How to manage your stress and maximise your performance in a written Leaving Cert exam

Brian Mooney, education and careers commentator. 
Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

Brian Mooney, education and careers commentator. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy.

There is less than a week to go until this year's Leaving Cert class sit down to take the first written paper. It has been a two-year programme like no other in the almost 100-year history of this examination.

Having lost a third of fifth year and the majority of the post-Christmas term to Covid-19 school closures, students now face the final hurdle.

What is the most important thing you can do to prepare for next Wednesday?

The Leaving Cert exam taken over three weeks is a marathon, not a sprint, and careful planning is essential to achieve maximum performance. Students should now organise all of their revision notes in each subject.

Once organised by subject, place them in separate files in the order you are actually taking the papers. There is no point spending time on a subject now for which you may have two/three days to prepare for that subject at the back end of week two.

When you have completed this process, you will have a clear picture of how you are going to use every hour available to you; it will help you make sure all sections of every paper have identified time slots for final revision.

Undertaking this simple process will give you back a sense of control over the exam and reduce excess stress.

What should I do each morning before leaving for my exam centre?

Review each day’s subject requirements before leaving home, as different papers may require you to have specific instruments . Ensure that you always have water, and other permitted forms of nourishments, transport costs where appropriate, and so on.

It may be psychologically comforting to take some final revision notes with you, but never be tempted to take them into the exam hall with you.

How should I manage the first 15 minutes of each paper?

When you sit into your seat each day, arrange your pens and other implements on your desk.

When the invigilator arrives at your desk, he or she will offer you a choice of papers at each level.

Always opt for the paper you have prepared for.

Never attempt to change levels at the last minute as this is always a negative side-effect of exam nerves.

Once you receive your paper, read it carefully and fully 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 fully complete this task in the first few minutes, but your brain will continue to reflect on all the questions you select over the period of the entire examination, as you begin to write.

So, when you have completed this initial brainstorming process to the best of your ability, start working on the first question, selecting the one you feel most comfortable with.

How do I get the maximum out of the paper before I hand it up?

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 add a few extra marks by re-reading your script. As any successful writer knows, a first attempt at writing any piece is always improved by re-reading what you have initially written.

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. Don’t 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.

How can parents help their children get through the next few weeks?

Know the exam schedule. Pin the timetable up prominently at home, with each exam to be taken highlighted. In the stress of the whole exam period, you need to be always aware when they must be in the examination centre.

Try drawing up a checklist of daily requirements based on the day’s exams. Writing instruments and other requirements, such as rulers, erasers, and calculators, should be checked.

After each day’s exams parents should allow their son or daughter to recount his/her daily story. Do not be tempted to review in detail with the errors or omissions they may have made. Simply allow them the time and space to tell their story and move on to the next challenge and the next paper.

Help them focus on the next challenge. It can be helpful to your son or daughter to review the paper or papers immediately ahead. Simple questions around the nature of the exams can be very useful in helping your son or daughter to focus on what’s next.

Finally, try not to overhype the importance of any exam. Parents need to be aware that students taking the Leaving Cert can sometimes mistakenly believe that their standing in their parents' eyes is dependent on their success in the examination.

Ensure your son or daughter is clear that your unconditional love and regard for him/her is in no way dependent on how he/she performs in any exam.

This affirmation is the greatest gift you can give him/her at the start of the Leaving Cert next week.


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