Navigating the exam season

Roxy Hall 19 Apr 21

With palms sweating and fast heart rate, you double check whether you have everything with you (pens, pencils, rulers, and calculators – the correct model, of course).

Going into my first-year exams, I had no idea what to expect. Having not studied Biology at A Level, I felt like, despite my mad attempt to keep up with course mates, I was going in blind. Am I meant to learn all the content? That’s impossible. How do I write an essay as a scientist who likes numbers? Did I get here by accident? How do I move from almost learning the exam script at A Level to a university exam with next to no mark scheme? While it looks different between A Level and first year to progressing on to further years of study, they all are stressful. Even when I felt like I understood the system and exam structure, I still felt the pressure.  Whether you are a mathematician or a medic, a chemist or a geologist, I think we all go through these thoughts.

While these circumstances change in the study environment and each departmental experience is so different, as Christians we have one massive hope, a constant in our differing situations. In a time that can make us so anxious we have someone, not something, that we can put our hope in. This means that despite all the different exams we have, negotiating how much revision needs to be done, we can all find motivation, grace, and rest in a foundation that we know won’t shake. Maybe through this exam season, the way you study and revise, you can even be a witness to those around you? Here are three helpful reminders as we go into revision/exam season:

We are studying God’s creation

You are literally studying God’s creation! Even though I find science really hard to understand sometimes, it is comforting to know that not only does God understand it fully, far better than we even could, but he invites us in to study His artwork using the gifts that He has given each one of us. For example, in Biology, I was in awe of how intricate and fine-tuned we are as humans.  It helped me understand more of what the Psalmist means when he talks of God’s power as he knits us in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). There’s such intricate design and we can marvel at it! We are so robust yet incredibly fragile too. Take a moment to focus on something that you are currently studying and thank God for the opportunity to study His creation. Ask God to help you use the gifts that He has blessed you with, and put them to use in your revision. Going into the exam, we get to share with our examiner how amazing His creation is!

'The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.'

Psalm 19:1

We are working for God not man

This is something that I can so easily forget, or know but not live out. When exam stress comes, we can be so ready to focus on the mark that you need to get in the next exam to achieve a certain class of degree or pass mark for the next year of study. Maybe it’s that summer internship that you’re after, or the approval from your supervisor, or just recognition from your parents. 2 Corinthians 4:18 says, 'So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.' We can’t stop ourselves from comparing our effort, our results to others, but when we see that God holds us up to a standard that is beyond any first class grade, we realise how unattainable this standard  is. A standard that requires us to be completely holy, fully righteous, wholly loving.

'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect' Matthew 5:48

Our grades are merely earthly things which have no secure foundation. Yet, through Jesus all things are possible – sometimes to achieve the grades, but more importantly – to reach a perfect standing before God. Why not pray now for God to stir a longing to work to glorify God, that He would be your motivation and not others?

Matthew 6:33 says, 'But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.' Instead of trying to strive for things that will pass away as fleeting as the wind, we can work to glorify God. As we pray that we would be working to glorify God, our desires change to be more in line with God’s will. And in doing so, our longing to be holy like Jesus, which is of eternal value, becomes number one priority above our exam results or job prospects.

We do not need to be worried

While we could choose to be anxious and worried, there is no need. Matthew 6:27 says, 'And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?'. It’s so true, worrying never helps anything. Instead we have something better, we can trust in God who cares for us, everything we might need. Whether it is clothes, food, or exams, God goes before us and behind us. When I entered exams since A Levels, I would have the chorus from Ben Cantelon’s song Guardian ringing in my ears:

You go before me; You're there beside me;
And if I wander, love will find me;
Goodness and mercy will always follow;
You go before me, my Guardian

Because God is with me in His Spirit, we can be strong and courageous, and we don’t need to be discouraged because we never go into anything alone (Joshua 1:9).

Practical pointers for Christian scientists

1)    Chances are you will have many exams coming up. Get organised. This means making sure that you start revision in good time, plan well to cover content, etc. However this also means you will have time to continue to go to church every week, mid-week Bible study groups, ensuring you have time to spend in God’s word each day, and spend time with your friends who don’t know Jesus yet. 

2)    Rest. God took a rest day. As we try to glorify God when we work, and we can glorify Him in our rest. It reminds us that we are limited as humans, and that work is not our god. Unless I had an exam on the Monday, I would rest and spend time with God every Sunday throughout the Easter holidays and the summer term. It meant I had free time to read, do some exercise, spend time with family/friends. I loved that I had time to “love my neighbour”. Once or twice, I would use the time to have lunch with friends who were stressed, watch a movie together, or buy them some essentials. Resting in God can be a fantastic witness!

3)    Sleep. We are not invincible, so use a regular sleeping pattern in exam season especially. Psalm 4:8 says, 'In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.' We are not missing out by sleeping well, in fact science shows that sleep solidifies our learning into long-term memory.

4)    Pray. When Jesus is doing ministry, He spends time with His Father. Whether it is during a quiet time in the morning, fix a time to pray. Why don’t you pray with some CU friends every morning before you start working together, and then as you finish for the day before dinner?

Tips & tricks from past science students

  • Sleep well, eat well, and keep some exercise in your routine
  • Organise a group study session in advance. Each person studies a topic they find hard, you then can teach it to the each other, and do a practice question together.
  • Get creative with how you learn. Flash cards, voice notes, songs – go for it!
  • Take breaks – don’t work, work, work and then crash for a day
  • Make the most of past papers & departmental resources

Scientists! Past papers are your best friend! While mark schemes are hard to access if at all, past papers themselves are so helpful. University professors are usually pretty uninventive in their question style and they cannot examine you on content outside of the course – that’s just bonus marks! Some lecturers will host workshops or post papers online, that more often than not are on the same topic as in your exam. I ended up using past papers as a way to learn the content. I’d find a paper topic that looked tricky, go learn as much of that topic, come back and then write as much of it closed book, and then add in what I’d forgotten about. Then send it to your lecturer in plenty of time. For students who are medics and chemists especially, look for the case studies and trends in the types of questions they ask, i.e. do they tend to ask for definitions or key words? (Make use of voice-to-text functions to type your essays quickly!)

Finally, remember you are literally studying God’s creation! Delight in how special it is that you can have a relationship with the divine designer. Pray that you might enjoy studying and your love for Jesus might just grow!