The pressure’s on

We all remember the ones we passed or failed, and some of us
still have nightmares about them, but not everyone reacts to exams
as strongly as Carly, 17.

“I got really stressed in my GCSE science exam at school,” she
says. “I was 10 minutes into it and I just looked at the paper and
thought there was no way I could do it. I lost it then and threw
something – I couldn’t handle it and walked out.

“The teachers were understanding about it and they gave me 10
minutes to chill out, and told me to go back in, but I still

Carly got mostly Ds in her GCSEs, and failed two others. Now
that she’s at college studying catering, things are a bit
easier. But she’s already panicking about a forthcoming maths
exam that is important for her career plans. She thinks exam
conditions should be “more chilled”.

“You’re sitting all in a line in a big hall, with prats
next to you messing around and throwing things – that puts you
off,” she says.

But Carly says she’d never cheat to get though exams.

“Lots of my mates took drugs going into an exam at school – they
used puff to relax and said it would help them concentrate. But I
refused. I said it wasn’t worth it. If you’re not true
to yourself or if you cheat, you feel you’re not good enough.
I wanted to feel that I’d tried my hardest and done my best.
The results proved it because they didn’t do very well.”

Fallon, 17, agrees that exams create far too much stress, and
that this can be counter-productive. Because of ongoing family
problems, she didn’t get on too well at school, getting a D
in English and F in her other GCSE subjects.

“In exams I just panicked,” says Fallon. “My mind always went
blank. You are supposed to know everything but most of the time I
was just staring into space and didn’t answer anything. The
way they organise exams is so frightening – you’re in a big
hall with a ticking clock, and if you make a noise it echoes and
everyone turns round and looks at you – you’re afraid
you’re disturbing them.”

Fallon is now studying health and social care at college, and is
doing well, with two good test results in English under her belt.
But she’s still wounded by her experience.

“I was gutted about my GCSE results because the teachers
predicted better grades for me. I still feel bad about it because
if I’d had better grades I’d be much further on now –
I’ve been held behind but I know I can do much better.”

Now she has experience of assessed assignments, Fallon thinks
exams should be abolished. “With assignments you have more time to
think and to do research,” she says. “If you don’t understand
something you can get help and they can point you in the right
direction. We still do tests but it’s in a classroom and
it’s not so frightening. I’m pleased with how I’m
doing now and I want to carry on studying next year.”

Yan, 16, has 10 GCSEs coming up in June, and admits that he
doesn’t worry about them too much, as he usually does well.
But exam stress can take everyone by surprise.

“I’m normally quite good at English but in my mock exam
there was one question that was difficult and I just couldn’t
think how to start it. I kept writing two lines and then crossing
them out, over and over again. I sat there for about 20 minutes and
then the time was up. When I got out everyone else said it was an
easy question. That felt bad.”

Yan is ambivalent about cheating. “Some of my friends knew the
answers before a multiple choice mock exam because the teacher let
them slip out by mistake. They had the answers written all up their
arms. I only found out about it going into the exam but I probably
would have done it myself if I’d known.”

Alex, 17, has been through GCSEs, AS levels and resits, and now
has A2 exams coming up. His worries usually surface a few weeks
before the exams start. “I have a recurring dream where I wake up
late and miss the exam completely. I get up and rush out of bed and
then realise it’s Saturday or the exam hasn’t happened
yet. It’s horrid because missing the exam feels worse than

Alex finds the subjects he’s worse at, like history and
maths, give him the most grief. English, which he has always done
well in, can be almost pleasurable.

“I was doing my English literature A/S level last year and I
remembered absolutely everything. I was just breezing through it
and it was great. I did really well.”

By chance, Alex discovered a way to cope with the exams he
doesn’t find so easy. “The night before my retakes I was
messing around doing some Jujitsu and T’ai Chi, and it woke
me up and got my breathing going. It made me feel a lot clearer and
ready for things. I’m going to do some kind of exercise
before my next exams because it really helps.”

Jodie, 13, and Amber, 14, think exams before Year 10 or 11 are a
waste of time. “I always want to do well because it’s
important for your future career,” says Amber. “But lots of exams
are pointless. We don’t actually need them yet and we could
just do small tests instead until Year 10 or 11.”

Many of the group say pressure from parents makes them worry
more about exams. But Jodie has her own way of coping. “My parents
are always forcing me to do more revision. They tell me to go to my
room to work. I go to my room, but I just watch TV instead.”

– The ChildLine website at
advice sheets on exam stress, as well as tips on how young people
can pamper themselves and prepare for the big day. The DfES
TeacherNet website at
also has advice.

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