How to Keep Your Cool During Exam Week

After the article you read last exam week on how to stay focused you might think you are fully armed. But that is not all there is to it. As Seneca rhetorically asked some 2000 years ago, “what is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?” You need more than a steady focus. You need to master the mental game too. Here are six tips to get you through exam week with a steady mind.

1. Control what you can (and leave the rest as is)

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” -Epictetus, philosopher and former slave

When we set out to study, there are so many things that consume our energy. We have to bike through the cold to get to UCG, only to find there are no serene places left to get to work. There is too much material and it's unclear what we need to learn. The exam is scheduled too early. You might not want an exam at all. Well, tough luck. You don’t have a say in this (although, at UCG you never know). Exactly those things that we have no control over annoy us. Don't let it. Control what you can: your effort, your decisions, your attitude. Work with what you're given and make the best of it. It will make the actual studying a lot easier. Put your energy where you can make an impact. As the serenity prayer goes (which was popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous):

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

2. Alter your perspective

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” -William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright and actor

Your studying might not be going as expected. You might have a harder time than you had expected. You might have started too late and have too little time to do it all. You might have a hundred unrelated things screaming for your attention. It happens to all of us. The key, though, is what you do with it. What do you think of it? Do you let these obstacles sabotage your work? ‘Cause that’s not going to help. Take control of the situation. Don’t add judgement to everything that happens. When you find out at the end of the day that you studied the wrong material and conclude this is bad, you’re not making it better. Evaluating the event as “this is bad” doesn’t help you one bit. It doesn’t change the event. It will only make the experience of it worse. So suspend that judgement. The only thing you should judge is your own opinions. Or, as Epictetus put it, “When then we are impeded or disturbed or grieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our opinions.” So don't let your judgements get to you. Alter your perspective. You control what story you tell yourself, make it a productive one.

3. Follow the process

“Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it’s so unbearable and can’t be survived.” -Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher

You might be at a point where you can’t do anything else than think about everything you still have to do. Luckily, there are some tricks to make that big pile of work seem like a piece of cake. For starters, it helps to have a sensible goal, so you’re not just wandering through the material without end. If you’re on a treadmill without a goal, you will never be satisfied. In order to feel prepared, your goal might be reading every chapter one time. Well, great. The next step is to take it one chapter at a time and forget about the rest. When you’re done with one chapter, move on to the next, and repeat. KBO, as Churchill said: “Keep Buggering On”. The only effective way to make that pile smaller is by going through it one by one. Just follow the process and forget about what has gone or what is still to come. You can only control the present anyway, so again, work on making an impact there. Focus on what you can do now, not what may or may not be up ahead. Have a sensible goal and follow the process.

Will Hunting keeping his cool. He must have read this article.

4. Anticipate the worst

“If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.” -Seneca, Roman philosopher and statesman

It won’t be easy. Nobody said it would be. And even if it will be, it’s good to prepare for a storm when it’s still sunny. If everything comes crashing down you don’t want be caught off guard. So anticipate some obstacles on the road to straight A’s (or whatever letter you're shooting for). And some obstacles after that. As the Haitian proverb goes, “Behind mountains are more mountains.” Things will go wrong, and other things will go wrong after that. You might not even get those straight A’s. As the Stoics said, “Don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic.” This isn’t to say you should compromise on your ideals. It’s good to shoot for, but if it doesn’t happen, be fine with it. Nothing will go as planned. And although you play a big role in determining your grades, you will never be fully in control. You don’t control the questions on the exam. You don’t control how it will be marked. You just don’t control everything. So prepare for the worst but do all you can to prevent it.

5. Be pragmatic

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” -Viktor E. Frankl, Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor

Sometimes you’re at a point where you can’t see any way to manage. You might have controlled what could, altered your perspective, followed the process and anticipated the worst, but you’re stuck despite all of it. What do you do? Get unstuck, of course. How? Be pragmatic. Your job is to find a way, any way, that works. Could you get a mediocre grade and compensate with assignments? Could you fail this exam and go for the resit? Could you drop the course and take another one instead? You can’t always get what you want the way you want it, but maybe you can get what you want in a different way. Maybe that way is even better than the original way. Seneca put it well once again: “I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up.” Not all hope is lost. Just find a road, any road, that works.

6. Amor fati

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.” -Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher and cultural critic

At age 67, Thomas Edison’s research and production campus suddenly was up in flames. It was his life’s work. When he went up to the flaming buildings, you know what his reaction was when he saw his son? “Go get your mother and tell all her friends, they’ll never see a fire like this again!” His life’s work burns down and he is excited. That’s pretty amazing. But when you think of it, what else could he have done? Every other reaction would have been unproductive. So he decided to enjoy it. To love it. It all comes back to controlling what you can. You do what you can but in the end, you don’t control everything. How will you reply to that? Amor fati, with love of fate. It’s the only way. So when the book you need doesn’t arrive on time, what do you do? Love it. When after a long day of studying you realise you studied the wrong thing? Love it. When you find yourself procrastinating thanks to /SLASH/? You know the answer. And if you don’t love it, just ask yourself: are these things really worse than your life’s work being burned down?

KBO and good luck keeping your cool the coming week. You can do it.


PS While you're at it, review those tips from How to Stay Focused During Exam Week for optimal performance.

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