By Magda Kozlowska
Secondary School Counselor at KIS International School
Exams can be daunting, and the thought of them may take over the everyday landscape of a student, especially in the IB Programme. Sleepless nights, irritability, countless conversations with classmates about what will be on the exams and the pertaining questions: “what if I fail?”. The stress is amplified by what we call the “IB Myth” - meaning that if you are an IB student, you will have no personal life and that constant, overarching anxiety is a natural part of your IB experience. This myth may then create a social contagion effect, where students see other students stress out and therefore adopt the same mindset. It’s easy for this state to get out of hand and impact students’ health, as well as their actual academic performance, especially if it persists over a longer period of time. Problems with sleeping, lack of energy, difficulty with maintaining focus and motivation, changes in appetite, and suppressed immune system that can lead to frequent infections are just a few side effects of prolonged stress.
The months following up to the final IB exams in May can be a time when many students suffer from chronic stress. Some common reasons for this include low internal motivation, lack of planning and time management skills, comparing themselves to their peers or unrealistic expectations that are set by families or often students themselves. While it is true that the IB Programme is a challenging and academically rigorous one, it is also completed by over 150,000 students a year worldwide. This means that it is a manageable task and having appropriate skills and a positive mindset can help reduce the pre-exam anxiety. It is important for students to take a proactive approach to their physical and mental wellbeing, by putting positive rituals in place, which will allow them to combat this stress more effectively. Of course the school and family environment play a critical role in this process as well.
One of the most important things to remember is that stress is a physiological reaction, therefore it is crucial to maintain good physical health during this time. This means getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night, eating well balanced meals rich in vitamin B and magnesium, and maintaining physical fitness by exercising at least 3 - 4 times a week. This can be supplemented by massages, which help relieve tension accumulated in muscles, as well as utilizing relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation. There is a plethora of apps to aid students with learning meditation, such as Headspace, Calm or Inscape to name just a few.
While stress is a physiological reaction to a perceived threat (in this case the IB World Exams), it also has a cognitive component. The way students think about challenging situations, as well as how they use problem solving and time management skills, can be a determinant of how they can curb their pre-exam anxiety. Writing a plan of things to do and setting realistic deadlines, breaking up large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones and learning to prioritize, as well as minimize distractions, are all skills students are taught throughout the IB program. This is the time to fully put those skills into practice. Students who are skilled at managing their time and organizing their work, are the ones who experience less stress and feel better prepared for the exams. If this is an issue that a student is finding hard to tackle, they should seek help from their subject teachers, the DP coordinator or counselors. It is important to remember that teachers are here to support the students in this journey and can provide valuable insight into how to best structure work and prepare for May. Finally, it is also useful to remind oneself that this can be an excellent growth experience - students can reflect on how they deal with academic pressure and demands, and develop constructive coping strategies they can later utilize at university and throughout the rest of their lives.