Coping up with exam phobia: Tame the beast

Maharana Mewar Public School, Udaipur | February 23, 2016


The dreaded Boards are at hand. And you are tensed, anxious. ScooNews brings dynamic principals of reputed schools on board with their wise counsel and practicable tips on coping emotionally and academically with the mother-of-all-exams.


After an extremely busy (read physically, mentally, emotionally draining) day, I finally sat in the recliner with a copy of Discovery of India, reading a story on the caste system in ancient India and was one line away from the ironical end when the king finally gets to know the truth. I just had to finish this today, having delayed it for so many days. I had left it at that point two days back, and so, enjoying the smell of paper mixed with the aroma of hot, comforting black coffee, I began.

I was finally at peace. Or so I thought. However I was not even through with the first paragraph when the hostel warden came running, looking distraught as though he knew about the suspense, the ultimate, liberating truth of the king.

Between his gasping for air and the exact reportage of what was bothering him all I could comprehend was that one of the boarder students was in trouble. After refusing food, friends and films for the entire day, he was not only extremely restless and crying but had also started shivering badly (it was mid-March, mind you). Looking at the condition of the warden I wasn’t sure whether to comfort him or the student first. I decided on the latter.

With all sorts of possibilities running amok in my mind as to what was bothering him, when I finally reached the room of the student shoving away onlookers, sympathizers, friends and foes to their respective rooms, I finally sat down to counsel the student  (professional counsellors were not common those days) and readied myself for the most tragic tale told between sobs that he had his physics exam two days later and even though he had been studying hard throughout the year he was blank now and did not want to appear for the exam

Now, the student in question was one of the school geeks and all the teachers, staff and yours truly had high hopes of him making us and the school proud. ‘What is the problem son?’ I asked him. ‘I cannot study, cannot retain anything, cannot remember, don’t want to appear for the exam… don’t want to live,’ came back the heart-wrenching reply. Now this was getting serious.

I asked him to close the books and follow me. He had refused such demands from his friends all through the day but complied quietly enough this time.
I took him for a stroll near one of lakes in the city and talked for two hours straight (would the king finally find out?). The boy talked about his parents, how everyone in his family had opted for commerce and that he had been the only one to have taken science-math and how he wanted to crack IIT-JEE so badly, failing which he would let down his parents, teachers and friends.

I let him pour his heart out. I then called up his parents, waking them up at 11.45 at night, and made them talk to their son. Between emotional outbursts, both his parents and I assured him that he would let none of us down if he did not crack the much-coveted IIT or did not score 98%. That it was the effort he was making that was more important than anything else, that life would still be worth living if he scored 60%.

After about three hours of cajoling, conversing and counselling he finally managed to quieten his nerves. Back in the hostel room he put away his books for the night and went off to sleep soundly. Two days later, with some apprehension still in place, he wrote his exams. And, oh did he pose smilingly for newspapers when he cracked the IIT-JEE entrance!  (The king had to wait for one full week to discover the truth. I make it a point to read suspense books from the end henceforth.)

But I did learn a few lessons that night and taught him a few. I would love to share those with all of you who have to take the bull by the horn (okay, I thought exaggerations are more impactful than plain facts) and appear for Board exams. Read on:

1. Study throughout the year, don’t wait  for the eleventh hour to approach to finally clean the dust from books (the most obvious first).

2. Have a timetable ready (don’t expect yourself to follow it exactly word by word, be flexible).

3. Set aims for yourself; decide how many topics you will cover in a day and seriously start following it.

4. Switch off your cell phones, laptops, iPads and iPods.

5. Take frequent breaks. Your mind revolts if exposed to books nonstop for an hour (pun intended). Every 30-45 minutes, get up, go for a walk to catch some fresh air.

6. Indulge in some relaxation like listening to songs, going for a stroll.

7. Eat light during exams.

8. Take some time out for physical  exercise (walking, stretching, yoga, etc).

9. Don’t ever and I mean ever ask other friends how much have they covered?

10. If you feel overwhelmed, anxious, restless , drop your books for the moment and talk to your parents, teachers, friends and counsellors. You can call the counselling helplines available during exams.

I will now give you certain tips on how to actually retain what you have learnt. If retention is not appropriate, hours and hours of your valuable time will go to waste.

1. Every individual has a body clock that works most efficiently at particular hours. Find out when you are most productive, late night, or in the wee hours of the morning.

2. In case you dusted your books just a month before exams, give yourself small a number of breaks expanded through the day. Set aims of studying uninterrupted for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, take a 10-minute break and start again.

3. The most important part is that of revision. Don’t wait for a particular hour to start with your revision. Whenever you have some free time like bathing, eating, waiting in the elevator,, challenge your mind to recall important information. For instance, try to recall a formula, date or equation when stuck at a traffic signal. If you do, congratulate yourself, if not, learning it immediately should be your top most priority.

4. Keep in mind that most people can remember upto +/- 7 items at a time.
Don’t just passively study. Make the process more vivid, imagery and interesting. You don’t have to make an effort to recall the last movie you saw, do you? Why? Because of the visuals, colours, sounds and imagination in it. Now consider this, you are reading about the revolt of 1857. Boring straight away. Read it, forget it. Yes? No! Now think of Aamir Khan as Mangal Pandey. Close your eyes and make a mental image of 1857. Think of costumes, the hairdos of those times. Imagine a crowd of hundreds and thousands of freedom fighters. Imagine the atrocities meted out to them. Make it interesting. Now read and recall. Done?

5. Employ mnemonics. Mnemonics are memory devices that help learners recall larger pieces of information, especially in the form of lists like characteristics, steps, stages, parts, phases, etc whereby the first letter of each word in a list of items is used to make a name of a person or thing. Sometimes, the items can be rearranged to form a more recollectable name mnemonic. One very good example is learning the names of the planets by the mnemonic My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune (

6. The oldest known mnemonic strategy is the method of loci (‘loci’ is the plural of locus, which means location or place). It is based on the assumption that you can best remember places that you are familiar with, so if you can link something you need to remember with a place that you know very well, the location will serve as a clue that will help you to remember. Take the example of revolt of 1857. Start the revolt from the entrance of your house, take it forward to your living room, so on and so forth. Assign places to different parts of your house.

Lastly, always remember that there is much more to life than exams, grades and the rat race. It’s the efforts that you all make that are of utmost importance to parents and teachers. No phase in life is permanent. You excel in one, only to lose in another. Be optimistic about your performance and whenever you feel stressed, kindly drop the book and talk to your near and dear ones. (Or a counsellor; there are toll free numbers and help lines offered during exams.) And finally, something I believe in and myself live my life by ‘Do your best and leave the rest’.

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