You may or may not know that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is stress, and with tonnes of people from SATS age right up to university in the middle of exams right now, I thought a blog post on something topical might be fitting and, hopefully, useful. Today I want to give you my take on exams and the pressure surrounding them, as well as explain why actively deciding to care less improved my grades.
Personally, I’ve had varied relationships with exams over the years. As a child and during middle school, they didn’t bother me at all, but when the pressure became more pronounced at GCSE level, I’ll admit it did start to get to me. With the risk of turning this into a rant, I think the amount of pressure and expectation put onto young people is ridiculous. When you’re 15 and 16 years old, life is stressful enough; you’re just starting to figure out who you are. The added weight of exams just exacerbates an already unpleasant mixture. During GCSEs, my response to all this pressure was to work extra hard, which luckily paid off when it came to results day. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the way things go, and it certainly wasn’t the case when it came to A-Levels. Alongside the huge step up in difficulty, it was all simply too much to handle in a healthy way. At this point I did exactly what they tell you not to do (whilst piling on more and more pressure) – I buried my head in the sand, and on finishing my A-Levels came out with BDE, which was much less than what I ‘should‘ have achieved based on my GCSE results.
Of course, it’s hard for teachers to get the right balance here – in fact it’s almost an impossible situation. On one hand, there are always going to be people who need that extra push in order to get revising and achieve the grades they are capable of, especially at GCSE age. I would say, however, that there’s usually around 40% of any given class who have already piled enough pressure onto themselves and frankly do not need that extra ‘encouragement’, which can often end up having the opposite effect to that it is supposed to. I always remember during A-Levels pretty much every assembly was about revising or grades, and often felt like nothing more than a guilt trip. It got to me, and this coupled with my own poor mental health was a recipe for disaster. Over the course of GCSE and A-Levels, I can’t even count the amount of exam papers I cried over without writing a word, or the lessons I missed due to stress forcing me to block everything out and live in denial.
It took me many years, actually until resitting my A-Levels, to realise that none of it actually matters. None of that external pressure, none of the guilt trips and nothing anyone may say to you. We’re taught our entire lives in education to listen to and take on board everything we’re told, but I am giving you permission to NOT GIVE A SHIT. This was my motto when resitting and you know what, my grades markedly improved. When I say not to give a shit, I don’t mean to give up and decide not to care about your exams or your education, because they are important and valuable. What I mean is that learning to literally just block out all the external pressure might be the best thing you ever do. If you’re still in the age group where you have to go to assemblies (aka lectures) – just don’t listen. Switch off your brain and do some meditation or something, because lets be honest, that’ll probably be better for you. If you’re a bit older and have some more freedom, just don’t attend anything you know will place extra pressure on you. Be honest with your UCAS co-ordinators and teachers; believe it or not, 99% of them really do just want the best for you and if you put your point across in a mature enough manner, they will understand. I always remember the time when I decided that doing my UCAS application independently instead of with the college would work better for me. I had this whole speech ready to explain why I thought it would be for the best, but I didn’t even need to use it. All I had to do was ask, and I was able to do things the way that worked for me without any issues. It was a huge turning point; I realised that doing things my own way was something I could do, something worth doing and something that actually wasn’t going to cause the drama I thought it would, and I never looked back.
I think my point is that everybody has their own unique traits and ways of doing things, and it’s ok to go with that. As long as during this exam season you are working in the way that’s best for you – that is, your mind, your health and your grades equally, then you just do you. As long as you’re doing all that you can, everything else is out of your control, so why worry about it? And when I say ‘do all that you can’, I don’t mean sacrificing your sleep and sanity to revise constantly. Sometimes doing your best may consist of a day full of revision, but sometimes it may consist of curling up on the sofa, watching a movie and taking some time out. Make yourself a timetable that prioritises your mind and body as well as your education, and after that accept that what will be will be. Neglecting your mental health in the pursuit of grades is not likely to be beneficial, so you might as well work on staying zen and simply stick to that old clichéd phrase ‘just do your best’.