This is Only a Test: Keeping College Exams in Perspective
June 05, 2007
Glancing up from my exam, I noticed two of my classmates handing in their blue books to the professor and leaving the classroom. We were only fifteen minutes into the testing period. Were they already giving up without a struggle? I was amazed that at least a third of the class hadn’t even bothered to show up. Several tardy students were promptly dismissed and told to reschedule the test with the instructor.
Dismayed by my peers’ seeming indifference towards our first examination of the semester, I forced myself to refocus on the task ahead of me—to appropriate enough time to complete eighteen essay questions within a seventy-five minute class period. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even taken a test like this. Was it twenty years ago in a high school English class?
For a “slow cooker” thinker like me, trying to generate a well-thought-out response to each essay question under a time constraint presented a real challenge. Knowing that I would not have the luxury of going back and revising, I struggled with the permanency of writing my answers in pen. I realized just how dependent I had become on my word processing program. Thinking on my feet without the benefit of cutting and pasting or using a spell checker was definitely stretching my brain cells in a new and uncomfortable way. Ultimately, I had to force myself to override my perfectionist tendencies and keep my hand and thoughts moving or I wouldn’t finish the test in time.
Utilizing slow-paced breathing techniques picked up in childbirth classes, I forced myself to relax. I cheered myself on mentally with phrases such as: You know the material, You can do this, and Just keep going. Watching the clock carefully, I allowed myself only a certain number of minutes per question and then moved on.
At last, the torture over, I closed the examination booklet and handed it to my professor. Trembling and a little bit dizzy, I headed to my car reflecting on the unpleasantness of examinations. In my estimation, it ranked right up there with having your teeth drilled at the dentist, getting pulled over by a cop, or getting stung by a wasp.
Several weeks later, as my professor was handing back our exams, she stated that there were a wide range of scores—from high As to low Fs. When I turned over my test booklet and saw my grade, 95 points out of 100, I secretly wanted to perform a little victory dance. Instead, I restrained myself until I got to my car, and then downed a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies on my way home to celebrate the occasion.
I don’t know if the anxiety that accompanies performing under pressure ever entirely goes away, but I know that my ability to cope with stress has improved over the years through continual exposure and practice. Frankly, I’ve done a lot harder things in my life than taking a timed essay exam. Like potholes on the highway of life, tests are a minor annoyance that can be dealt with. You can’t always avoid them, but if you’re prepared to straddle them, they won’t ruin your alignment.