Take a deep breath: after a few years of stop-start schooling, Wednesday will see the first of the written papers in this year’s Leaving Certificate when English paper one lands at 9.30am.
If you are feeling anxious, you are not alone. It is normal for Leaving Certificate students (and their parents) to feel stressed, particularly as this is the first State exam that this year’s cohort have sat, due to the cancellation of the Junior Cert in 2021.
As a guidance counsellor for many years, I have seen how anxiety levels spike in the run-up to exams, but there are tips that can help students and parents to dial down their anxiety levels.
Anxiety comes from fear of the unknown. Any situations where you are assessed under pressure – such as a job interview or an exam – amplify this uncertainty. Students can become consumed by the unknowns and immobilised by their lack of control over the outcome. This can result in panic.
However, students should concentrate on what they know. They have prepared for the exams and are in a stronger position to answer questions that will be asked this year due to the wider range of choice aimed at compensating for Covid-related disruptions.
Arrange your revision notes for all the exam papers in each subject. Try organising them backwards, starting from your last exam, identifying the periods of time you have available before each paper to finally review your notes and sample answers.
When you have completed this process, you will have an idea of how you are going to use the remaining time available to you; it will help you make sure all sections of every paper have identified time slots for final revision.
Doing this will give you back a sense of control over the exam and reduce excess stress.
Before leaving for the exam centre, review each day’s subject requirements. Different papers require you to have different instruments and materials. Check your other daily requirements such as water, food, transport costs where appropriate.
This year students will be required to be in their assigned seat in the exam centre 30 minutes before the start time of exams on day one, and at least 15 minutes in advance of their exams on subsequent days. Remember: candidates are not allowed to enter exam centres if they arrive more than half an hour late.
When the invigilator arrives at your desk, you will be offered a choice of subject level in that exam subject. Always opt for the paper you have prepared for. Never attempt to change levels at the last minute; this is always a negative side effect of exam nerves.
Once you receive your paper, read it carefully before you do anything else. Start to sketch out, at the back of your answer book, the answers to every question you are planning to answer. You will not be able to complete this task in the first few minutes, but your brain will continue to reflect on all the questions you select as you begin to write. When you have completed this brainstorming to the best of your ability, start working on the first question, selecting the one you feel most comfortable with.
If at the end of your last question you still have a few minutes left until you must hand up your paper, you can always boost your chances of getting a few extra marks by rereading your script. As any successful writer knows, a first attempt at writing any piece is always improved by rereading.
Leave at least half a page free at the end of each question so you can add extra material – if you want to – at the end of the exam. New ideas will occur to you as you read back your answer. Do not bother trying to erase any written content. Just draw a line through any incorrect material and add the new content at the end of that page.
Parents can play a crucial role by familiarising themselves with the exam schedule. Pin the timetable up prominently at home and highlight each exam that is due to be taken. In the stress of the exam period, you need to be aware when your child must be in the examination centre.
After each day’s exams, allow your son or daughter to recount their daily story. If they feel they have made mistakes or omissions, do not be tempted to review them in detail. Simply allow them time and space to tell their story and move on to the next challenge.
It can be helpful to your son or daughter to focus on the next paper immediately ahead. Simple questions around the nature of the exams can be useful in switching the focus.
As a parent, there is no need to overhype the importance of any exam. Just remember that some young people taking the Leaving Certificate can mistakenly believe that their standing in their parents’ eyes is dependent on their success in the exam.
Ensure your son or daughter is clear that your love and regard for them is in no way dependent on how they perform. This affirmation is one of the greatest gifts you can give them at the start of their Leaving Certificate.