The 2020/21 school year is nothing like we're used to. The coronavirus interruptions, resuming lessons in a virtual format, technology failures and the lack of experience in teaching what should have been an in-person class over the internet...

To say that this school year is like none other would be like saying it's a little cold in Antarctica. Still, the show must go on. That means that planning for life-determining exams is in full swing.

Whether you live in the US, where you might take the SATs or ACTs or in the UK, where BTEC, GCSEs and A-Levels are the ordeals in question - or anywhere else, where you might even now be preparing for the International Baccalaureate, you can count on being given the chance to prove your academic worth.

Is proving your worth really what BTEC, GCSE and SAT marathons are all about?

That's just one notion that your Superprof would tackle with you today; others include how you can deal with getting bad marks on those critical tests and how to fill the months between taking those tests and waiting for your results.

Even though exam season is still several months away, these points should at least give you food for thought, if not change your study and test-taking techniques altogether.

How to Beat Procrastination

If you think there is no need to start reviewing your study materials - after all, exam season is at least five months away and, the way the world is going, there might not be an exam season - please think again.

Even in 'normal' times, crediting Father Time with more generosity than he's possessed of has caught test-takers out.

Father Time will not give you as many minutes as you want
Father Time is not the wise old man of lore; his original depiction included a scythe to cut people's life clock off Source: Wikipedia Credit: Giovanni Romanelli

Especially when confined to your home - during a lockdown or simply as a safety precaution, it might seem that time is immaterial; it stretches like toffee and the relentless march of minutes seems to slow to a crawl. Doesn't that mean that you have all the time in the world to crack open the books and scan the notes?

As millions of procrastinating students before you would testify: no, you haven't got unlimited hours and, if you want to do well on every exam, you will get busy right now.

To wit, these questions need immediate answers:

  1. What will you study?
  2. How will you study?
  3. How will you track your progress?
  4. How will you keep yourself on-task, revising material for a subject you have no affinity for (or don't do well in)?
  5. How should you divide your time between subjects?
  6. How will you decide you need a night off from studying?

A procrastinator (or a negligent student) might answer:

  1. The subjects I chose to test in (or the subjects listed on the exam handout)
  2. Read the textbook, maybe take notes
  3. By seeing how far I get through the book/notes
  4. Uhhh...
  5. IDK
  6. Whenever I feel like it

These answers show the need for a plan.

To make sure you review the subjects you aren't comfortable with more intensity than the ones you'll have no problem acing the test in, to stay focused on your study goals and diversify your learning experience, to give yourself a better overview of test preparation and avoid late-night cramming sessions the week before your scheduled test dates...

You need to read our full-length article, jam-packed with tips and tricks to get you on the right track for your studies.

Managing Exam Stress

Considering what hangs in the balance, college entrance examinations are stress-inducing events.

Watch that high levels of stress don't affect your health
The run-up to exam day could put you at a level of stress that could even damage your health. Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Even if you don't plan to enrol in college or uni, your GCSE results can determine what type of apprenticeship (or other work) you might qualify for. So... no pressure, right?

Fact is, we're trained to fear and dread our life-determining exams precisely because their outcome could shape our entire future. While we're at it, we dread the interlude between taking those tests and waiting for our results and, should we not have done as well as we could've, we fear what our future may hold.

At this point, pull the plug on the worry over everything that has yet to come to pass.

The best way to manage stress ahead of your academic challenges is to be as prepared as possible for them. Use the review plan mentioned above (you did make one, right?) to organise your studies and manage your time. Create mind maps for each subject you're testing on to give yourself a visual guide to what might be on the test.

Work with your study group, peer tutor or academic coach to get the best handle on your upcoming ordeal and, to manage anxiety after you finish them - as you wait for your results, turn to your Superprof.

Our companion article is full of tips, tricks and hacks to keep panic at bay and maintain optimal levels of stress... because some stress is good for you, did you know that?

Tips for Staying Calm and Doing Your Best

Some people think that positive affirmations and taking charge of one's circumstances are over-hyped and new-agey concepts. Others, those who know that excelling in life means believing in yourself, disagree.

Some students walk into the testing room knowing their material cold; that doesn't mean that they exude confidence, only that they studied long and hard. If you do that, too, and couple your work with self-awareness, you will walk out of the testing room at least comfortable with your efforts, if not secure in the knowledge that you excelled.

The takeaway here is that staying calm and doing your best on your exams start with believing in yourself.

