Look at the bigger picture at exam time

Whether it's a final exam or a term paper or a mid-term, there are certain truths we should all know—especially if you're just starting out at university.

Person standing outside in front of a laptop throwing papers in the air Photo: Ketut Subiyanto

Grades don’t define you (but know you have options)

This is one of those statements that feels so flippant you wonder who actually says it. Someone who's also experienced a bad grade? Someone who’s never experienced it? I admit, it does matter. As someone who has taken a hit or two before, I can promise you that this is true. There is so much more to you than a letter on a paper.

The thing about university that sets it apart from all other levels of schooling is this: you create your own pace. Not only does that mean dictating your schedule and deciding how many classes you want to take a semester, but it means the ability to repeat a class if you need to without the same consequences of high school. In university, for most programs anyway, there’s no time limit. Four years is just as valid as six. There are so many options available to you if you don’t like a grade.


Start preparing early

There’s nothing like a night-before cram session but let’s be honest, how much are you really retaining in eight hours of mindless reading and no sleep? Likely very little. Pacing out your study sessions gives you ample time to go through your notes and read over your instructor’s exam guideline (which almost all of them will have). Studying without the added pressure of a ticking clock will reduce your stress levels and keep your brain calm enough to understand and hang onto the material.

An added benefit of giving yourself plenty of time is the ability to use fun studying tools. One method I’ve come to love is taking a piece of Bristol board and writing key notes and concepts in big text on it. Then I tape it to the wall of the kitchen (I never advocate for studying in your bedroom if you don’t have to—that’s your relaxation zone) and read over it while I eat my meals. It’s a very easy way to fit more studying in without realizing it.


Sleep and nutrition matter

This has been drilled into my head since high school exams, but the importance of getting a full eight hours of sleep and eating three meals a day to nurture your brain into a fully functioning state cannot be understated. If you’re never doing these things to begin with—and we’ve all been there, being a student is difficult work—it may seem like it doesn’t matter. But as soon as you start putting a focus on your health you will see a difference in your ability to perform.

It's natural to be stressed out during exam season but it’s incredibly important to do everything in your power to ensure you feel the best you can, both physically and mentally. I suggest checking out this article on easy freezer meals if cooking during exam season is hard for you. Anything you can do to make this time easier is a good idea.

I also suggest stopping your study time at the same time every night and giving yourself ample time to relax before bed. Watch a movie, do craft, take a bath, or go for a walk—you’ll feel better.


Prioritize when you need to

My best friend told me this a few weeks ago and it has stuck with me. In life, we’re all juggling orbs. Some of the orbs are made of plastic and some are made of glass. Sometimes the juggling gets to be too much, and we have to drop some of them. The plastic orbs are things that can bounce back if we drop them, like schoolwork, our jobs, and our social lives when it comes to canceling plans. The glass orbs are things that will break if we drop them, like our health and family. At some point we all need to decide which orb to drop—and sometimes it doesn’t happen at a convenient time.

Never in your life will there be a moment where your studies are more important than your health. As living, breathing creatures our priority is to keep living and breathing. If that means you have to drop the “school” orb, then so be it. In my second year, I handed in an essay half complete and walked away because that’s what I had to do to live and breathe. It’s not the end of the world. Working yourself to death will be, though.


Take a break

Treat your studying like a job. When you work a certain number of hours then you have to take a certain number of breaks. This is to make sure you’re not overworking yourself to death. Look away from your notes at regular intervals (every hour?) and give your brain a good 10 minutes to relax. Then, after you’ve gotten a few hours in, give yourself a longer break. Eat a meal, go for a walk, take a nap, or anything that’s going to take you out of the study mindset.


Remember the grander scheme of things

One thing my mother has always asked me when I’m going through a hard time is this: will it matter in 10 years? It sounds so blasé now, I know, but my mother has rarely been wrong, a fact that I’m almost always unwilling to admit so know that me saying it here makes it truer. Will a potential bad grade—or bad semester—matter in 10 years? How about in one year? For many of us, the answer is no.