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Tips for Students Super Stressed by Exams

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For me, this is a time of celebration; at long last, I’ll be getting my undergraduate degree; a combined honors in chemistry and biology! I’ll also be starting my master’s in inorganic chemistry in just four weeks (as of the time of this writing), and get back to doing chemistry in a real research lab — something I haven’t been able to do consistently since March of 2020 due to COVID-19.

However, as a teaching assistant myself, I know of many students do not find this time of year — early December — to be as exciting as I do. In fact, what’s on many student’s minds right now is exams, and that means: stress. In the second-to-last lecture I’ll ever have as an undergraduate, my professor gave some helpful tips to those students who are finding this time of year extra stressful. These aren’t his exact words, but I have summarized what he said below, and complemented it with my years of experience being a TA.

Think of doing coursework like any other job. If you’re taking five courses, you shouldn’t be spending more than 40 hours a week doing course-related work — this includes lecture time, tutorial/lab time and studying. In other words, if you’re routinely spending more than eight hours a day doing your coursework, or more than eight hours a week on a particular course, you’re doing something wrong. If you keep this up, you’re setting yourself up for burnout, and will likely get there sooner rather than later.

If you find yourself in the situation that your life revolves around your university courses — that you’re literally doing coursework from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep at 2 a.m., ask yourself some questions:

  • Do I actually enjoy the program I’m in? Or am I just doing this because my friends told me I’ll get a high-paying job out of it, even though I find the subject really boring? If the answer to this is yes, maybe consider changing degrees, or even going into trade school if you find that more interesting. There’s no shame in having a less “prestigious” job than your peers — yes, the world needs doctors, but those doctors can’t do their work if the truck drivers don’t deliver them the supplies they need!
  • Am I spending too much time chasing too few marks? Do I really need to spend that extra hour to get an 89 instead of an 87 on the next test? If you find yourself being constantly obsessed over your grades and crushed when you’re not top of the class, you may have issues with perfectionism or a fear of failure. Talking to a therapist (which you can often find at your university) is likely your best course of action. Even just one session may help you figure out where your perfectionism is coming from and offer you tips to deal with it.
  • Do I seem to do fine on the practice problems, but freeze up as soon as I enter the exam? You might have test anxiety, which is closely related to my point above and can spiral into a vicious circle where you did poorly on a previous test. This in turn makes you anxious before this test, making you more likely to do poorly on it, and the cycle continues. If this describes you, try to get a good night’s sleep before the exam, accept the fact that you’re not perfect, and try to counter any negative thoughts. If this still doesn’t work, you might have an anxiety disorder; talk to a counselor at the university. If your test anxiety is so severe it’s causing you have panic attacks before or during exams, seek professional help as soon as possible. A banner promoting The Mighty's new Chat Space group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Want to talk and connect with others? Join Chat Space to check in with others or have a conversation that's not related to health (because we all need a break sometimes). Click to join.
  • Is the way I’m studying just not working? Maybe you’re a visual learner, but spend hours reading your notes to no avail. Don’t waste time studying using methods that don’t work for you. If you can’t figure out a method that works for you, it is time to bring this up with the professor.
  • Am I just trying to do more than I’m capable of? If you’re overwhelmed while taking five courses, are on a university swim team, play basketball twice a week with your buddies and are working part-time, you’re doing too much. Either drop a course or remove one of your other commitments. There’s no harm in taking longer to do your degree than your peers — everyone’s capabilities are different.
  • Do I have a learning disability or ADHD? If none of the above seems to ring true for you, but you’re still struggling in university, it may be time to look into this. This is particularly true if you know others in your family who have these challenges, have extreme trouble in some courses but get straight A’s in others, or if you can relate on a deeper than normal level with others who were diagnosed with either a learning disability or ADHD.

University is the one time in your life where you get to learn about anything you want. If being there seems like a drag, day in, day out, you’re doing something wrong. In the end, what really matters is not what grade you get, how quickly you got your degree or whether it led to a high-paying job or not, but what you learned along the way.

Good luck on your exams!

Getty Image by elenabs

Originally published: December 17, 2020
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