Exam Stress Students Face: Who Am I And Where Am I Going?
Management & Leadership

Exam stress: Who am I and where am I going?

Oct 27, 2014
Exam stress
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Mobile Curve

This week marked the start of the 2014 National Senior Certificate Exams. With over 500 000 matriculants writing their final school exams, the next five weeks are a stressful time for them and their families.

Part of the pressure of being a matriculant is being told by everyone ‘how important’ your matric exams are, while at the same time having to make major decisions around your future education and career. Many matriculants will enter a period of drastic transition after the exams, moving out of home to study or work, becoming responsible for their own well being, having to find work to support themselves and their studies.

SACAP’s (South African College of Applied Psychology) Motivation Expert, Dr Yaseen Ally has worked with many teenagers and says: “There are recurring questions that come up when I work with matriculants no matter what their background or plans for the future are, the stress around the time of the final exams can be overwhelming.”

These questions include: How do I learn to say no? How do I create balance? How do I effectively plan and manage my time? How do I better understand who I am and where I am going? What is my self-worth? How do I silence my inner critic? Why does peer pressure affect me? How do I make a decision that affects the rest of my life?

Here Dr Ally shares advice on how to deal with some of these questions including how to study and cope during this important life stage:

How do I learn to say NO?

This is a very tricky skill to master and many people (including adults!) struggle with this. Most of us feel that saying “no” may be interpreted in a bad way by the person asking and are filled with guilt when we say “no”. Sometimes saying “yes’ can bring us great joy, as a key component to successful living is the ability to work well with other people. After all, we are social beings and do not live in isolation. In many instances though the inability to say “no” results in added pressure, more tasks, more stress and definitely a shift in the focus from your needs. Not being able to say “no” would mean that everything we do is based on what other people expect us to do.

Learning to say “no” to requests that don’t meet your needs may result in you having more time for yourself, your studying, and things that are important to you. Evaluate what the request is and whom it is coming from. Ask yourself: do you have the time to do this? Saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean that you do not say ‘yes’ to those around you, but you also have to take your needs into account.

How do I create balance?

It is important to understand that ‘balance in life’ includes having fun! A balanced life includes time for work, studying, chores, friends, family, music, sport, recreation, holidays, time-out and very importantly – time for you! We are often so ‘busy’ that we fail to realise that we need to give our ‘self’ some attention. Working on a routine and a timetable enables better planning for the things that are most important to you.

Dr Ally suggests making a list of everything you find important in life and then ask yourself how much of attention you are giving to these areas? Chances are, you may be placing too much attention on certain areas over others. Creating balance is about giving enough attention to all the important areas that make up who you are, even while you are going through your final exams!

How do I effectively plan and manage my time?

The answer to this question varies. Some people prefer to work with a diary, others a day-to-day planner and some thrive on being told what to do with their time. If you want to have control and power over your days and your time, find a way that will enable you to structure your days well. Especially during this time of intense exams – find ways of structuring your time well enough, so that you can study, eat, sleep, get some fresh air and time to socialise. Many students sit the whole day and then burn the midnight oil in an attempt to cram in as much information as possible. This is not an effective way to study. Your brain needs to rest otherwise it will not be able to process the information you are feeding it. Don’t use ‘resting my brain’ as an excuse to lounge around for hours. Take short breaks to get some fresh air, go for a short walk, eat something, and chat to a friend. As difficult as it may be to stick to a study timetable, create a weekly routine roster including study break activities… and then stick to it!

How do I better understand who I am and where I am going?

Matriculants are at the intersection of many paths that lead to many wonderful destinations. Choosing which way to go is not a simple task. In order to understand where you are going, you need to understand yourself. Matriculants are faced with difficult study and career decisions and ‘advice’ comes from everyone including parents, family, neighbours, teachers, siblings, and friends!

Write a letter to yourself, explaining who you are, what you like and dislike and where you see yourself in a few years. Read this back aloud and ask yourself: does this sound like me? Remember; choose a study path that is in line with what you are passionate about as well as what you are good at.

What is my self-worth?

Self-worth is the value that we place on who we are. Comments, attitudes and expectations that others may have of us can affect the value we place on our abilities and ourselves. As learners are faced with ‘the most important exams of their life’ an immense pressure is placed upon you. Even if not said directly, everyone knows just how important this examination is. This brings many expectations and comments into a learner’s life and not all are positive and many add additional pressure. Becoming aware of interacting with people all the time and accepting that there will be comments, enables you to start evaluating whether these comments are valuable or not! Tell yourself that you matter: pep talks are a great way of affirming your self-worth and if done consistently, you can start changing the negative internal voice. Again, you can build on your self-worth by evaluating the balance between the time given to other people and the time you spend on your own life.

How do I silence my inner critic?

The inner critic is the negative voice that everyone has. It expresses disapproval over our actions and feeds us criticisms. It might sound like “what is wrong with you?” “Why did you do that?” “You can’t do this”. This voice is developed in relation to the comments and experiences we have with those around us. Even though the inner critic is there to assist us in not making old mistakes or being hurt, it can actually immobilise you. In order to understand the inner critic, make a list of criticisms that you are aware of hearing yourself say? Now read it aloud. Ask yourself where you heard this. This exercise may make you realise that these criticisms are from the external world and not from you!

Then silence the inner critic – create an image of what your inner critic looks like (you can be as creative as you want). Close your eyes and speak to it. Remember, that you are in control, not the inner critic! You need to control the criticisms that you feed yourself, so they won’t affect your concentration while you study and write you exams.

Why does peer pressure affect me?

Many people believe that peer pressure is about being told to smoke a cigarette or being handed a drink. It is a lot more complicated and may affect almost everything you do! Have you ever woken up in the morning, feeling great about yourself… but when you come back from school after spending the day with your friends you feel completely different? This is because when we interact with our friends we tend to absorb the way they feel, their attitudes and even the language that they use. Being an adolescent, you are faced with an important psychological challenge: the development of an identity. And in searching for who you are, you tend to rely on what others think, say, feel, like and do. Identity is developed in relation to testing different things and choosing what works best for us. Everyone has at some point in their life given in to peer pressure. However, not all peer pressure is bad. Ask yourself, are my friends making it easier for me to go to school or even to study? Do you have to chat to your friends on social networks at certain times? What happens if you are studying and you don’t respond? Will this create some drama? As a matriculant try and minimise the influence that peer pressure may have on you as this may influence your study routine and concentration.

How do I make a decision that could affect the rest of my life?

Making a career decision is not easy. In fact, there are various objectives to consider. You need to firstly, know yourself well enough: who are you? What do you like (and not what others have told you to like)? Considering your skills, interests and your value is important in making a decision that could affect the rest of your life. Explore your options, speak to people, and spend time with professionals in various careers. Sometimes what you see on television is not that glamorous in reality! A career assessment is one way that may assist you in making a career decision. You can contact various psychologists who can assist you in this regard.

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