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How to focus on the bigger picture during the exam period

A bright yellow frame stands in front of a deserted forest

The exam period only lasts a few months of the year but often comes with a lot of stress. Regardless of the degree you are studying and how much you are enjoying it, it’s very easy to get caught up with deadlines looming and marks to be reached, and to see each exam period as the ultimate test of your academic abilities – or even of your own worth.

I would like to offer an alternative way to look at the exam period: to use it to affirm your own interests and ambitions, and to see the bigger picture of your degree. At the same time, I think it’s important to remember to rest and take days off, to avoid burnout and make this time both productive and rewarding.

Changing the way you think about exams

First of all, the most important thing is to restructure the way you think about exams. As crucial as it is to get a good mark, what could happen if you approached the study period differently? After all, this is not high school anymore, so our role is not only to learn , but to actually contribute to our fields of choice. So, whether you’re writing essays or reports, or taking exams, this is your opportunity to find your niche, your strengths, what you’re most passionate about within your degree, as well as enrich the area you’re studying. Maybe you discover there is a gap in the industry that you happen to be passionate about? Or, if there isn’t anything in particular that you know is your thing, why not use this exam period to try to find it?

A polaroid picture depicting an arid and rocky desert landscape lays on top of colourful wooden boards

This is always an opportunity to learn, too. Whichever mark you get, however stressful it might be, you can always use this is as a chance to discover more about the area you’re dedicated to studying. As understandable as it is to enter a claustrophobic space of unachievable marks and imposter syndrome, there is always beauty to learning more about the world, and I believe that keeping this in mind will certainly enhance this studying period, in big or small ways.

I encourage you to ask yourself: how can you get the most out of this period? What can you learn – about the world, yourself, what you want to do? How can you enjoy yourself, either within or in between studying? How does this time align with reaching your larger goals in life, or with your priorities? Maybe if you start finding answers to these questions, that will enable you to take a big-picture look on these few months, and to find them fulfilling and valuable.

(Re)discovering your values  

On the flipside of this, sometimes no matter how hard we work, we cannot connect to our degree. If that is the case for you, this time could also be an opportunity for self-discovery. Why did you choose your degree in the first place? Do you have an option of changing it, and if so, would you take it? (If you do have questions about changing your programme, have a chat with your personal tutor.) If not, what are your priorities, and how can studying and graduating lead you there? 

A hiker wearing a backpack and red woolen hat uses their fingers to create a frame around a view of a lake

At the end of the day, the exam period can be a way for you to consider your larger goals, discover how they align with your degree, and see how you can treat the exams as a means towards a certain end. That way, while possibly not eradicating all of the stress around it, you might at least find the focus and the determination to keep going and remain hopeful.

Keeping in mind the importance of rest

Lastly, while it is key to keep in mind what your larger objectives and values are, you also need to take care of yourself on a day-to-day basis during the exam period. If you have a study schedule, I’d suggest also setting up periods of so-called ‘imperative rest’, which are days or times that you take breaks from studying. During these periods, you could always find things that relax you, or even reward yourself for working hard the rest of the time. That way you can avoid burnout, as well as keep in mind that, as it is with everything in life, exams are only a part of it. Nothing you do can ever constitute your entire life, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind so that this time is less overwhelming and all-encompassing.