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After a much-needed but certainly-not-long-enough Fall Reading Week, we are now faced with the biggest challenge of first semester: surviving our final exams.

Most of us have worried away while studying for an exam, only to blank out and not remember anything on test day. The ticking of the clock, coupled with that one keener in class who finishes the exam before everyone else, can make the strongest of us falter.

Stress comes in all shapes and sizes, and this particular type is called exam stress. Some of us are more at risk of suffering from it than others.

When a person’s body is stressed out, a hormone called cortisol is produced. This hormone triggers neurological changes in the brain and heart. The heart beats faster, oxygen enters the blood quicker and the body sweats more to prevent being overheated.

In evolutionary terms, stress is supposed to be beneficial because it heightens awareness of predators and war-inflicting people, but in modern times—like during exams—it is more of a nuisance. In fact, numerous studies have linked cortisol to memory loss.

Sociologists have identified a few reasons why university students are especially susceptible to exam stress: they’re afraid of their future educational prospects, they measure their self-esteem primarily through their grades and they are wary of their parents’ opinions regarding their exam grades.

Even in such dire circumstances, one can rationally and intelligently respond to exam stress without freaking out and thinking that the world is going to end. First and foremost, one must remember that whatever test one is writing, the test itself cannot ever be worth the physical and mental damage you can cause your body by stressing out. In the wise words of psychologist William James, “The Lord may forgive us our sins, but the nervous system never does.”

In the weeks before your finals, remember to drink some tea, to meditate and to breathe slowly. Allow your body to rejuvenate and live in the present. Discuss realistic expectations with those close to you so their opinions and judgments do not add pressure to your life. There is life after finals, I promise.

It is also important to “think small” during such times, no matter what Apple tells you. Mark Twain best describes how to do so, by “breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into smaller manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” So don’t leave all of your studying until the week before exams! Study upon study has affirmed that one cannot possibly remember comprehensive material in the span of five to seven days; it takes at least one to two months of casual regurgitation of information to really have it stick in your brain. Visual learners may benefit from making mind maps, connecting all of the exam information in logical terms on a single poster.

Some students find it hard to recover after having suffered a particularly bad exam in their academic career, which leads them to develop chronic stress. Such stress is a long-term problem that is very difficult to overcome. It is advised that students identify their weaknesses throughout the year, reducing their stress levels as much as possible by optimally studying. 

Lastly, do not forget about the incredible array of de-stressing options the University of Toronto offers to its students. Take advantage of what you’re paying for. Join fellow students in meditating during “Mindful Wednesdays” at Hart House, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Or maybe dogs are more your style—be sure to drop by a “Paws for a Study Break” session with St. John Ambulance therapy dogs at the Marvin Gerstein Group Study Room on the first floor of Gerstein Library on a Tuesday or Thursday right up until exams.

Stress is bad, but it doesn’t have to ruin our lives. If all else fails, talk to a guidance counsellor at the University of Toronto. There’s plenty of information online, or just email recruit.artsci@utoronto.ca with the subject line, “Guidance Counsellor Request.” You could always get in touch with us, too, or stop by our office—we’re always hear to listen and help out in any way we can.

Best of luck with your exams, and happy studying!


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