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Looking after your mind through the "make it or break it"

31 March 2022

With the Central Assessment Period coming up, Postgraduate Research student Esther shares her advice for coping with the final push through revision and exams.

Pug wrapped in a blanket

With exams fast approaching, it can feel like you have already been tackling revision stress for weeks. When the pinnacle moment is upon us, it can be tricky to stay balanced. I’ve compiled some tips for how to keep your head above the water through the heightened stress of the "make it or break it" moment.   

Motivation  

Maintaining motivation is the crucial battle for all revisers everywhere. It’s difficult, but taking revision in bitesize chunks and not looking at the whole, avoids overwhelming yourself and adjusts your perspective, avoiding extra stress.  

Things like walks to get fresh air are essential for keeping yourself, particularly your mind, stimulated. As you get used to long days of revision, try mixing up your revision space. Changing surroundings helps keep your mind interested. 

Factor relaxation time into your days. This gets more important as exams draw closer and time seems more precious. This time is intense, and you need to give yourself breaks to avoid burnout.  

Stress management

We have all felt stressed at some point, whether exam related or not. When in stress, our minds and thought patterns are less rational, and trying to see a way out can be impossible. Recognising the signs of stress, and re-grounding ourselves can be absolutely pivotal at these moments. Small amounts of stress can be healthy, but prolonged stress is not only bad for productivity, but also for mental and physical health. Looking out for the symptoms is crucial.  

Sleep is often the first thing to go when we’re stressed. Then, as soon as we focus on it, we struggle more. If you find this, try mindfulness or meditation through free apps such as Balance, Headspace or the Get Sleepy podcast. Whether you’re struggling to fall asleep, waking up during the night, or struggling with poor sleep quality, these can be a quick, proactive answer.  

Take yourself out of your mind. Our minds love to get hooked on and go through thought patterns we recognise. While good for memory, this can be detrimental when we get addicted to certain behaviours/actions as reactions to thoughts/feelings from specific triggers. Shifting your perspective is difficult, but noticing when these thought patterns arise can be integral to altering them. 

Use triggers positively. Through my finals I chose a song with a slow beat that I subconsciously attached to feelings of contentment and serenity (Maxence Cyrin, Where Is My Mind). When I felt like I was tipping over the edge, I would play it, get some air, close my eyes and listen. Letting this fill my mind allowed less room for the detrimental thoughts of stress and worry.  

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Eat and drink properly. Our brains use energy. If we think more, we need to fuel them well. Try not to drink too much coffee. Increased heart rate is a typical response to anxiety and stress, one which is also caused by caffeine intake…  

Exam day panic  

The motivation battle is won, the revision done, and we’re now faced with those integral few hours. Gandhi said that ‘as long as you are trying your very best, there can be no question of failure’. And you should have the belief in yourself that you tried your best, given your situation at the time, however much you revised was what you were able to do at that point.  

Remember each exam is a step towards the end of revision.  

Use your breath as a tool. It’s the only thing we always have with us, you can take it into the exam. Breathe in for six and out for six, focussing only on the breath, until you feel yourself start to calm down. Proactively taking control of the situation will re-establish a balance.  

Exam chat with your course mates before and after the event can be anxiety inducing. If you find this, set boundaries to move the conversation on, or remove yourself from it and distract yourself instead. Especially after the exam, nothing you speculate gives you the ability to change anything. We don’t want that worry manifesting itself. 

Take care of yourself 

Treat yourself how you would treat your mates. On the day you have an exam, be extra kind to yourself. You’ll be mentally drained. If you have the ability to revise for the rest of the day, that’s great. If you don’t, then that’s normal, give yourself a break for the rest of the day. No guilt attached. An extra few hours’ revision with a tired mind probably won’t make that all important difference for your next exam.  

There is a reason you’re studying for a degree at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Give yourself credit for the fact it can be really difficult and yet look at you – coping. 

Support available during the assessment period

If you are struggling, the hardest part is reaching out. If you do need support, UCL has numerous resources to help with your wellbeing: 

For more advice on looking after yourself, check out 'Staying healthy during assessment season' from the Assessment Success Guide.

Student Support and Wellbeing have lots of support available, including additional appointments with advisers. Call us on 020 7679 0100 between 9 and 10am to make an appointment for the same day, or submit an enquiry via askUCL and we will contact you to make an appointment, which can be via video call, phone call, or Microsoft Teams chat.


Esther Ambrose-Dempster, PhD Chemistry