"It is undeniable that our exam term conversations can be deeply isolating"Louis Ashworth

That period of change at the end of exam term is upon us. The shift from the exam mindset to Cava-soaked post-exam celebrations seems to me to draw attention to one of the strangest things about exam term, and that is our collective lack of originality when it comes to conversation topics. Exams, revision, and most importantly our competitive stress is all we talk about, and it’s made even worse by social media, as we take to Instagram stories for bite-sized breakdowns and flood our feeds with aesthetic study posts to make ourselves feel superior.

Being able to talk to each other about our exams and our exam stress should be something that brings us together as a university community, which it does, to an extent. It is undeniable, however, that our exam term conversations can be deeply isolating, because the way we talk about exams and revision is highly competitive. It only compounds feelings of inadequacy.

People who downplay their effort will only make life more stressful for themselves and others

It is one thing to bump into your friend at 8am in the library, but when she leans over the desk to complain about the fact that she only left at 3am, suddenly you’re left with feelings of guilt and inferiority for having been in bed. Worse than the friend who constantly brags about their library hours is the one who comes to you to claim they’ve done nothing and they’re going to fail the whole course. Legitimate fears about work not paying off and receiving poor grades is one thing, but in my experience people who downplay their effort will only make life more stressful for themselves and others.

The issue with this way of discussing our revision stress is that it contributes to something that most of us suffer from: millennial burnout (for more on what burnout is and how it affects our lives I’d recommend Anne Helen Petersen’s excellent BuzzFeed long read – it focuses more on older millennials but is still relevant to young millennials and Gen Zers). There is so much pressure put on us that the smallest of tasks become exhausting, and when faced with a big stress-inducer like looming exams, that one obstacle becomes all-consuming. The obstacle is scary to overcome, and so we pretend we aren’t even trying to overcome it, to ourselves and others.

One of the things that was impressed on me by my pre-GCSE education was that everyone revises differently and that it was crucial to find the revision method that worked for you. No one gets to Cambridge without working out whether mind maps or flashcards help the facts go in better, or whether you benefit from a fancy set of highlighters or can get through the whole term with one black biro. There seems to be less of a focus on how revision schedules differ from person to person, and how we spend the down time we allow ourselves.

It’s important to acknowledge that 12 hours in the library every day may not benefit your revision or your mental health, and that a break doesn’t simply constitute walking to the water fountain. This much should be obvious to most of us, but it’s also crucial to think about what we talk about in our down time with each other. Social time is so important to maintaining our mental health, but it does nothing if we just talk to each other about how stressed we are.

Like all good things, venting is best in moderation, for our sanity and that of those around us

I certainly don’t mean to give the impression that I think we should all keep our stresses bottled up until we explode. This is obviously not the case, and it is crucial that we are able to vent our stresses and frustrations in such a high-pressure environment. But like all good things, venting is best in moderation, for our sanity and that of those around us. As such, I have taken the liberty of thinking up some (exceedingly trite) conversation topics for when you are tempted to start talking about how stressed you are for Paper 32a, and how no one should get you started on how unprepared you are for your final exam.

  1.   The weather – the most British of topics. Beneficial in that you can complain about being stuck inside while not actually complaining about your revision, and also make nice plans for once exams are over.
  2.  Post-exam celebrations – make sure not to try this one if you have already finished. It will not make your still-studying friends feel any better. If you’re both still working, however, planning the post-exam parties is a goal-oriented topic.
  3.  What you’ve been watching on Netflix – potentially a risky one if you let yourself think of a bit of TV as procrastination rather than all-important self-care. But it is all-important to switch your brain off, and have a chat about something else. I enjoyed Tuca & Bertie, from the animators of Bojack Horseman, but less depressing.
  4. Your subject – this might sound counterintuitive because of everything I’ve just said, but exam term is a good time to try and remind yourself why you were interested in your subject in the first place, and the best way to do it is to actually discuss the bits you find exciting with your course-mates.

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Exam term is a balancing act, but being self-aware and conscious of the impact of our conversations can shift the balance towards the whole term being more manageable. It’s easy to isolate yourself, which is probably a slightly different discussion, but I’d return to the idea of community I presented at the beginning of this article – with a little reflection we can support each other.

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