1. The sun will shine again
There’s a reason they call it exam weather, and resisting the sunshine is going to be one of the most frustrating challenges you will have. My recommendation: get out for a walk in it, take your cup of tea and your 15-minute break outside, go for an evening run/walk.Do not go out for long periods into the midday sun. It saps your strength and your will! Do not get sunburnt. I had a friend in secondary school – one of those girls with white blonde hair and porcelain skin. She used to baste herself in baby oil and lie out in the sun. Result? Blisters, tears and most of all, lack of focus. The sun will shine again, probably when the rest of us are back in class in September. Ensure you’re not among our number by staying pale in June!
2. TV programmes will be re-run
Personally, I hardly ever watch TV shows at their appointed time. Most of you, I’m sure, have seen them before they are even mentioned on the TV guide. Unless they fit nicely into one of your 15 minute breaks (much better taken in the sunshine and fresh air – see above!), leave them. If you must watch some TV, use it to reward yourself after a day of study when you don’t have an exam the next day. TV will sap both your willpower and your creativity, both key for success during this important time.
3. You need to move your body
You’ll be sitting for hours as you study for and then sit the Leaving Cert (or of course Junior Cert exams). This is hell on your body, and tough on your mind. Give both a chance to come back to normal by getting out in nature for a walk (short or long) every day. Preferably without earphones: hopefully there will be some nature sounds near where you live. Let your attention rest on the different sounds, let your eyes rest on the different sights and focus on breathing in and out deeply as you move. The benefits of this are manifold.
As well as doing this, see if you can get out and kick a ball around, play tennis, throw a frisbee…make it social and have a laugh – it’ll help you through the tough times.
4. Your friends will help you
The people in the same situation as you will be able to provide you with lots of support. They know exactly how you feel, because they feel it too. They’ve been through the year with you. They’ll do the exam postmortem with you and will tell you that you’ve done better than you think (you will have, too), they’ll remind you to bring a calculator and they’ll indulge your hysterical tears or laughter as you go through this stressful time. Remember to be there for them too.
5. Your friends will hinder you
Unfortunately those same people will hold you back too. They may be too cool to be on time for the exams. Don’t wait for them! Be on time (even better – be early!). Remember, on Day 1 of the Leaving Cert Exams you must be there half an hour before the exam begins. They may listen to your postmortem and point out the answers you got wrong. They may want you to sit out and get sunburnt with them, they may scoff your attempts to avoid TV and football. They will want to engage with you on social media. If they do, be firm. If you feel weak, give someone else the password to your social media accounts (or simply give them your phone/tablet/computer). Download an app to block social media. Use the phone only during specific breaks. Remember that this is about you and your goals and your life. You’ll help them more by trying to be strong and stick to your study plan than you will by giving in and indulging them in their own time-wasting avoidance tactics.
6. Family will drive you mad
Remember that for family this is a tough time – I know, not as tough as it is for you, but still tough. They are trying not to drive you mad, but they really want to know how you are and how it is going for you. Communication is key. These people are trying to show they care. Take today to have a quick chat with whoever’s looking after you at home. Maybe ask for a bit of phone-screening – they can take and pass on messages for you. Explain – ahead of time – that you mightn’t want to discuss every single exam. If there’s some food you’d really like in the fridge, ask if it can be bought rather than throwing a tantrum because someone hasn’t guessed it was the meal you were craving. Make sure they have a copy of your exam timetable as an extra back-up. If they are collecting you or dropping you off for exams, they’ll need to know these things. And finally, remember they’re doing it because they care.
7. You will eat unhealthily
Do try to get some healthy meals and food in: basically the brighter the colours on your plate, the better it is for your brain activity. If you can, up your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables especially greens, oily fish and water. Try to get your sugar from fruit and natural sources rather than processed sugars. But don’t stress, if that’s not how you like to eat, or if on certain days you come home and end up eating lots of biscuit and chocolate. The point is to get through this three-week period sane! Food guilt is not going to help.
EAT BREAKFAST! Numerous studies have shown that any kind of performance (academic or physical) is boosted by eating a good breakfast. Even if you can’t manage a “good” breakfast, do eat something. The Leaving Cert is a physical endurance test as well as an academic challenge.
8. Your hand is going to hurt and your pen will run out
Some exams are viciously long and require huge amounts of information to be transferred from your brain to the page. Your fingers will be battle-scarred: from Form 6 to the end of my university degree I had an almost permanent dent in the tip of my index finger and a large callus (still just noticeable beside the first knuckle of my middle finger). Make sure you have more than one pen for when you get in there (I had about 20, but I am both paranoid and superstitious, and was more so aged 17). The invigilators are not there to facilitate your borrowing pens and erasers from other candidates, so don’t ask them to do so. Presumably there are numerous mathematical instruments you will need, also bring a sharpener, cartridges if you use a fountain pen, a couple of pencils, coloured pencils if diagrams are required (more professional-looking than a blue scrawl done with a biro), a ruler…there may be more that you need; today’s the day to check they are all in your pencil-case.
9. You will sometimes forget what you are doing (inside and outside the exam)
You already know that a challenge outside the exam is restricting your use of social media. There’s nothing worse than “just checking a website quickly” and suddenly coming-to an hour later as you find yourself liking a Leaving Cert-based meme about not using the internet. Be conscious of what you are doing, and if you do go online to check something, put a quick timer on your phone/watch so that you don’t follow a trail of crumbs deep into cyberspace.
In the exam, always write the title of the essay question you are answering at the top of each page. Keep looking at it to make sure that you are on-task. Start each new question on a new page. Number each question. Even if you are not a deeply organised person, be rigorous in your ordering of your exam paper so there is no chance that the examiner will miss a question or part of a question when correcting your work. Have a rough-work book for every exam. Make it clear that this is rough-work by writing that at the top, but also number the questions for which you are making notes, so that if there are marks that can be salvaged there, the examiner can do so.
10. You will get through it
Take each exam as it comes: do it, have a quick postmortem, put it behind you, look forward. Each exam is worth a whole new set of marks and therefore points. Even if you have a bad exam, followed by another bad one, keep going. Life deals all of us knocks, and we often deal with them far better than we realise at the time, so keep going – even when you feel all is lost. The exams are a hurdle on your way to the next stage of your life. For this brief period in June, the whole country is on your side. Focus. Re-focus. Work. Rest. Work. You will get there.