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Q & A for Teens: Exam Anxiety

June 19, 2013 | by Lauren Roth

I’m so stressed and afraid I’m going to get bad grades!

1. Dear Lauren,

Hi I’m a girl in ninth grade and I’m not the smartest kid. This year I’m taking two regents and around ten finals. I am so nervous and I am going to go crazy with all the pressure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What am I supposed to do? Hellllp! Please answer quickly.

2. Dear Lauren,

I haven't been getting good marks for my tests this year and I am in grade 11. I feel really disappointed in myself, my rank is going to be really low even though I didn't fail. My parents are going to rage at me. I have no life. I feel so uncontrolled and miserable.... I don’t know.

3. Dear Lauren,

I’m taking summer courses and the pressure is so intense! I have tests every week and finals every month until I’m done and it’s stressing me out.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

What do all three of these young people have in common? Allowing a little red number on the top of a paper control their emotions.

Yes, it’s nice to get good grades. Yes, it feels good to do well in school. But your self-worth is not determined by your “marks,” “grades,” or “rank” in school.

Notice, also, that these three questioners are all different ages, in different schooling situations, and (judging from the language of the second questioner) from different countries. Isn’t it reassuring to know that kids all over the world are stressing about the same things that you are? And isn’t it reassuring to know that none of you, at any age or in any country, have to stress about your grades?

I mean it: stressing about your grades will not help you. You can study. That will help. You can calm yourself down and focus when you’re taking tests. That will help. You can go over your notes a few times. That will help. But stressing about your grades will not help. It’ll just make you anxious and miserable, make you have a knot in your stomach, and make you unable to sleep or BREATHE. (Not a good plan.)

Relax and ENJOY your exam period.

So here’s my advice to all of you, wherever you are, whatever age you are: relax and enjoy your exam period. Yes, you heard me right. ENJOY your exam period. Allow me to explain.

Who would have thought? Can you believe that the other day, I gardened in the rain? Who would have thought that gardening in the rain could be such fun? It was like swimming and looking at flowers all at the same time! Who would have thought?!

Who would have thought? Last summer, we went hiking, and during one of our longer hikes, it started pouring. Do you know that that turned out to be our nicest hike? Who would have thought that hiking in the rain could be such fun?! Of course, once I went hiking in 110 weather, and that was completely miserable, but my point is: sometimes, the things we dread turn out to be really nice. Like studying. You can make studying into a game. Into the “Let’s See How Many Answers I Know” Game.

You can also make studying fun by using the classic Jewish study method: study with a partner. (Personally, I was never able to study with friends. I could party with friends AFTER exams, but studying was a lone enterprise for my brain.) I know lots of teenagers who study together and, therefore, enjoy the study time.

For me, studying was “fun” and interesting because I always have enjoyed learning things. Even now, I love absorbing new information, and I love remembering interesting things I’ve learned over the years. For me, studying was never a chore, because I enjoyed reviewing the knowledge. Maybe see the interesting side of studying: discovering new intellectual terrain (or committing to memory the intellectual terrain you’ve already discovered.) Of course, this is not to say I didn’t get nervous when exams came around: I did get nervous. I was as nervous as you questioners are. But that was before I knew that your worth doesn’t depend on red numbers at the top of a test paper.

I’ll tell you something else, too. There are many different kinds of intelligence. Howard Gardner, in Frames of Mind, and Mel Levine, in A Mind at a Time, describe all the many different types of “smart” people can be. There’s creative, artistic intelligence. There’s culinary intelligence. There’s proprioceptive intelligence, whereby a dancer or a football player or a gymnast or a wrestler can understand where his or her body is in space, and can intuit where to put his foot and his arms to, say, catch the football (or his ballerina), or where to leverage her weight to fell her opponent, etc. There’s street-smart, there’s business savvy, there’s social-grace intelligence…. There is not ONLY “How Well Can You Sit and Listen To A Teacher, Incorporate That Knowledge, Then Write That Knowledge Back On A Test” intelligence. And the latter intelligence is what most high school grades are made of.

Don’t stress. Just decide what you’re going to study THIS half-hour.

Another great mechanism for avoiding study anxiety I learned from my father. When I called him from Princeton feeling completely overwhelmed with the papers and tests and problem sets I had to do by TOMORROW, he said, “Lauren, don’t stress. Just decide what you’re going to study THIS half-hour. Then, after that, decide what you’re going to study THIS half-hour. Then, after that, decide what you’re going to study THIS half-hour….” Breaking it up into pieces helps you see that you can actually do it.

I often used that same piece-by-piece logic to write out a study schedule for myself before exams. It incorporated times for lunch, dinner, dancing, reading, talking on the phone, and just generally chilling, in addition to the time slots for studying literature, math, history, etc.

I love that most of you reading this article now are not in the midst of finals. It’s helpful to read an article on this topic when you’re stressed out about studying, but it’s even more helpful, in my opinion, to read an article on this topic when you don’t have studying stress, because then you can read it with a calm mind, process it with a calm mind, and remember it better when “study stress” creeps up on you. See what I mean? You remember things better when you’re not stressed. So chill out, take out the books, and enjoy studying!

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