The exam season is with us once more. We all know how important it is to get good grades and qualifications and, naturally, this is a stressful time, for both you as a student, your family and your friends. The great news is that your brain is ripe and ready to process everything you need to smash your exams and show everyone how awesome you really are!
It takes a lot of perseverance and resilience to get the best grades. But don’t make the mistake of thinking all you have to do is throw yourself in and work hard through every hour of the day – and night! That is a path to failure. You are an incredible human being, however your mind has limitations. Make sure you get the grades you deserve by looking after yourself through this challenging time. This is going to be a mental marathon and like all good athletes it is important to keep yourself at a maximum level of health and fitness.
Here are your two equal priorities at this time:
- Look After Yourself
- Get Great Grades!
By doing 1 you get 2. They are EQUALLY important and deserve equal amounts of your attention.
Here is my 360 degree guide for you, which is different from any other exam stress / top tips guide you may have seen. It’s different because it pulls together the latest discoveries about how our minds work and how this specifically affects young adults like you. Plus I know what works because:
- I have been where you are now, taking your GCSE’s, A-Levels, University or Post-Grad exams and remember it all with clarity (and moments of red-faced embarrassment).
- I understand how frightened, tired, and confused you may feel.
- I’ve been the teacher who expects you to excel yourself in her subject exams so that you get where you want to be and she can sing, dance and enjoy a glass of wine on results day in August.
- I’ve been the Examiner marking exam papers late into the night in May and June, delighted when I can give the top marks to students who have clearly revised smartly and listened to advice.
- I’ve spent parts of my summer holidays working with fellow Lead Examiners moderating hundreds of schools marked exam papers, in the awe-inspiring Colleges at Cambridge University.
- I’m also the Mum who has watched two of her young adults revise for all of these exams, including six years of medical exams, and has another two boys heading towards SATs and GCSE’s. (And I still do exams myself!)
So this is my unique (and really effective!) guide to ensure you flourish and thrive through your exams, plus some supporting advice for those around you who wish they could help you more.
Looking After Yourself
Keep a Positive Mindset
- Keep your eye on the prize. Motivate yourself by creating a vision board of the life you want to lead. Include photos, memes, and quotes of the things you dream about doing. Good grades will help you achieve many of your life goals. All your hard work will be worth it! (I’ll be running a ‘Flourish and Thrive Café session on vision boards soon!)
- Use positive affirmation. Each morning and evening, remind yourself of your strengths and remember the positive things you did each day. Each morning, look forward to the great things you will do, not look backwards at the mistakes you may have made. (This is a habit that can be difficult to develop, as your brain tends to be always wary of anything that can be a threat and therefore tends to ponder on negative things. Consider working with a life coach, such as myself, before the exams to help you tackle each day with confidence.)
- Be excited by the prospect of exams, not worried. This is your time to shine! Show off what you can do. These exams are going to happen, they may be difficult, but by worrying about them you are suffering twice! Worry creates unnecessary anxieties and demotivates you. Choose to not worry by counting 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and thinking of a happy memory to sweep away any nagging thoughts.
- Avoid negative people and discussions. Either get your friends to be positive, or walk away.
- Put the exams in perspective. They are important, but poor grades won’t destroy your life. Your path may be different from what you expected yet a change of direction often brings great rewards and surprises.
- Smile and laugh. Watch / listen to comedy. Your mind will be flooded with serotonin and become relaxed and ready to focus on work.
- Share your worries with a positive, caring person. Talking will allow your brain to put your worries in perspective. (Again, consider hiring a life coach before exams. They act as great sounding boards!)
Keep a Healthy Mind and Body
- Sleep well. Don’t fall into the trap of pulling all-nighters. Your brain needs the time provided by sleep to synthesise and memorise your revision. Without a good night’s sleep (7 hours at least!), your hard work will be wasted. Go to bed at a reasonable time every night. Have a calm hour before bed – no computer games, no social media, no exciting movies! Make sure all light is extinguished – remove any technology that emits light.
- Exercise regularly. This doesn’t need to be hard-core; a half hour speed walk is all it takes to supress anxieties.
- Don’t use stimulants or drugs. Whatever short term effect you may benefit from will be offset by long term depressed states as the body craves more of the same for lesser effect. Drugs which ‘chill you out’ are especially damaging to your brain at this age, due to the massive growth of synapses taking place between the ages of 14 and 25yrs.
- Eat healthy snacks regularly. Cut out the sugar. Snack on raisins instead of sweets if you have a sweet tooth. Set yourself up with lots of fruit, vegetables and nuts. Eat small amounts, regularly to maintain longer periods of concentration. Drink water throughout the day.
- Meditate. Engage in any mindfulness activity (check out www.mindful.org for some fabulous ideas and exercises). The more you can control the emotive parts of the brain, the less you will worry and the calmer you will be.
Create a Supportive Environment
- Create a calm, organised study area. If this is going to be in your bedroom, tidy up! The brain works better in an organised environment. Get a desk and chair that is comfortable and place it next to a window. The brain works better in natural sunlight and when you can look outside. Make sure your room is heated to a constant 20c, as this is the most comfortable temperature for humans – but do not go above, as this will make you sleepy. Stock up on resources so you are not left short at crucial times – get plenty of multi-coloured pens, pencils, highlighters, filing cards, lined and plain paper. Make sure you have all your notes and textbooks at hand.
- Switch off. The sad truth is that multitasking just doesn’t work. The brain works far better when it can focus on one thing at once and for you that one thing is revision. Remove television sets, stereos, game consoles, tablets and phones from your room if you cannot resist using them. The reward for working so well is to get them all back when the exams are over!
Having taken all the precautions to look after yourself well throughout the exam season, it is time now to consider how you can best prepare academically. Successful students don’t think in terms of working hard, they focus on working smart! Your brain and body have their limitations and it’s important for both your mental health and your performance not to overload either. The trick is to push both to their limits without exhausting either. Head to my next blog to read Part 2 – Getting The Grades!