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Tested to the Limit
You can smell the fear. A particularly distinctive scent with a base of coffee, subtle hints of sweaty palms and top notes of last night's lonely takeaway re-heated. Yes, exams are in the air; all is quiet on the social front and university towns everywhere are haunted by the living dead. Bleary-eyed students blink over textbooks, pound the caffeine and imbibe viral YouTube videos like water, frantically attempting to forget the exams hanging over them like the proverbial sword by a hair.
Facing the most difficult and most important exams you've ever taken doesn't sit particularly well with feeling the least prepared for any such event ever before in your life. But my friends and I arrived back at university with the best of intentions. Personally, I made a commitment to extract myself from the jaws of the internet, which is, for me, the gaping maw of hell when it comes to distraction techniques. I would not tweet. I would not blog. A good friend changed my social networking passwords to forcibly prevent me procrastinating by maintaining a semblance of a social life. (I cracked it in fifteen minutes, so a more devious friend had to repeat the process.) Other friends made different commitments: one would not let a drop of alcohol pass her lips; one resolved to work 14 hour days (and did it); one ignored the mounting pressure through progressively longer and more intense bouts of Minesweeper.
And the escalating nerves were heightened even further over five weeks spent inside the claustrophobic bubble of university halls. The bubble in which no one has anything else to talk about apart from how under-prepared they are for Part 1 Module D of the Natural Sciences paper, the Classical Greek Practical Criticism exercise or the 'Encountering Non-Christian Worlds' section of Thursday's History paper. From an outside perspective, it must seem needlessly melodramatic to allow an exam to provoke so much stress. But in an atmosphere of perfectionists determined that nothing less than excellence is an option, stress proliferates alarmingly quickly. And, when you find out that psychiatric help is required for the most anxious and that many taller university buildings must be closed because of the risk of suicide, any light-hearted nerd joke sticks in the throat.
But it's not just those of us at university. This week, exam torment has plagued younger students too, who should, I'm sure, be frolicking and Facebooking uninterrupted. But younger students are using social media to vent their anger: a Facebook group protesting against the disproportionate difficulty of a GCSE Maths exam has amassed a following of over 2,000 irate Year 11s. And at AS level, an OCR Maths question and an AQA Business Studies question did not provide sufficient information for students to even attempt to come up with answers. Others racked their brains when choosing the correct option for a multiple choice Edexcel Biology question – for which every answer offered was wrong.
While newspapers everywhere cry that exams are getting easier, and that the demonised, stigmatised young people of Britain have an easier ride than 'any of us ever did' towards their future, perhaps we might offer them questions they have no hope of answering correctly, or at all. Perhaps those who chant the annual refrain undermining the achievements of students would like to be in an atmosphere so pressured that the prospect of failing provokes panic attacks, insomnia, glandular fever and, for some, nervous breakdowns.
Now, it's entirely possible that I've become embittered and angry because I've spent five weeks among the ranks of caffeine-fuelled miserables immersed in dry, dull books. And I'm not suggesting that exams should be made easier - far from it. But I'd dare to argue that more rides upon exams for young people now than ever before: for school students, university offers teeter precariously on predicted grades stacked sky high; for those at university, the perils of graduate unemployment and years of unpaid debt beckon for anyone feeble enough to fail. Surely a system that asks students to jump through hoops at risk to their mental and physical health is definitely the wrong answer? Feel free to pick your answer from the following options: a) 76.994 b) Charles Dickens c) One Tikka Masala, one Rogan Josh and two naan breads, please.