Hopefully, you did take charge of your circumstances by making a study plan and sticking to it, by taking good care of yourself - eating right and sleeping well, getting exercise and building/maintaining your support network.

The third ingredient needed to stay calm ahead of your big event: no matter the outcome, remember that they do not define you.

Students all over the world are often spooked by the idea that bad grades give the greater world far more information about them than they can imagine when, in fact, they reveal little about you and they do not shape your future to the extent you're given to believe.

Take, for instance, Jack Ma, one of China's richest men. He struggled through school and took his university entrance exam no fewer than three times. As an undergraduate, he intended to further his studies at Harvard Business School but was rejected 10 times.

Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and scads of others...

By no means are we saying that you should forego exams altogether; just realise that, while they are important, they are not (necessarily) the key to your future success. You are.

Believe in yourself. Take care of yourself and remember that test results do not paint a whole picture of who you are.

If these three steps to serenity don't quite calm you, you can read more ways to find your balance in our related article.

Interlude: How to Cope with Possible Failure

Projecting into the future: mentally drained, you're now leaving the testing site. You have no brain power left to think with, but then comes the morning after.

Waking from well-needed sleep, you start to wonder: did you get that one right? What was that odd question on the maths portion all about? Did you make your views clear on the topic of your essay prompt? You may even log in to The Student Room to see what your classmates are saying.

All of this is perfectly natural. It doesn't mean you doubt your abilities, just that you need to share your experience - maybe with your parents, maybe with your friends.

While waiting for news of your grades, these discussions allow you to express your fears and help you to put things into perspective - or even see things from a different perspective.

Clearing your mind of everything education-related - even dreams of university after your ordeal is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety over your results. That way, you can focus on other things until August (or so) when grades typically get posted.

Once you get your mind right, you only need to figure out...

Stress is counterproductive to studying
In the weeks before your tests, setting up a formal review course would be sound advice. Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

What to Do While Waiting for Your Results

As you wait for news of results to be posted, you could drive yourself crazy with worry... or you could do other things. We advocate for the latter.

Take a look around your room, your house and your community: what needs to be done?

Have you ever experienced the satisfaction of accomplishment, of seeing your handiwork as a positive change on your environment? Putting right something that's long been a little off is a productive, proactive way of spending your hours.

If you're less motivated by altruism, you may choose to earn a bit of cash. Summer jobs can be rewarding experiences. Even though you might not make a lot of money, the experience you gain will be invaluable.

Another benefit of taking on part-time work is building social and professional connections. Often, apprenticeships and even UCAS demand letters of reference and/or testimonials of experience; where would you get those if not from your boss?

Naturally, you will want some downtime in the immediate aftermath, before the interminable wait. Sleep late, have a nice brunch, watch a few movies or get caught up on your favourite shows. You might even travel - inasmuch as coronavirus restrictions allow.

Oh, and you might want to discover other ways to spend unfilled hours while you wait for news of exam results.

How to Cope with Having Failed Your Exams

Finally, results are in and you discover that... you didn't do as well as you thought or had hoped you would.

If such is the case, keep calm while you scan your results to make sure that your answers were marked correctly. If you discover that some of your answers were incorrectly assessed, take the issue up with your teachers immediately.

Once you've ascertained that your marks do reflect your performance, allow yourself a brief period of wallowing - emphasis on 'brief'. However, do not turn your positive esteem on its head. Just because you didn't earn the level of grades you anticipated, that doesn't mean you are a bad person or a failure of a human being.

During this period of mourning, avoid chat boards or anywhere else students might discuss results. You don't need to read others' crowing messages of success when you feel so down.

Likewise, avoid anyone who might have anything disparaging to say, even your parents, if necessary. It's too tempting to interpret criticism over your academic performance as an overall assessment of you.

Once the worst of your shock is over, start looking ahead.

You can retake any exam; will you? How long until the next exam cycle? Will you revise your memorisation techniques, maybe find new ways to solidify what you've learned? You might decide that academia is not for you; what will you do instead?

Whatever you do, do not accept that exam failure is a personal failure. Instead, turn the experience into a positive: what have you learned from it? How will you use this newfound knowledge to propel you into your future?

Failing an exam can be devastating, especially because of the importance society attaches to these (subjective) proofs of who you are but, after all is said and done, you will survive and even thrive - no matter what news your test results bring.

In the immortal words of Chumbawumba: "I get knocked down, but I get up again". Let that be your mantra.

And let Superprof give you more ways to cope with exam failure in this related article.

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.