"Play hard in the first year, work hard in the second. From June onwards, it’s a long stretch. You can get a tremendous amount done between June and the end of the year."
The chances are that if you are reading this article, your Google search history includes queries like “How long do I need to get prepared for A levels/O levels/PSLE/etc.”, “Can I still get good results if I start working now” or “Tips for studying effectively”. You might have been triggered by a long lecture by your well-meaning teacher on how the dreaded exams are approaching and how one must “buck up”, “hunker down” or “start focusing”. You might have started a countdown app only to realise that the days left to D-Day has started to approach the low hundreds.
Are you in a state of panic? Or, at the very least, worry? If so, then you are in the right place – for I, along with thousands of those who have survived those exams, have been in your shoes.
When I interviewed Mr. Jamie Reeves– the longest-standing Head of Raffles Institution’s Humanities Programme – as a jittery J2, one thing he said really stuck in my head: “From June onwards, it’s a long stretch.” I later found out that what he said was true. For many students, especially those still actively engaged in CCAs, April is the busiest month in terms of non-academics. Students are often in sports competitions, performances, or preparing to hand over the reins of leadership to juniors. Afterwards, May is usually the month where everyone takes a breather – but not for long. Before you know it, the exam schedules have been printed and distributed; it's a stark reminder that you haven’t updated your General Paper (GP) notes since that faraway test in March.
My first words of advice would be: Don’t panic. Closely following that would be: Try not to be stressed.
Does that seem like a conundrum? It did to me when I was sending frantic texts to seniors, asking them what I should do with my horrible grades. Most of them replied comforting words along the lines of: “Don’t worry, I was in the same boat (and I got straight A's)”. However, one senior memorably declared: “You should never be stressed. Stress clouds thinking.”
At first, my incredulous reply was: “Did you just really type that?” After all, stress is part and parcel of the competitive environment in Singapore. As time went by, however, I really appreciated the wisdom in her piece of advice. Multiple studies have debated the effect that stress has on studying; some say stress helps, others disagree. Personally, I felt that being stressed did me little good. Far from using it as motivation, I often procrastinated when it involved tasks that I felt were going to cause me more anxiety in the long run. In the end, my stress did not help me start on work. It just kept me ruminating on my eventual doom.
Accurate depiction of myself in 2016.
Yet, that does not mean one can just stop being stressed at the snap of one’s fingers. The key word here should be: Focus.
Personally, I felt that the June holidays are really a gift from the heavens. Nowhere else in the whole academic year did I receive a month’s worth of school-free days to study, where my teachers (most of them, anyway) tried their best not to assign too much homework. It felt like the golden period of time to properly sit down and digest all the lecture notes that I had left unfinished while taking a much-deserved nap (at that time), and to finish writing the notes that I would later depend on to carry me through numerous mock papers. In the process, I also found that making a study timetable and breaking down each subject into individual tasks was incredibly useful. Doing so made the task of studying seem less daunting than before. For instance, knowing that I had to:
1 Finish notes for Topic A
2 Do corrections for Test B
3 Review Topic C in detail
was less intimidating than the general thought of “I NEED TO STUDY MATHS RIGHT NOW.”
Another step I took towards focusing was minimising the amount of distraction in my surroundings. Different people have different definitions of what “distraction” can be. For example, there are some who must study in absolute silence in places like the library. There are others who would find such a place utterly distracting due to the sounds of multiple coughs, pages turning and fingers typing – and would much prefer to be in a crowded place where these noises can fade in the background. Some prefer to listen to pop music; some would rather instrumental or classical music. However, the one problem in common would be the distraction posed by that innocent-looking phone and computer. One minute on Instagram can lead to another on Facebook… and can easily turn into an hour of tumbling increasingly deeper into the rabbit hole of social media.
Using your computer and phone is inevitable in this digital age where many teachers share their materials online. However, there are many ways to prevent unwanted distraction from happening. I had friends who deleted their social media apps, or went to the drastic step of de-activating their Facebook and Twitter accounts. While those are actions you can take, I feel like the lure of social media lies more in the psychological realm. If I had deleted Instagram, there was really nothing stopping me from downloading it again (“just for a moment”) when boredom struck. The key lies in self-discipline. If I had really studied and needed to unwind, watching some YouTube videos or surfing Facebook did not cause the sky to shatter. In fact, I established a reward system that motivated me to resume studying. If you decide to take the same path, remember that everything is best in moderation – I suggest setting a timer or installing one of those apps that monitor your internet usage. If you find yourself mixing work with social media increasingly often (i.e. watching vlogs on YouTube while doing notes and texting your friends) and being unable to concentrate on either, it might be a good idea to really delete that pesky app.
Above all, remember to be pragmatic.
Rome was not built in a day. Neither were my grades and yours. There were days when I was so burnt out from studying that I shuddered to touch a single pen or look at my computer screen. When that happened, I took a break and went outside for a walk without my phone. You can do the same too. Do not neglect your physical health for that elusive grade.
Additionally, don’t have unrealistic expectations of yourselves. If you are getting As and Bs, don’t look at that person getting straight As in every test (unless they’re your eye-candy). If you are far beyond the A and B range, congratulations – you’re in the majority! Remember that your grades will take time to improve, and some will naturally climb faster due to your natural aptitude and/or understanding of the subject.
Of course, there are miracle stories. During my years at Raffles Junior College, sites like RJ Confessions were very popular during exam periods. There were numerous questions like: “Can I go from an E to an A in Prelims?”, with one or two seniors popping up to say: “Yes! I’ve done that!” Stories like these can only provide temporary relief. To achieve such an improvement, one would have to work extremely hard and extremely smart. If you’re reading this in May or in June, don’t wait any longer. Start work now, and hopefully you won’t have to ask that question near Prelims. In the end, Mr. Reeves’ years of experience were reflected in his words, “It’s not the amount of hours you spend; it’s the quality of hours.” The road ahead may seem long, but if you place every step of the way carefully using the three tips above, you will reach your destination eventually. Bon voyage!
This article was written by Ms. Ai Xin Liew, a recent graduate of the Humanities Programme in Raffles Institution who hopes to go into the creative writing field. Her love for writing and the English language stems from her formative years studying Literature under dedicated teachers in both Raffles Girls’ School and Raffles Institution. Having worked extensively with children – particularly those of a vulnerable background – at the Singapore Children’s Society, Ai Xin feels it a privilege to contribute towards educating the next generation. Besides writing, her interests also include piano performance. She is next headed to New York University (NYU)’s College of the Arts & Sciences to pursue a B. A.