How to Get Through Your Exams Without a Breakdown

by Fransivan MacKenzie

Are you a straight-A student who always finds herself on the verge of a breakdown every exam week? Or do you call yourself an average one who finds it extra hard to get by when overloaded with schoolwork and have pressing deadlines? Whatever your academic standing might be, all students go through seasons when finishing tasks seem insurmountable. After all, we’re just human beings limited by twenty hours each day and depending on finite energy. 

As a graduate student myself, I have gone through weeks when the only thing I did in class was survive. Below, you will find tips and tricks on how to withstand your exams – with more chances for growth and fewer moments of breaking down.

1. Learn to Prioritize

Make a list of all the things you need to do within the day. Start with the hardest task. Do not worry about getting it perfect; just make sure you get it done. Whether it’s a paper, a video, or a craft, don’t let the fear of failing keep you from completing your assignment. Studies show that procrastination has more to do with perfectionism than laziness. 

 Here’s my challenge: Have the courage to create an ugly first draft. The sooner you finish it, the more time you have to edit it later.

Apart from the difficulty level of your assignment, it is also important to consider the deadline. Prioritize your projects that need to be passed sooner. No matter how much you would love to finish your Science activity due on Sunday, please turn in your Math homework that is due on Wednesday first.

2. Implement Proper Nutrition

Our generation glamorizes surviving on coffee and two hours of sleep—I know this from personal experience. It might seem enjoyable, but in time, you’ll realize that sacrificing your health for academics is counterproductive. You do not have to suffer to achieve the goals you set for yourself academically.

The more you struggle in your academics, the more you need to care for yourself by ensuring your body gets proper nutrients. Several studies reveal that the best brain foods are the same ones that protect your heart, so think of taking them as hitting two birds with one stone. These foods include leafy greens like kale and spinach, fatty fish like salmon and tuna, berries, and walnuts. If you enjoy smoothies, you can blend avocadoes, bananas, and other berries for a flavorful, healthy drink. Not only will they boost your memory and give you a burst of energy. 

Remember to stay hydrated, too! Drinking water helps you focus and concentrate, improving the function of your brain. Make sure you consume 8-10 glasses of it a day. (No, coffee doesn’t count as water.)

3. Get Enough Sleep

I know what you’re thinking: exams and good sleep? This doesn’t sound right to me. Adequate sleep is vital in getting your brain to function at its best. Research shows that inadequate rest at night has a detrimental impact on one’s information processing stage of working memory. What does it mean? No matter how hard you work memorizing terms and concepts in your head, if you don’t give your brain a chance to rest and consolidate those thoughts while sleeping, there’s a huge chance you will forget them.

Pro-tip: Read some notes before heading to bed. A study done in 2013 showed that reading before bed improved the connectivity of our neurons and therefore strengthening memory.

More tips sleep-related? I got you! If you still feel tired after waking up, try to take a nappuccino. Drink your coffee, then take a quick nap for twenty to thirty minutes—set your alarm! This is effective for most people because caffeine takes thirty minutes to kick in fully. When you wake up from your nap, you’ll most likely be alert, reactive, and ready to face whatever’s waiting on your desk.  

4. Create a Program

When you create a program, you create a plan and stick to it. Make little allowances for yourself, but also be tight when necessary. Every hour must be accounted for because if you leave any of your time unguarded, the tendency is that you’ll use it scrolling through social media or watching another episode of your favorite Netflix show. Include your breaks and time-outs when you create a program and decide what exactly you’ll do during those hours. Keep your program where you can see it. If it’s handwritten, post it on the wall of your working station. You can use it as your desktop or phone wallpaper if it’s digital. 

This is important: When you say no to distractions, you say yes to discipline and success. During your hell week, please ensure you have your eyes fixed on your goals. During this season, say no to spontaneous night outs with your friends or random hang-outs. You can catch up with them later. Right now, just for this week, focus on your grades.

5. Have a Reward System

Reward yourself during and after every study session. Whether it be a chocolate bar, a cookie, or other snacks, make studying extra fun with these treats. These things to look forward to do not have to be grand; they only have to be enough to make you happy. The more you place rewards for yourself, the more eager you can be to accomplish tasks and be productive without even knowing it.

Pro Tip: If you would like to reward yourself with a Netflix episode, only finish half of it. The thing with Netflix episodes is that they are designed for you to want to know what happens next, with each episode full of cliffhangers. Save yourself the trouble of falling into the binge-watching loop and hit the pause button while in the middle of the story. That way, you’ll both be entertained and controlled. You’ll thank me later.

6. Optimize Technology

Technology can be your best friend or your worst enemy during these times. Use it wisely. Set up alarms on your phones or download applications to help create a studying program. You may also want to consider optimizing the calendar app to actively remind you of your deadlines. 

Before you browse the Internet, write down your intentions on seeking Dr. Google’s advice so you can steer clear of social media. When we find ourselves consulting the web without a solid purpose, it is usually easy for us to be sucked into the black hole of mindless scrolling. Tiktoks, Facebook reels, and Instagram videos are designed to catch our attention without letting go. Before you know it, you’re already two hours into watching reels rather than studying. Save yourself from this misery by being purposeful in your actions.

My research adviser during eighth grade also shared a technique that I still use up to this date: 

Gather all the information you need before you start working on your papers. Save the pages on your computer or maybe compile the articles in one document. When you finally have your resources, turn off your WiFi, work on your project or study in peace. If you find that your resources seem to be incomplete, fight the urge to turn on your WiFi. Skip the part that demands a missing detail and return to it later. For now, do what you can with all that you have. This will eliminate distractions and help you focus more on the task. 

Last but not least, use technology to connect with the right people. Set aside even just twenty to thirty minutes of your day to talk to someone you love, even if that only means venting about how stressed you are. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and alone during your hell weeks, but the truth is, there is still a world that cares so much about you and how you’re feeling. Set time boundaries, but do not sever ties with your circle or simply be missing in action. Use technology to let your friends know that you might be busy with finishing requirements for now, so you may not always be there to join them, or you can ask them for help if they are available, capable, and willing. 

Exam week is difficult and draining for students around the world. You’re most likely to break under pressure if you’re not prepared. However, with discipline, wisdom, and guidance, you can get through these challenging times and see them as opportunities for growth. Sometimes, that smarter and stronger version of you is on the other side – waiting for you to tell the story of how you’ve learned to walk through fire and survive with excellent grades and a healthy mind.

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