The sound of these words a few weeks ago did not fill me with the reassurance that their speaker probably anticipated. They sparked a chain of fear in my relatively composed Finalist’s brain.
Should I look less sane? I’m evidently not working enough yet to have lost the plot. I should probably return to the library. Then at least people will SEE that I’m working. I could ash my face and begin to speak in tongues… or, Middle English. Definitely a better option, as that might actually double as a revision aid, and mimicking Julian of Norwich would definitely win me some ‘crazy Finalist points’.
Suffice it to say, neither my anchoritic disguise, nor indeed my grasp of the 12th Century vernacular were particularly convincing. Yet the countless conversations regarding either my conforming, or not conforming to the ideal Finalist persona led me to wonder about the way that we build up this unhealthy culture.
Finals is classed as some strange and mysterious creature—a May-time spectre surrounded in a foggy mist of fear. This period is conceived as a disconnected reality, during which its victims are cut off not only from the world, but from themselves. This mythologising generates a climate of fear and expectation—one is obliged to be caught up in the hype as if you are not losing the plot, you are not chalking up enough hours in the library. And as long as you are in the library, you will absolutely absorb information by osmosis, and therefore triumph over this behemoth.
But at the end of the day (or week/s), these are just exams. While at many universities, academic achievement is not based solely on one’s ability to physically and mentally endure a gruelling marathon of back-to-back papers for one week, this should still be classed as a version of reality, even if a rather amplified normality. The expectation that one should retreat into a musky den of learning, emerging only to replenish Pro Plus stocks, is self-evidently flawed and breeds a very special flavour of insanity which results not in Firsts, but a daily role call of absent candidates who have psyched themselves out, or pushed themselves to a state of utter exhaustion.
Obviously, Finals are difficult, but what one really needs to get through is some sleep, a well-paced period of effective 8 hour days and some time off. Being told, “you must be so stressed” reinforces the misguided idea that panic is not only natural, but a requisite.
This is of course only common sense, yet it is a perspective that we seem sorely to be lacking. Perhaps we ought to stop using the word ‘Finalist’ and thereby do away with this sense of their being some sort of other species: we are students so, naturally, we have exams. Never should someone be induced to question their level of sanity, or feel the need to shack up, sleeping bag and all, with dedicated library lubbers. Of course it is important to be aware of the adverse effects of an intense exam season, but I wonder whether college-run Finals sessions, for example, in fact create the issues that they are notionally supposed to medicate: doctors offering sleeping pill prescription and presenting statistics of rusticated students during the exam period seemed only to scare—hardly a reassurance. Certainly, prevention is preferable to a cure, but not when it triggers anxiety.
The unhealthy hype surrounding Finals is a self-perpetuating phenomenon which we all need to take responsibility for. These exams are a chance to show off the knowledge and skills that we’ve acquired over our degrees and though I hesitate to repeat a tutor’s advice, it should be, if not fun, certainly a gratifying challenge. What is being tested is not our ability to simply regurgitate information, but to think lucidly and creatively on the spot, so the best preparation is not a punitive work schedule but rest, and the space required for a clear head. If we stop anticipating stress then we may be able to create an environment which supports rather than hindering, and gives us the best chance of realising our potential.