Friday 15 December 2017

Exam stress is normal: It will help you perform at your best

Exams are a major cause of stress but there are steps you can take to minimise it.
Exams are a major cause of stress but there are steps you can take to minimise it.

Patricia Casey

When I sat my Leaving Certificate several decades ago, it truly was a defining experience. The results set the scene for the rest of one's professional life. The marks determined whether you would get to university or not. Then, once embarking on your chosen course, there was little option to change if you felt you had made the wrong decision. Many an ambitious person's dream of studying at university lay in tatters the day the results were published. And many were the people who forever mourned their poor result.

All has now changed and the career trajectory of our current secondary school students has changed beyond recognition with huge flexibility in the route to university and into the trades. Exams are still stressful and people blame the points system for this.

One of the errors of thinking that besets some students, as a result of their parents' experience and memories, is that the Leaving Certificate is the most important examination you will ever take! It most definitely is not. This comes from a time when career choices were made before the Leaving Certificate, for which the Junior Cert (then the Intermediate Cert) was a practice run. Thus, one's career began with Junior Certificate results and was mapped out irreparably for the rest of your life. The linking of career decisions and examination outcomes was inextricable. Changing track at university into other courses was uncommon and career shifts were unheard of.

It is not surprising that this pre-ordained view of life's course, bound like glue to the examinations, instilled terror into young minds. But we now know that this predictable 'one-size-fits-all' timeline may not be applicable to, or suitable for, everybody. Others require a different route to qualifications and careers.

At its most simple, students can repeat their Leaving Certificate if there is a possibility of achieving higher points. This in itself is beset by a problem - the assumption that the reason for the shortfall was laziness, not ability. If a student has worked hard but yet didn't achieve the required points, then considering a repeat may be inadvisable, and other career paths might be explored. And for those who opt for specific careers either for prestige or because of parental pressure, rather than fulfilment, a deficit in points may be a blessing in disguise as they reconsider the choice of career.

If the student does not wish to repeat a stressful examination, there are other entry systems through the mature student (applicable to those over 23) or the FETAC systems. Through the mature entry systems, I have seen corporals in the army becoming barristers and electricians becoming electrical engineers. Other degree courses such as medicine have graduate entry systems that enable a reapplication after obtaining a primary degree.

In the real world, some students will catastrophise and experience acute distress as the first day of the Leaving Certificate approaches. And Day 1 is without doubt the most stressful. The most important thing is to realise that anxiety is perfectly normal and, in this instance, healthy. Stress increases adrenaline secretion and this will contribute to the 'psyched up' effect that everybody needs to perform optimally. In the short term it's unpleasant but it stimulates mental activity and hence performance. The person who is too calm will underperform. For the very few who are overwhelmed, some basic relaxation or distraction strategies may help, such as a walk or some other exercise, listening to music and simply talking to a friend. Sometimes a one-off dose of medication will aid in dampening the feelings of panic, and a visit to the GP might be necessary.

In the rare situation that the level of anxiety is so intrusive that the student still feels unable to deal with the exam, then a deferral may be the best option. I have dealt with many such crisis situations, which, to the student seemed catastrophic at the time, but resulted in a positive outcome with a more realistic appraisal of the alternatives during a repeat year.

Details about exercise, diet, revision systems, pacing and time management are available in every school and on the internet, and it is easy to become too preoccupied by the detail in these. Each student has to use his/her own system of revision.

If a student is struggling, panicking or simply unfortunate to have bad luck on the day, there are other opportunities. And the disinterested, lazy or unconventional student often benefits from a few years out of study while they mature. My personal and professional experience is that taking a gap year shouldn't be seen as an American fad but as an opportunity for personal development.

There is a niche for everybody in life, and while there may be disappointments en route, virtually all students will find fulfilment - even if the path from school to career is crooked and winding.

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