Exam Stress

This will be my last exam period writing for Labyrinth, as I finish up at the end of April and hand the reins to Shawn Dickinson, a programmer and Medievalist of no small promise, and generally cool guy. We’ve been talking a lot about student involvement here, and I wanted to get back to stress, because well, ’tis the season. Today I want to share with you my best exam studying and stress management tips, drawn from six years of studying for history and language exams, not to mention a particularly stressful three weeks of studying for my GED. I’m going to go through these pretty fast, so hold on.

1. Clock Out

I stop working at 10pm, spend an hour or two winding down, and then finally go to bed. I also get up early, and take some time in the morning. The studying you do on a full night’s sleep is invariably better than what you’ll get done at 3am, and it will keep you from getting out of whack with the whole world. You may keep hours like the goddamn Batman, but I assure you your exams will not, and your late nights of reading and fighting crime can leave you bleary-eyed for the final challenge. Stopping at 10 or 11 and starting again at 8am doesn’t lose you that much time, and you can use the rest.

2. Rest is As Important As Sleep

“But I can’t sleep,” you say. Rest. Lay there in bed with the lights off. Agonizing is optional, but a  lot of it is no doubt unavoidable. That’s why I find it important to wind down by reading some fiction or playing some videogames before bed. Just do something to take your mind off of the material, and let your brain rest. Keep a notepad near your bed to write down anything really important that you might think of, whether it’s an interesting answer or a new thing that you need to study, but stay inert. As I tell my nieces, you’ll go to sleep eventually. Even if you don’t, it’ll help you relax.

3. Stick Together

Study groups become more important than ever during exams. You can work together to anticipate what questions will be on the exam, compare notes, and help each other prepare. Also, being around people who are getting prepared will help you feel ready. Confidence is key, so build each other’s confidence. You’ll do more than pass the exam, you’ll ace it. Also, when something in the course seems utterly ludicrous, it’s nice to complain to people who understand.

4. Eat Well

Frustrated womanI understand well the temptation to seal yourself, along with your books and three pizzas, into a time capsule to be opened on the day of your exam, but make the time to eat well. Not only will it have positive effects on your health (and help you sleep better, because it includes regulating your coffee intake you caffeinated bastards), but it’ll have positive effects on your mood and help you focus. Fresh veggies, lots of water, and real meals will go a long way to ensuring that you don’t come away from exams with a higher average and scurvy.

5. Work Out

You don’t have to hit the gym twice a day (though I know plenty of people who do), but stretch, go for a walk, or do some yoga. It’ll get you up and moving, and help you feel good. Feeling good will affect your confidence, and thus your performance. It’s all linked. So get some time outside, especially now that winter seems to be over (I’ll eat those words, I know it).

6. Go a Little Crazy

It’s okay to go a little mental. I have whiteboards and newsprint on my walls that I used to keep study notes (and now keep blogging notes) on. Sure, your roommates may suspect that you’re a serial killer or building some manner of Latin doomsday device for a few weeks, but they’ll get past it. In a lot of ways, it’s just a way of expressing your stress on the world, and it can be good for you, provided it stays harmless. I wouldn’t recommend binge-drinking, abuse of any substance or person, or the quiet contemplation of your mortality. I do recommend the wearing of silly hats, however.

7. Study the Structure

Understanding what your professor expects is almost as important as understanding the material. The structure of the exam, which most of you will have, can tell you a lot about where to budget your time and where to cut your losses. If it’s mostly essay and short answer questions, expect to need to have a deep understanding of key parts of the material, where if it’s mostly multiple choice and definitions, focus on studying the broad strokes. For language exams, make cheat sheets and copy them out. It’s time consuming, but it’ll help you remember those key rules and pieces of vocabulary. For lit exams where you have to place quotes from books, familiarize yourself with the central theme of each piece you’ve studied. The quote from the book will invariably refer to that. It’s not random, it’s carefully selected.

8. Procrastinate

Not expecting this to be on the list? It’s essential. You are allowed to have downtime. You are even allowed to take a day off. I don’t recommend using the day before your exam, but the day before that is a pretty good option. There’s a point where studying and stress will get to you, so make sure you spend a few hours each day just messing around. I bought a guitar stand and set it next to my computer, saying “If I’m not going to work or study, I’m going to play my guitar.” Now I play pretty well. I don’t know that it did my average any favours, but I didn’t do it enough for it to cost me. The guilt of taking time off can cause as much stress as the exam itself. I don’t have a foolproof way of not letting it get to you, but I can say that you’ve earned the time.

Where you have it. My eight best tips on studying without going completely mad. I’d wish you luck on your exams, but I know you won’t need it. You’ll crush them, especially those of you writing your last ones of your undergrad degree.

Jim Tigwell still writes seven to eight thousand words a week on various blogs, and still feels guilty about taking time off. Commiserate with him on Twitter.






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