice papers, you’ll start to notice patterns in questions and the way they’re asked. You might get into the habit of answering the easier questions first to catch the ‘low hanging fruit’ and then moving on to the harder questions. Alternatively, you might get into the routine of drawing a mindmap as soon as you’re allowed to start writing. If you train these habits in your preparation phase, the exam won’t be as much of a surprise.
We hope this was helpful and if you have any tips of your own or any questions, feel free to leave a comment and we’ll get back to you.