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November 29, 2012

Putting an end to the madness

Avoiding self-inflicted finals-week stress is as easy as following these few simple pieces of advice.

As the quarter draws to a close, University of Chicago students almost uniformly scramble to complete papers, cobble together solutions to problem sets, and madly cram for exams. Our collective anxiety starts to manifest itself, and things start to get weird. Yesterday, I nearly tripped over a girl who abruptly halted in the middle of the sidewalk. As I dodged her and kept walking, she buried her face in her hands.  Had she forgotten to submit some critical assignment? Was she suffering from a stress-induced migraine? Perhaps she was simply having a pre-reading period existential crisis. Whatever the cause of her behavior, it was clear that she was in distress. In fact, much of our student body appears distressed; I have observed a trend of discontent and general malaise.

But, to be honest, this is neither unexpected nor unusual. Such a collective sentiment is found at college campuses around the country and is in no way unique. Nor is it unjustified. Many of us want to go on to graduate or professional school or the private sector, and in all cases GPA is crucial.  The exams and papers we write will ultimately determine what kinds of opportunities are available to us, and this is a stressful, even frightening concept. But seeing that girl have a small, immensely powerful breakdown triggered only one question in my mind: Why? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we subject ourselves to this kind of agony 12 times over the course of our education here?

The obvious answer is what I’ve already said: We want to get into good law schools, graduate departments, investment banks and what have you. After some reflection, however, this isn’t really the answer to the question I’m asking. We want to get into these programs, so we chose to attend a top academic institution, filled our resumes with extra-curricular activities, and worked diligently. But the anxiety, stress, and fear we feel do not further our goals at all. In fact, they often stand in the way of our goals by causing us to lose hope or feel helpless. The question still stands: What good does it do us to stress about our exams and grades so much?

I believe there is no satisfactory answer. It’s clear that fretting about things outside our control is a pointless exercise. It’s like planning your next chess move after you’ve been checkmated. However, I’d say that worrying about things under our control is equally pointless. Clearly, I am in the minority; if more students felt the same way the phenomenon I am discussing would not exist.  I take this contrarian viewpoint for the reasons I mentioned above: In almost no case does worrying increase your chance of success or allow you to feel better.  It simply doesn’t add anything to your life.

With this in mind, here are a few suggestions I want to extend to my readers as we mentally prepare ourselves for the final sprint:

Move on from past mistakes. We’ve all been in situations where we realize that we could have reviewed the reading more closely and done much better on a test or an essay. We often feel guilt or shame that we didn’t do something that seems so obvious in hindsight. These kinds of feelings may very well be true, but my #1 piece of advice is to ignore them for the time being. This is a clear example of worrying that won’t do anything for you in the short term. Accepting that it is impossible to change your past actions can only make you better off when that next midterm rolls around.

Realize that grades mean different things to different people. You know that each professor has his or her own style of grading, but it’s also important to be cognizant of the fact that professors have very different conceptions of what those grades mean. Some professors believe that a “good” performance in a class is represented by a B+, whereas others believe that same level of performance to merit an A. Very few (if any) professors think about the importance of their student’s grade in the larger context of their student’s goals. This can be frustrating, but ultimately it’s a good thing; it ensures that your grade is based on a true assessment of your performance in the class.

Be motivated by accomplishment, not fear. Often, we budget only the bare minimum of time required for projects. We put ourselves in an extreme position in which we only have two options: Complete a whole assignment or fail to submit it at all. We’re motivated to work purely because if we don’t, we fail. Creating situations in which you rely on pressure to succeed is counterproductive: To treat the mere completion of an assignment as the ultimate goal of an undertaking it is to forget that achieving quality should be your foremost goal. Being motivated by fear and the pressures of time is therefore doubly stressful, as it also increases the likelihood that you’ll dwell on the low quality of your past work.

Perhaps these thoughts and suggestions are a little trite but I think they’re worth considering. They can, after all, only make your life better.  And I’m sorry if I’ve come off a little preachy, but if the pervasive discontent of our campus is anything to go by, I know I’m not preaching to the choir.

Taylor Schwimmer is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.

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