Those of you who have exams coming up will have noticed that in the run up to the Easter holidays, the pressure has intensified, the workload and concomitant stress have increased, and your free time, your ability to use it wisely, your mental balance, and probably your sanity have all diminished. There is probably a sense that the change has been swift and sudden, and the exam dates are now looming – a horrible storm on the horizon.
This blog is designed to help. It’s very important though that from the outset, I make it very clear that your success in managing this difficult time is entirely dependent on your attitude towards it. Strategies, advice, counsel, guidance, care, plans, are totally useless to you if you’re not prepared to undergo some discomfort and make some difficult decisions.
Your exams aren’t doing anything. They’re not scary, they’re not mean, and they’re not out to get you. If you’re doing your GCSEs, then 700,000 people your age are in the same boat and going to be facing the exact same exam. If you’re taking A-Levels, 335,000 other people are doing them too. So stop focusing on worrying about the exams. They will come, and they will go. Whether or not you do well in them doesn’t depend on you building the day up into something that matters. The day itself is functional, no more. What matters is whether or not you wake up that morning feeling scared, and that is why your attitude towards your studies needs to be right…now.
Your teachers are cranking up the workload and the expectation now – it’s only natural. A side-effect of this is that you are being asked to do more in the same amount of time as you had before, and that’s because your teachers have forgotten that you have other subjects to study, and a life outside of school…right? Wrong. We haven’t forgotten, we just can’t care as much as we’d like to. This is how life works – things get harder and you have to adapt. It’s how you end up succeeding at anything in your life. Do we like it? Not necessarily. Are we going to do it anyway? Yes. You are more than welcome to dislike our choice, (and it is a choice, make no mistake) you are more than welcome to dislike us for making it, but your exams still aren’t going anywhere so why not focus on that instead?
Work out what you want most. If it’s good GCSE/A-level results, then that has to come at a cost. Our lives are full of cost. Everything we do costs us something, be that cost financial, emotional, physical or just time. If you want to succeed, you will have to pay the price, and that price will probably be (as prices tend to be) unpleasant. Fortunately, you can control the price you have to pay, to a degree. So, how do you do it?
Give yourself time off:
If you want to be good at anything, you have to work hard at it. This rule applies to literally every single action you will ever perform in your life. It also applies to doing nothing, relaxing, recharging etc. You have to learn how to be good at it, and hardly anyone takes the time to do that. The following are personal strategies – I cannot and do not promise that all of them will work for all of you, but I imagine some will work for some, and even if not you will still see a pattern emerging: take your mind somewhere else.
Listen to music:
I’m a particular fan of classical music for this rather than anything else; I don’t know why, I just like it. I have certain pieces that I will try and have on in the background when I’m working but equally I like taking the time to just listen to the music and have it rattling around in my brain for half an hour sometimes. I tend to find it works better than music with lyrics, as they distract me, but that’s a personal thing. I’d recommend Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, by the way. Long enough to be immersive, not so long that you’re wasting your life away.
Go to the gym:
I don’t ‘like’ the gym. I’m not a freak, come on. Nobody really likes lifting heavy bits of metal and then pretending it means something, do they? But I do like the fact that while I’m there, I’m not thinking about other things. So bring on the heavy bits of metal – hurrah. I know it does endorphins and stuff and it’s meant to be good for me physically, so I suppose that’s an added bonus. It beats sitting on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, that’s for sure.
Play a sport:
I’m bad at sport. I’m better than I was but I am no sportsman. But, it means I’m not thinking about other things for a while, and it helps me sleep. Those two things are good.
I hate to say it, because it makes me sound like a cliché teacher/parent of the 21st century, but get off your phone for a bit.
Don’t get me wrong – I am terrible for always being on my phone, so I’m not pretending to be above it, but I can’t deny that it isn’t relaxing. How could it be? There’s always a status to like, a picture to retweet, a link to click on, a hashtag to search, an email coming in, a group message to respond to…and it’s totally ok that you do that, but give yourself some time off once in a while. See how it feels. If you are setting time aside to relax, try and actually relax. Going out with your friends might feel relaxing, but it usually isn’t. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have friends, or that you shouldn’t see them, but think about whether or not the activity you have planned is actually going to relax you. Those of you taking A-Levels, if your evening’s going to involve late nights, crowded bars and alcohol – fine, but don’t try and kid any of us that you’re going to feel relaxed afterwards. Work some time into your schedule to actually relax and switch your mind off.
