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By Jo Bertrand
Do you remember that nasty feeling of sweaty palms? A wave of nausea coming over you? The sudden inability to talk your mouth is so dry? No, it’s not the first meeting with the dreaded in-laws, although some parallels could easily be made. I’m talking about waiting at the door of an exam room, convinced that you know nothing and that there’s no way you will get through this experience alive.
We’ve all been there at some point of our lives, whether it be for the 11+, the G.C.S.E French oral exam, university finals, the FCE exam… the list is endless. Somehow though we get through it. We survive to see another day. But what has always baffled me is how people react so differently when faced with the prospect of taking an exam.
I don’t know about you but I’ve always been insanely jealous of those people who party all year round, then the night before the exam flick through my course book, (theirs is empty because they didn’t go to any lectures), and then somehow manage to sail through the exam with flying colours. In the meantime I’m there, present and correct at most of my lectures, panicking for weeks before my finals, and the night before, not only am I trying to cram like mad everything my clever friend points out is missing from my file as he flicks through my text books and observes that I’ve missed out a whole chapter of essential work that is bound to come up in the exam, (draw for breath!), but I’m also panicking about packing my school bag.
Once you’re in the exam room there is the obligatory ritual of snacks and refreshments to be organised. It’s essential that you line them up in edible order so as not to have to think too much whilst writing. The idea is also not to make too much noise during the exam. There’s nothing worse than popcorn rustling in a cinema. The exam room is no exception. So it’s vitally important that the aforementioned sweets are opened and ready to go. Your packet of Polos should be completely opened. These should be sucked and not crunched at the time of consumption otherwise it defeats the whole object of trying to avoid noise pollution. Finally, no cans or cartons should be taken into the exams as both are far too noisy.
Next up is the bulging pencil case. You should of course have at least 2 pencils and 6 pens. 2 black, 2 blue, 2 red. If you want to go for the novelty points then choose a purple, or green scented pen. Any attempt to make the examiner smile can’t be wrong, can it? Don’t forget your highlighter pens, one of each colour, Tipp-ex, Blu-tack, glue. You never know what might happen. You need a personal clock, although the space on the table is becoming relatively limited at this point, so a watch is an acceptable option.
As you turn your paper over, your mind inevitably goes blank for at least the first ten minutes and you start thinking back to the days when you had a life, in the pre-revision era. Suddenly though, fear takes over. You jab your forehead incessantly with a pen in the hope that this will encourage some sort of intelligent thought to flow from your brain to the paper via your biro. And miracles of miracles, it does. For the next three hours you write constantly, not even pausing for breath, let alone pausing to pick up a polo. In any case their destiny is to get sticky at the bottom of your bag because you stupidly opened the whole packet. But none of that matters anymore because you’re on fire. Nothing can stop you now. And three hours later you’re mentally exhausted and your arm wants to drop off. But you’ve got through it, or at least you think you have…
The post-exam ritual involves everyone saying; ‘Ok lets talk about anything other than the exam because that was absolutely awful.’, and then you all proceed to talk about nothing else but the exam for the next hour. Where you thought you’d done well, now after having listened to what everyone else put, well there’s just no way you could have passed. I wouldn’t even pass myself if I were marking it; the answers I put were so irrelevant. Quality not quantity is what we’ve always been told and I forgot that golden rule. I have an aching arm for nothing.
Now comes the wait. Why can’t examining boards devise a wonderful marking system that can put you out of your misery within the next couple of days. Two months is an obscene amount of time if you ask me. Eventually the envelope arrives. A hot tip: when asked for your address you should always give your parents’ address to avoid having to rush to the door for a week around the results day and then actually having to open the dreaded envelope once it eventually arrives two days late, a sadistic delay intended so that you sweat it out some more. In any case your mum is scared enough as it is and is only too happy to pass on the good news when it arrives on her doorstep. Lo and behold the day when I fail an exam! I’m touching lots of wood as I write this.
Anyway, the upshot of all the stress and anxiety is that the hard work has paid off and even though you don’t quite get the A++ that your jammy friend got, you’re ecstatic with your well-earned B+.
Though one thing I haven’t quite worked out yet is what the attraction of exams is. There must be something addictive about the stress related to them. I spent last summer doing a teaching course followed by a horribly stress-inducing exam in December. Nobody forced me to do it. I actually volunteered and handed over a scary amount of money for the privilege. That’s stressful in itself! Neither have I learnt from my school exam days as I still went through the same old emotions, and the same old rituals and I’m very pleased to say it worked. Although I’m still convinced that it’s not so much what I wrote in my exam that did it but how I wrote it. The infallible mint-scented biro strikes again!