Feature
Survivor: The Exam Edition
Jittery nerves, a thumping heart and a body that refuses to sleep. Yes, the exam season is here again. Christopher Ong talks to students, professors and a counsellor for tips on how to handle this big event before, during and after the moment
PHOTO: SAM CHIN

It’s 8.30am and you’re waiting to enter the Lee Wee Nam Library alongside a horde of students, with your well-worn notes and textbooks in hand. Yes, it’s that time of the semester again…

Exam season is upon us…

"There are so many deadlines to meet during the semester that one can hardly find time to study then. By the time the exams swing round, I feel ill-prepared and anxious, so I just study non-stop," says final-year undergrad Auyeong Wei Ying.

"I worry a lot about the consequences of doing badly, like the ‘damage’ to my Grade Point Average."

The Humanities & Social Sciences student is not alone. NTU counsellor

Frank Chan says many undergraduates place a lot of importance on getting good results as they believe a better class of Honours increases their chances of finding a job or landing a higher starting salary.

The desire to “keep up with the Joneses”, or one’s peers, is another stress inducer that may lead students to cram non-stop and forego sleep in the process.

But even machines need rest, so Mr Chan recommends carving out some time in one’s schedule for “self-care”. This means giving yourself an hour or so each day to do the things you enjoy, like playing computer games, going running or reading.

Studying at a place you feel comfortable in is another way to make revising more enjoyable. Victoria Chang, a final-year English Literature major, likes the Starbucks on campus, where “you can comfort yourself with a hot beverage”, and Café Hotshot at the NIE Library, which is “usually quiet, has power points for laptops, and is where you can openly eat”.

If you are thinking of burning the midnight oil on campus, consider the study areas at the South Spine or the School of Art, Design & Media.

Says Hall 2 resident Jacie Ong, a regular at these locations: “Both places have power points, and there is air-conditioning at the Art, Design & Media building even at 2am. There are some open areas there where you can study.”

And should the stress still get to you, remember that you are not alone. Says Victoria: “Share your school life with your parents. You can be sure they’ll show their care in some way, like slipping some chicken essence into your bag or surprising you with your favourite dish.”

Before you know it, the big day has arrived...
You can hardly sleep, wondering if you’ve memorised that last formula or done enough practice papers. The night before a paper can indeed be stressful, so 30 minutes before turning in for the day, do things that encourage and improve sleep such as listening to soothing music or meditating, advises Mr Chan.

Come exam day, take your seat with the right mindset. Assoc Prof Kwok Kian Woon, NTU’s Associate Provost (Student Life), tells HEY!: “Before going to university, I hated exams. Entering a huge hall and sitting in a row out of many rows, answering questions in prescribed ways, and practising with previous years’ papers – I found these neither edifying nor creative.”

“But I found that university exams allowed me to develop a sense of individuality. I could now consider a diverse range of perspectives since the goal wasn’t to arrive at The One Correct Answer.”

“So I always tell undergrads that learning is two-way. When marking exam scripts, a particular answer sometimes jumps out at me and I’ll think: ‘Wait a minute, why have I never thought of this before?’”

He adds that if one has practised good study habits throughout the semester, taking exams can even be enjoyable.

Aloysius Adi Pratama shares this belief. The third-year Electrical & Electronic Engineering student says: “Those moments of entering exam halls – you won’t be able to experience them again after graduating.”

Positive thinking aside, there are little things you can do to "gain a sense of control" during exams, suggests Assoc Prof Kwok. Recalling his heydays as an undergrad, he said he sometimes brought a huge clock with four legs and two bells into the exam hall – just to remind himself that he would "make a difference to the intellectual discussion in those few hours".

Jacie, a second-year Nanyang Business School student, has her own secret weapon. “Eat something very sweet before the exam, like a Subway cookie or some chocolates – the sugar rush helps you to think faster for a while!”

“I tried this for an exam last year and did well for that module.”

For Victoria, the key to acing those papers is a couple of good pens. She doesn’t bring her pencil case into the exam hall, but whips out two Pilot G2 pens with black ink.

“I prefer using black pens because I think black ink stands out most clearly on the answer script,” she says. “Avoid using correction tape or liquid paper. Just cancel if you have to – it saves you precious time.”

When all’s said and done…
So you’ve shred those exam question papers and tried (your best) to move on by:

(a) Chilling out with friends
(b) Hanging out with your boyfriend/girlfriend
(c) Going on an internship or a holiday
(d) All of the above

But the moment of truth finally arrives. And it can be especially nerve-wrecking for freshies who are receiving their exam results online for the first time, some alone at home or in their hostel room.

“My heart beats very fast and my hand starts to shake,” says Wei Ying of her usual state as she sits at her laptop, a mouse click away from The Results.

Jacie agrees. “It’s scary to see all your results at one go, so I usually cover the computer screen with a piece of paper and reveal them one at a time.”

If you feel dejected by the grades you see, don’t lose heart.

Says Assoc Prof Kwok: “In the short run, exams may matter in terms of how they affect your Grade Point Average. But over time, they may not matter as much. There may also be no correlation between high performance in exams and success in life.”

“Taking ownership of your studies and moving to the next level with the help of your professors and peers – that is a more precious experience than scoring well in an exam through clever techniques.”

He advises crestfallen students to talk to someone about their disappointment.

“Different people have different ways of coping with failure. Talk to a friend, or ask to see your professor. If you fear a loss of face and prefer to open up to someone who doesn’t know you personally, NTU has counsellors that can help you to face your disappointment and take it in the right perspective. Whatever it is, don’t bottle it inside you,” says the mild-mannered professor.

Need someone to talk to? Contact NTU’s Student Counselling Centre at 6790 4462 or email scc@ntu.edu.sg. Located at the Student Services Centre, #05-07, the centre is open on weekdays (Monday to Thursday: 8.30am to 5.45pm; Friday: 8.30am to 5.15pm) and closed on weekends and public holidays.