About keeping sane during exam season.

I hate exams. Unqestionably, I am not the only student to hold this opinion. Exams have the power to make you feel physically sick, nauseous, anxious, inadequate – give me your favourite negative emotion, and certainly an exam at some point in a student’s life stands guilty of its cause. Often, it is not even about what you know about the subject; I find that it is more about the attitude with which you approach revision itself. So with the hope that in just a few days, I might be about to sit my last ever exam ever (…penultimate, if I have to re-sit it) – I thought it might be nice to productively procrastinate by killing two birds with one stone: 1) to share some tips about keeping a positive mindset during the exam period with any of you poor souls who might be aching your way through a disseration or are about to go through another bout of exams; and 2) to overcome this horrendous writers’ block I’ve been experiencing over the last few months. Although of course, I would never kill a bird.

This is going to be quite lengthy, and everything you are about to read comes from my fair share of personal and friends’ experiences, common sense and may or may not be backed by a scientific study somewhere… but who really knows? You have also probably seen a post or ten of tips like these floating around Buzzfeed, but this one is actually based on experience.

  1. Notice my use of ingenious alliteration in the first paragraph. Productive procrastination is definitely a thing, and I swear by it when productivity levels wane. We’re only human; your concentration will die a slow, painful death over the course of a day without you even noticing. One minute you are answering a past paper question, only to find yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed the next. This is when I say to myself, “fine – two minutes, no more” and try to analyse what was it in the first place that made me switch tasks. Was I not understanding the question? Was I trying to blag my way through a period of mulling over the posed problem whilst doing something requiring little brainpower? Or was I just being plain lazy and searching for the next photoblog inspiration for tonight’s dinner? (It happens a lot when you follow far too many culinary Instagrams for your own good!). But if I were to instead recognise that perhaps my brain just needs a break, then I would not feel the inevitable guilt that comes with a string of double-taps whilst surrounded by textbooks. If I were to physically get off my seat, do a few stretches, make my fourth / seventh / eightieth cup of tea of the day and open up a fresh blog post to take my mind off of the revision for a set amount of short time, then perhaps I’d be doing something my brain a well deserved favour. And switch off the wifi and mobile data for the rest of the afternoon to stop the Instemptation. I also don’t drink that much tea, just wanted to write ‘eightieth’ because it just rolls off the toungue beautifully.
  2. Kind of along similar lines: exercise. Exercise does wonders. It gets you off your seat, refreshes your mind, releases endorphins and makes you feel less guilty about drinking that eightieth cup of tea.  More importantly: it makes you feel alive, whilst revision makes you feel… dead. Exercise allows you to strive and reach something other than a certain exam mark. Whatever it is that rocks your physical boat: dancing, cycling, climbing, running, swimming, skateboarding, weightlifting… – there is always something to improve on. And it is okay to fail, you shouldn’t always be striving to beat your PR! Whereas it seems kind of less-okay to fail an exam… which brings me on to:
  3. Failure. It is OK to fail. Seriously. A perfectionist might cringe at reading that sentence. But, having witnessed people fail exams, re-sit them, fail again and still manage to submit a PhD thesis three years later fills me with hope. Having never failed an exam before starting university, the psychological hit taken upon my first failure is one I will never forget. The only way you can deal with that is to carry on and pick your spirits up over time, because no one else will do that for you. I’ve learnt that the hard way, by trying to deal with inadequacy by being harsh and shaming myself for it. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. It has helped me come to terms with the fact that we cannot always succeed, even if we try our best. The only way to move forward is to be compassionate to yourself about your shortcomings. You would not beat your best friend up for failing an exam, so why would you beat up your own self about it?
  4. Find your mojo. Explore different ways of studying, because different things work for different people – you do not need me to tell you this! Some people listen to music, others prefer silence (and my boyfriend recommends listening to a podcast – something I have never actually tried!). Working in your room or in the silence of the library or the buzz of a coffee shop? Some guys stay up in the library all night three times a week to cram it all in. If that works for them – fine! Might it work for you? Maybe! Did it work for me? N…yes, when a final report deadline loomed the next morning and I still had to sort out all the citations and LaTeX formatting to stop it from looking like it was written by a 5 y/o kid. But staying up all night frequently is not something I would recommend. So here’s tip no.5:
  5. Sleep. Listen to your body. Who said that the human body needs only 6 hours of sleep to function? Maybe it works for some people, but if I get less than 8 hours, I enter grouchy zombie mode for the next few days. You might even need 9 hours of sleep – and that’s fine! Things turn ugly when you begin to beat yourself up about “oversleeping”. There may be a good reason for your body to ask for more snooze time. Accept the request and give yourself enough rest, because there are still many more hours in the day to utilise. It’s about how efficiently you utilise the waking hours, because time sleeping is never time wasted. So if you find yourself “oversleeping” and are genuinely annoyed about it: try going to bed earlier. Disconnect your phone data some time before snuggling up into the duvet.
  6. Eat. And eat well. You know this. Brains need nutritious brain food, and you will use up a surprising amount of energy whilst indulging in a heavy studying session. Cooking might not be your thing, but I always find joy in experimenting in the kitchen as a means of taking my mind off of that problem I can’t quite tackle. And sometimes, something nutritious might even come out of it for dinner as a bonus!
  7. Stay flexibly organised. Revision timetables only work up to the point where you “mess up” and realise that you’ve “messed up” and consequently continue to “mess up” because you’ve already “messed up” once… I’ve been there so many times. When your university timetabling system spits out at you 6 exams in the space of 5 days, your brain will probably grind to a halt at the mere thought of squeezing in all the preparation for that horrendous week. So give yourself enough time to focus on each exam in the lead-up, but learn to prioritize. Some areas might require more attention, whilst others might only need a brief refresher. I try to start with the things I’m fine with, to reassure myself that I can pass. Then tackle the hard stuff. There will always be things you already know, even if they’re just definitions. We had to know so many damn definitions in maths. But ride those out and you have a start. You won’t be able to reconstruct an entire proof if its pillars (i.e. the definitions) are made of sand. Solidify those, and you will be okay.

Don’t panic. You got this 🙂

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