Coping with final exams: No pressure

Flunking an exam might be the best thing that ever happens to you. Or not. But it's nothing to lose sleep over. Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., December 6, 2012 — If you’re a college student, this isn’t necessarily a happy time of year. You have final exams to take, papers to finish, presentations to prepare, and the pressure can be brutal. 

Today is the first day of finals at my university. Some of my students seemed stressed this morning. One told me that yesterday he’d had to study for two final exams as well as prepare his presentation for my Literature and Law class. I replied that he had all semester to study study and prepare. This week should just be a matter of fine-tuning and getting enough sleep. That’s hardly the sympathetic answer he wanted, but it’s a lesson that needs learning. 

There are others. If you’re feeling anxious about your final exams, here’s some food for thought: What’s the worst that can happen when you take an exam? You fail? Is that as bad as a traumatic brain injury or cancer? Is it as bad as a divorce? Being fired from your job? The death of a friend? The death of a child? On the cosmic scale of awfulness, failing an exam comes pretty low, probably somewhere between a paper cut and the flu. 

You don’t get kicked out of school unless you fail a lot of exams, and if you fail a lot of them, perhaps you should find a life path that doesn’t involve having to pass calculus, French and biology. If I had it all to do over again, I might have enjoyed being a pastry chef or a jewelry designer. I didn’t get to try those options because I kept passing my classes, and because I was very good at passing tests, I was offered a lot of money to get a Ph.D. Is that cause for satisfaction, or regret? Ask me in twenty years.

Suppose you’re walking down the street and a brick falls on your head. Are you unlucky? You get rushed to the hospital, meet a gorgeous neurologist who falls in love with you, you win a huge settlement from the construction firm that dropped the brick on you, and you become a national spokesperson for victims of workplace accidents. How unlucky were you? 

Or you miss your flight to Paris and curse your luck, but as you sit miserable in the departure lounge and watch the airplane head out over the Atlantic, you see an engine explode and then watch the plane make a slow, agonizing death spiral into the ocean while the people on board all have time to contemplate their doom and spend their last seconds screaming their lungs out in terror. Were you unlucky? Would you have thought yourself lucky if you’d just barely made it onto the flight?

Who knows, failing an exam might be the best thing that ever happened to you. You won’t know until your life is over, and it won’t be over just because you failed an exam. And the odds are that you didn’t fail, which might just be your bad luck. Whether you pass or fail, you cut off one of the paths that might have been your life, and it might have been a better one than you’re on, or worse.

“Count no man happy until he is dead.” The Greeks knew a thing or two about life. It goes on, with or without you, and it goes in ways you can’t predict. If you’re prepared, you have nothing to fear. If you’re a student, prepare for your exams, prepare for your life, and don’t make the mistake of confusing the two. If you do that and get some sleep, then pass or fail, life will be better next week. Really. 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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