How to deal with final exams stress in college

Credit: Lisa Qian/ Credit: Lisa Qian/
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Let’s face it, most of us are hard workers here — it’s the reason we’re at Carnegie Mellon. College is not for everyone, and we wouldn’t be here if the people in Warner Hall didn’t think we could handle the stress that comes with being at Carnegie Mellon. We are a very stressed people — there’s no denying that, it’s been acknowledged and decried. In the aftermath of the election results and with finals week upon us, stress levels are probably soaring high right now. And the truth is — that’s fine. It’s okay to be stressed. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be dejected. You’re definitely not alone. But here’s another (rather ugly) truth — your finals are still happening in a week, your project deadlines are not changing, and you need to positively and rationally respond to them.

So what do we do about the stress?

We’re not the only college in the world that’s stressed. I do agree we have our problems, but that’s a subject for another opinion piece altogether. College is a stressful time. It makes sense and some stress is inevitable. But it is getting worse over time. On average, our parents were less stressed than we were. A recent study by The Huffington Post showed that “the proportion of freshmen saying they “occasionally or frequently feel overwhelmed” by all they had to do jumped to 34 percent last year, from 24 percent in 2005. Only half of 2015’s freshmen consider themselves “above average or better” in emotional health, continuing a skid from 63 percent in 1985 and 54 percent in 2005.

I don’t know if there is a community-wide or economy-wide solution to fixing these alarmingly high levels of stress — I really hope there is, and I hope we come up with something or that our legislators can do something about it.

As for what is within our power and what we can do right now, I strongly believe the key to solving this problem at the grassroots is to talk about your problems. Talk about what bothers you with someone you can trust. It could be anyone — your significant other, your friend, your parent, your Housefellow, your RA, your TA, your advisor, or Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS). More often than not, whoever you talk to will respond better than you’d imagine. Talking your heart out even strengthens your relationship with that person.

How should I manage my time?

Our favorite Randy Pausch gave a 76-minute talk on time management in 2007 at the University of Virginia. Most of what I’m going to say is, at its core, derived from there. Everyone has a different approach to managing time. I think what generally works well is a simple three step feedback loop: Plan, execute, and evaluate.

The first (and very important) step is to plan. I cannot state how important this step is. Pausch summarized it in a very succinct way I couldn’t agree more with, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” While planning, simply sorting tasks by their respective deadlines is the wrong way to go about managing your time. It’s more important to sort things by importance — something that’s intuitive to think about, but not trivial to implement in practice.
The second step which is probably the hardest, is to execute that plan. One technique that is known to make this step work well is to disengage from all kinds of distractions. An hour of focused study is more productive than three hours of unfocused work full of distractions. So if you want to be really productive, putting the phone away for an hour or two is probably a good idea.

The final step is to evaluate — to ask questions like “What went wrong?” and “What could I have done better?” Not only does this help you be more productive in the future, but it also helps you understand your work ethic better. Evaluation and feedback are the key to keep humanity going.

What if I blow my finals?

We’re not all perfect. We all have bad days, we all have tests and interviews that we wish could have gone better. Blowing your finals would affect your QPA. Your QPA could potentially affect your job prospects for certain fields. But not by much. As far as jobs go, companies have interviews for the very reason that they want to know the candidate and test his/her skills beyond just what transcripts and resumes say. Sure, you may need a respectable QPA to get an interview in the first place, but beyond that point, your QPA doesn’t make or break the deal for the most part. And even so, for how long will your QPA do that?

In the long run, next week does not matter. In the long run, your QPA does not matter. In the long run, your next summer’s internship does not matter. In the long run, all your achievements in college will not matter. From a career standpoint, what matters keeps changing and once you’re a few years away from college, people become more interested in what you worked on after college and how you used your learning from college. Of course, they will always be interested in how passionate you are about what you do, what kind of a person you are, and how you can make the world a better place.

So instead of fretting about our grades and seeking higher grades, let’s focus on the learning because that’s what matters more. That’s what adds real skill. That’s what enables us to tackle and solve problems in the real world.