The 3 big mental errors you can make when writing exams

If you are studying for a professional qualification, you are a Knowledge AthleteIn this previous post I discuss how that should impact your preparation.  This post however focusses more on how to perform on the day.  This is crucial, because no matter how much preparation you put it, it all comes down to performance on the day

I have known good students, who would be fantastic CA(SA)s, but who fail to perform well under exam conditions.  The mistakes they make are different every time, which causes them a lot of frustration, but at the root is stress caused by the pressure of the exam situation.

Jim Afremow, who helps to prepare elite athletes for events like the Olympics, has written The Champion’s Mind.  There is a lot of good material in the book but what caught my eye was the chapter that dealt with performance on the day.

He identifies 3 mental errors that you can make when needing to perform well on the day.  The good news is that each error has a mental correction that you can apply.

MENTAL ERROR 1 = Overemphasising the outcome

While you are writing you can place yourself under more pressure by thinking about how important the exam or test it.  Have you ever found you mind thinking, “I need to get 60% for this paper, am I getting it?”.  This is an error because you are causing unnecessary stress.

The correction?  You need to focus on what you can do now, not the outcome.  Here is a great question to quickly ask yourself, “What’s Important Now?” (which spells WIN).  This gets your thoughts away from the future and back to the present.  You are then able to stop your mind from causing more damage but rather put it to work helping you write the paper.  If you focus on the process, the score will take care of itself.

MENTAL ERROR 2 = Trying too much

If doubt starts to sneak in, you could make the mistake of trying too much.  Have you ever felt unsure of yourself and then started to try and do things that you have never done before when practicing tutorials?  You have lost confidence, maybe because of a really tricky part of a question, but then by trying too hard to solve that problem, you forget to score the easy marks.

The correction?  When you see a hard part of a question and are tempted to try and spend all your time trying to solve it.  Stop, take a deep breath, and remind yourself to stick to what you know has made you successful, including following your regular routine.  Remember that you deserve to be here in this situation. Do your normal excellent job of getting the easy marks and then battle to the best of your abilities—nothing else is needed.

MENTAL ERROR 3 = Tracking the negative

I think we all make this mistake!  You are basically on the lookout for all the reasons why you are not going to do well.  You notice the wobbling desk, the person with flu next to you, the cold temperature and the tough questions that are asked.  As your mind tracks the negative, the body becomes tense and your decision making poor.

The correction?  You need to follow the positive track instead of tracking the negative.  Put an immediate stop to a negative commentary running in your head after something unexpected or unwanted happens.  Refuse to get sucked into frustration, panic, or pessimism.  Immediately leave any mistakes you make behind (i.e., flush the mistake) or you will drag it into the next task.  Always make a commitment prior to performing that you will do your best to take whatever happens out there in stride.

The key when you are writing is being aware of the early signs of the 3 mental errors and then quickly applying the mental corrections.  The great news is that learning this skill will serve you for the rest of your life whenever you find yourself needing to perform in crucial moments.

Paul Maughan

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