Most of us are no strangers to expectations at school. Be they from teachers, family or ourselves, this pressure can be both a motivator and a paralyser.
So how should you navigate this cruel mistress, academic pressure?
Understanding the Pressure
As I’ve already suggested, this weight of expectation can come in a variety of forms, although not all of them are helpful. Therefore, a key step in dealing with the pressure is working out whether you’re working with it or against it.
It’s not as binary as it first appears. Begin by asking yourself this:
“Am I being pushed away from failure, or pulled towards success?”
Push and Pull Factors
If your stress and concern is stemming from a deep-seated desire to do well, that’s a pull. If you’re trying to get that university or sixth form place you really want. If you’re aiming for that shiny award at the end of the year, or to prove that you can do well when it comes down to it. These could all be pulling you towards that success.
On the flipside, if you’re terrified of failing, for reasons other than not getting the things that come with success, that’s more of a push. Maybe you can’t bear to disappoint your family. Or you’re worried about what you can even do if you don’t make it to uni. Perhaps you don’t want to deal with a sense of shame from letting yourself down. These can all be seen as push factors.
Now, you won’t be ruled by purely push or purely pull factors. It will often be a mix, but it’s useful to dissect all these motivations to work out how unrealistic they are! Yes, some of them will be unrealistic. That’s just a fact.
Take a look at your pull factors, all the perceived rewards from doing well in those exams. How many of those are realistic? How many will definitely happen if you hit that arbitrary score that some stuffy old man somewhere has deemed ‘good’? Some of them won’t.
Now turn your beady eyes to the push factors. How many of those things will realistically be prevented by some numbers on certificates? The same principle applies here as for the pulls.
Sometimes, doing well in exams isn’t enough to feel good about yourself. To earn respect that you crave. It’s important to recognise that some of these motivations can be rooted in problems in other parts of your life. And they won’t automatically be healed by a great set of A-levels.
If you’re feeling under pressure, it’s useful to see your motivations and drives as they really are. With clarity and truth. So that, when you discard the drives that don’t make sense, there will be fewer left to apply pressure to you. And they’ll actually be realistic.
Managing the Pressure
So you understand your deepest, darkest academic desires. You’ve chucked the useless ones out the window and you’re wondering how to face what’s left.
From my experience, the key is to keep life as normal as possible during exam season and term times. A common misconception is that every waking moment should be spent preparing for those exams, that any other way of spending time is frivolous and superfluous. I’m guilty of it too.
It’s a myth. The other parts of your life are just as important as revision and learning. Because if all you did was prepare for exams, who are you going to be when there are no more exams to take?
Don’t lose yourself to this system of intellectual gladiatorial combat. You are not defined by the grades you get because you’re more than a number. You’re a person with hobbies and interests, you shouldn’t let them go just because exams are coming. Obviously do revise and try not to procrastinate, but don’t view your downtime as a waste of time.
Those quiet moments can tether you to who you really are. So, don’t stop doing the things you enjoy. They can even be amazing outlets for stress when the time comes. If you swim every week, keep doing that. If you play an instrument, lose yourself in the music as much as you can. I remember, during my A-levels, I penned an entire mystery-romance novella between the exams. It kept me sane and it let me escape from what would otherwise have been a crushing, claustrophobic few weeks.
And make sure you look after yourself. Eat as you would – if not more, because revision requires a lot of fuel! Get enough sleep, get a nice routine going so you can take those humdrum, daily things off your mind and leave space for the knowledge you need to smash those exams.
Socialising is helpful too, for similar reasons as keeping your hobbies going. There’s something weirdly soothing about talking to another human being. It doesn’t have to be about school stuff. In fact, I found the conversations about inane nonsense to be the most calming!
Make it your own
I’ve given a few examples of how you might deal with the pressure, but you shouldn’t follow these ideas as dogma. In fact, the underlying point I’m trying to make is that you shouldn’t mindlessly follow the socially and mentally imposed template for how exam seasons are supposed to go. Because that’s what leads to burnout. It’s balance between discipline and self-care that has the best outcome.
Not endless hours in libraries and hand cramps from countless practice essays. Not living off coffee and toast. Not hiding from the light of day or eschewing the embrace of a good night’s sleep. These are what the pressurised environments of most schools and universities make us all do. But they turn us into zombies. Chronically tired and miserable.
And they don’t even guarantee better results.
But if you take care of yourself and work hard at the same time, in whatever manner that best suits you, you’re far more likely to survive this ordeal unscathed and with good results to show for it.
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