Manage your time:
When you are working – work. I know that sounds obvious, but have a think about your levels of productivity. I don’t wish to sound ancient, but given the immeasurable number of distractions that teenagers in 2016 have to deal with, focusing on productivity must be harder than ever. But that excuse won’t fly on results day, so let’s have a look at it. How many of you have, in the last seven days, sat down to complete a task only to find it took a lot longer than it should have, because you weren’t being as productive as you could have been? It’s totally understandable, yet with a couple of months before your exams start, it’s equally unforgivable. Remember, if you organise your time properly, and work hard when you’re working, you will find that you have more time than you thought you would. It goes against your instincts, and that’s ok, but this is a time to be strong – fight those instincts and beat them. What if you have so many things to do that you can’t possibly manage your time?
This is a dirty word isn’t it? Well, get over that – it’s something you’ll need to do. If you want to play sport for two hours on a weekend, you might have to just do it for an hour. You won’t like that, but that’s the point of a compromise. If you have a job outside school, and you want good GCSE results, work fewer hours. You might not like that, your boss might not like that, but remember your frustration will be temporary and your boss really doesn’t matter that much. Compromise.
Talk to the people who love you…
It’s what they’re there for – I know it’s a cliché that teenagers are moody and sullen and I also know that it’s not always true and when it is, it’s not your fault and the last thing you want is to be told to talk when the last thing you want to do is talk. But it does help…to a point.
…but don’t expect them to fix it.
The people who love you want to help…but remember, they can’t. Not tangibly, anyway. Partly because they know that this is a rite of passage that will give you more than it takes and teach you more than you realise, but also because it’s simply not possible. Remember, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be there for you. They really, really do. So let them.
I’ve never known a stupider ‘badge of honour’ than having not slept. It seems to be something people actually boast about. I’ve done it myself, but I wish I’d not. Get enough sleep. Being too busy to sleep isn’t any kind of achievement. It just suggests you can’t manage your time very well, and what’s worse, not sleeping will make you less productive, less able to cope with stress, less able to manage your time and less able to get along with others. It won’t surprise you to know that the people who survive exam season best are those who are productive, able to cope with stress, able to manage their time, and able to get along with others.
So how do you get more sleep? Some of you will genuinely struggle with this – and there is no easy fix. BUT if you can apply some of the techniques/strategies mentioned in this blog, hopefully the sleep will come. Sleep is a consequence, after all, so give it the right circumstances and hopefully it will come.
What to avoid: Start training your brain.
The concept of ‘Honourable Failure’
Doesn’t exist. You’re not in a Shakespeare play – if you fail, people won’t write essays about your heroic efforts and how they were thwarted by the malicious machinations of fate and destiny. People seem to think there’s some great human tragedy in failure, and perhaps there is sometimes. Not here though. Somewhere between 400-700,000 other people are taking their exams this summer. Some of them are going to fail, just don’t be among them – and if you are among them, don’t pretend there’s any honour in it.
Doesn’t work. If you find yourself trying to cram the evening before your exam, you’ve already failed, so save your time and go have a bath or something. You don’t have to take my word for it, of course, and I’m sure you could find me a story of how someone once crammed the night before their exams and got full marks on everything; but I could find you a story of how a three man crew on a mission to the moon survived an explosion, severe hypothermia and a complete power loss and still got home. It can be done, but that doesn’t mean you should do it.
The Social Maelstrom
Have you noticed how petty arguments and bitchy comments and snide remarks have all somehow increased recently while your patience and willingness to put up with them has decreased at an exponential rate? Well, welcome to the exam run up. This is a tough one; it’s going to happen, and it will always feel like someone else’s fault. Very often, it will actually be someone else’s fault too. How do you escape it? Well, in so far as you can escape it, you have to just try and be the bigger person. Take an extra breath – think before you speak – and above all try and be the person that you need. Whether or not other people deserve your friendship, your compassion, your support and your patience is another matter, but you should still try to give those things because whether they deserve them or not, they probably need them. Bear in mind you won’t always deserve them from others either, but you will need them.
I would use this last little paragraph to wish you good luck – but that comes later. At this point, luck has got very little to do with it. What I will wish you, and will do so with all my heart, is the strength and resilience to develop that rare ability to block out all the noise that screams around you and focus on what matters. I am not saying it will be easy – not by a long stretch – but that’s what will make it worthwhile in the end.
All the very best to you,