“I’m Definitely Going to Fail!” Reflections on Exam Stress

“I’ve done nothing for this test, I’m definitely going to fail”

How many times have we heard this said, and how many times have we said it ourselves? I imagine the answer is quite high on both fronts. It’s something that we don’t really question, the ritualistic pre-exam dread we subject ourselves to. It’s become commonplace for students to proclaim how little they know before the exam, each person more unprepared than the last. Tales of woe are exchanged about how each person has found themselves in their current predicament. There’s also those who attempt to justify their lack of study, as if there’s nothing else they could have done.

“Sure I don’t care about failing R.E., I don’t even believe in God.” Perhaps they feel society will reward them for the incredible skill that is….being an atheist. “You can repeat the exams, but you can’t repeat the craic” has to be the most classic statement though. A cavalier statement that shows a willingness to potentially sacrifice any future craic at uni or in a job for some drinking in the moment. There might be someone sitting on results day with a results list which would score very high on Scrabble thinking, “Sure I’ve got no prospects, but I enjoyed that Family Guy marathon back in May.”

Of course there are some who state they’re going to fail, and do. Many people may be saying it in gest, but some people are expressing a genuine fear of failure. What about the people who know the subject inside out? Why do they claim ignorance when the answers are at their fingertips? To everyone else it seems like they’re bluffing but that may not be the case. No one knows what’s going to be on the exam, no matter how hard you revise. If you revise there should not be may surprises but its rarely straightforward. All the studying in the world does not replicate the exam atmosphere.

If you want to make yourself unpopular on the day of an exam, talk about how easy its going to be. When someone strides into the room, nonchalantly throws the schoolbag down and proclaims “piece of piss lads”, they’ve set themselves up for a fall. No one believes this person. They may be displaying bravado, but they have the same anxieties underneath. If someone has to tell you that they’re smart, they probably aren’t. Or perhaps they are but they’re just a bit of a dick.

Rather than being a cocky humblebrag, I think there’s a certain value to the pre-exam fear session. We all relax when we hear that other people are as frightened as us. It shows that we’re not alone it not really understanding a certain topic. I believe it is our fear of failure that can drive us to succeed the most. We run faster from hell than we do towards heaven. We can have grand visions about the uni the exam will get us to, or the job passing our masters will get us to. Although, what motivates us in the moment is the fear of failure. The task at hand takes precedence over any lofty ambitions that fly about in our wildest dreams.

Some realistic pessimism can go a long way. “If I don’t work for this I’ll fail” is a better attitude than “This is my best subject I’ll definitely pass”. When we talk down our chances it’s so that we can ward off complacency. No one wants to fall to earth after setting their ambitions too high. Believing in yourself is overrated. What is there to believe in when you haven’t done the work? I could believe I could fix someone’s car. All the belief in the world won’t grant me mechanical powers sent from on high. What tells in the end is a bit of a luck and a lot of hard work.

Perhaps this article has meandered a bit. To be honest I didn’t look up the mark scheme for self-indulgent blog posts but here we are. There is a chance the person talking about how little they have revised secretly thinks the exam will be easy, but who are we to say? The class’s answer to Albert Einstein may not be as confident as they appear on the surface. It’s not the most inspiring message, but when everyone’s running themselves down, joining in the gloom can provide a bit of comfort. I don’t think it damages us as much as promoters of constant positivity would claim. Perhaps being united in fear is what we need before we are united in success.

For more on the idea of using our fears to motivate us I would recommend this TED Talk from Tim Ferriss.

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