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I will get straight to the point without much details about my mental state. I am currently studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I would say that it is a demanding program. My school is considered the "hardest" to get into in my country, and we have many different courses involving math, physics, introductory computer science, electronics etc.

I know I have to deal with many issues with my self-esteem, but I would really love to hear some advice on what to do when I feel like I am not sufficiently prepared to take an exam. This happens even in cases where I watched every (or almost every) class, did coursework etc. throughout the semester, but found that I struggled with past papers some days before the exam. This makes me feel like I do not "deserve" to get a good mark if I don't study everything properly. It's like I imagine every possible scenario of failure in my head and I reject to even take the exam even though my school offers me the chance to take it again.

I am afraid to ask my professor for advice on this issue because I do not want him to feel like I care only about my grades and not the actual course, because in most of my courses I really try to care and find a deeper meaning. But I have seen (comparing to my classmates) that this is not a good study approach for finals. I feel confused, weak, and embarrassed.

My therapist asked me why I am so afraid, and I think it's because I relate my grades to whether I am good enough to follow my academic goals. For example, if I really like the course, I feel like I am not eligible to further follow related courses if I did not excel. And if I do not like the course, I feel like I have to excel because it's mandatory in my field and it shows my ability to adapt. I also feel like succeeding properly involves studying everything even if it's not appealing, because otherwise I feel like I am cheating my self, my education, and my "profession".

How can I deal with this?

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    You seem to be heading down a good path with a therapist. Keep on it and good luck.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 23, 2020 at 19:40

3 Answers 3

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It's natural to worry about exam scores, especially when a semester class only has a small number of exams. Discussing with a therapist is a good idea, however I did not see mentioned whether your anxiety is justified: how does your knowledge compare to the professor's expectations and to the average student in the class?

Can you visit the instructor during office hours to discuss your progress? That time is set aside to help students. Please don't feel bad about appearing to care about your grades. Grades often provide both the incentive for and assessment of understanding. Most instructors are happy to help students who are putting effort in, whether it is for an 'A' or genuine interest. Perhaps the professor can help you obtain past exams to practice on, or practice problems in a textbook, to self-assess your understanding.

Can you study with other students in the class? You could identify how your understanding compares to the class overall, and if other students understand better, studying with them can help you learn.

Ideally, by informally assessing your knowledge, you will identify whether you understand the concepts adequately. If your understanding is sufficient, then your anxiety is not justified, and your therapist can help you move past it. Otherwise, you will have identified topics in the class that you can work on to become better prepared for the exam.

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Some tips that worked for me (which obviously aren't a replacement therapy)

  1. Spend less time reading textbooks, and watching lectures and more time actually doing problems. Do every problem you can find on the internet related to the subject your studying. Mainly do your reading when you already have a problem in mind you want to solve. I found this increases my retention a lot.

    1a. You should be able to think through solutions to problems with your eyes closed hours after you've worked them out. I frequently go over solutions step by step while lying in bed before sleeping. You should be able to go to a whiteboard and write the solution as if your are teaching a class without looking at any notes. Friends are a great way to test yourself.

    1b. Try to really get a good intuition about the problems you're working on. It helps me to have a clear visual image of how things are working and fitting together. The more associations you make between things you know and your subjects the better.

    1c. Create artificial stress while you're studying like placing a timer in front of you, doing the problem in front of people, or pretending that this is really the exam. When I was studying for the math GRE, this "exposure therapy" helped me deal with my anxiety during the real exam.

  2. This might seem difficult or abstract, but it helped me to consciously admit that I felt inherently inferior and then change that belief into a different one. In particular, I adopted the viewpoint that mathematics requires hard work, like practicing an instrument, and that I will get better if I study right. I became very aware of feelings stemming from the belief that only "talented geniuses" can do math and consciously replaced those ideas with the idea that math is difficult but with time and effort, someone like me can absolutely learn those things.

  3. Some lifestyle changes might also help. Exercising frequently and meditating can go a long way when it comes to anxiety and self-esteem. Take some time to clear your mind, reaffirm your goals, and keep your brain running smoothly. You can also use meditation to reflect on ideas you are struggling with, or ways in which you can improve your study habits as well as to just relax and give yourself a break.

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Test anxiety is very common. Simply being aware that it is a normal thing to happen to students may increase your chance of success.

Treatment by a mental health professional is a good idea for severe test anxiety. Advice from strangers on the internet is not a substitute for the assistance of a mental health professional.

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