Degrees of stress

The strain and pressure of university exams can be crippling, especially when the result is so important. Relax, says Anne McHardy; help and advice are at hand
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The Independent Online

Your university years may be the best of your life, but they will also be peppered with exam stress. Exams loom large in the lives of students: they are aware that it matters what degree you get. If you want to get a good job and a foot on the ladder of a professional career it helps to have a 2:1 or a first-class degree.

Your university years may be the best of your life, but they will also be peppered with exam stress. Exams loom large in the lives of students: they are aware that it matters what degree you get. If you want to get a good job and a foot on the ladder of a professional career it helps to have a 2:1 or a first-class degree.

But you should know that you're not on your own: there is plenty of advice for those about to sit exams. Universities have counselling services and websites. Students' unions have networks. Parents and partners have their wit and wisdom. But a common theme runs through all the sane advice. Yes, revise; yes, organise your revision carefully; but don't allow revision to take over to the detriment of your general wellbeing.

As Mark Phippen, the head of the Cambridge University Counselling Service, puts it: "Sometimes people feel that the only way to do well is to revise. People tend not to think of the other things. Part of the preparation is protecting and looking after yourself in terms of sleep, food and relaxation. Even when the pressure is on, don't expect to be working 15 hours a day. It is much better to take time off each day."

Mr Phippen, who is chair elect of the UK Heads of University Counselling Services, says: "Let yourself wind down a bit. Maintain other interests. If you are a keep-fit freak, don't suddenly stop doing that. Maintain whatever is reasonable." As for revision and preparation for the exams, make sure that you know what to expect, what the papers are likely to contain and, if possible, how the answers will be weighted by the examiners, Phippen says. Discover, if you can, how different parts of the paper are graded and what weighting is given to your thought processes as opposed to your factual knowledge.

"There should be people in all universities to whom you can talk. There will be academics who can talk about the nature of the work and the exams. The more the student can find out – what the papers are, how long they are, their weighting, which questions are going to be in each paper, is there a grading system that is available to students – the better. Knowing as much as you can about what you are going to have to do helps you to prepare more efficiently."

Dealing with the less sane advice that people give you is another matter. There is one very good piece of advice among the many other sensible ones in Eileen Tracy's The Student's Guide to Exam Success: retain your critical faculties as you read. Studying is essentially a personal thing, according to Tracy. There are no rules – or very few. Plenty of students have passed exams with flying colours despite seeming chaotic in their work, simply because their attitude to exams was sound.

Remember that you are facing the horrors of degree-level exams because you have a functioning and educated brain. Don't be bullied by others into feeling that you have to follow their rubric to succeed. If it doesn't suit you, you have the right not to do it. If your family or your peers are nagging, point out to them that their role should be supportive. You need food supplied, if you are living at home, a willing ear if you want to sound off, and unconditional love, whatever your results may be. If you are at university away from home, the chances are that you will be taking turns with your friends: today, you provide the support network, tomorrow they do.

The beginning of May is rather late to be rummaging through advice books. They really are for earlier in your university career, except, perhaps, for dipping into. Tracy's book contains chapters, complete with cartoons, about training your memory, organising your work space and caring for your health. Even the most superior of intellects functions more efficiently without excesses of coffee and alcohol and with reasonable exercise and sleep,

So, close to final exams, the most important thing is to hang on to the light at the end of the tunnel: the party to celebrate when it's all over, and a summer of winding down and relearning what fresh air and sunshine are.

And, remember, even though it is useful to have a good degree, particularly if you're planning an academic career, or hoping to enter one of the professions, the actual degree level, be it First, Second or Third, doesn't actually matter as much as you think. Of course it's good to feel that you got the degree that your brain deserved, but it will be the rest of what you have to offer – your drive, your perception, your charm – that will really influence future employers. Not all of those with Firsts become captains of industry, or prime ministers, or even professors.

If you do, at any stage, feel you are being swamped, then get help as fast as you can. Be ready to say that you feel that you cannot cope. At universities, there are many routes to access help. There's also your family. Phone parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, whoever. If you ask for help it will surely arrive.

'The Student's Guide to Exam Success' by Eileen Tracy, Open University Press.

www.counselling.cam.ac.uk/ leaflets.html

education@independent.co.uk

Top exam tips

1 Make sure you understand the length and structure of your exams.

2 Organise your working space so that you can spread work out.

3 Check which paper covers which part of the course.

4 Make sure you have whatever pens, instruments or books that you need.

5 Check locations and make sure you have any entry documents you need.

6 Eat well: cheese, fruit and salad plus bread, rice and soup to fill you up.

7 Avoid all-night sessions. Sleep is essential to concentration.

8 Avoid too many stimulants. Black coffee keeps you awake but doesn't keep your brain working smoothly.

9 If your workload seems intolerable, talk to someone before panic sets in.

10 Plan a post-exams party: there is light at the end of the Finals tunnel!

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