Stressed for success

As exams approach, anxiety becomes the norm around campus. Why do we become so preoccupied with perfection, and how does it ultimately affect us?

Competition and perfectionism are common contributors to much of the anxiety students feel around exam season.
Image by: Justin Chin
Competition and perfectionism are common contributors to much of the anxiety students feel around exam season.

My housemate spent last April obsessed with Justin Bieber music. After hours of hearing “One Time” and “Baby” through my walls, I walked into a 30 per cent exam and completely blanked before answering a crucial question. So what was occupying my mind in place of the theories of a bunch of old guys? Justin Bieber, of course.

With the end of the year exam season approaching once more, I have high hopes to redeem myself. But I’m still anxious that I’ll choke during another exam. Will Justin Bieber haunt my academic nightmares once again?

I decided to investigate how prevalent this high exam anxiety is around campus.

Max Fincham, ArtSci ’11, said it’s still too early to start feeling the stress.

“I’ll start to get stressed in a few weeks, but that’s for future Max to deal with,” he said.

Reid Irwin, ArtSci ’11, agreed.

“My assignments are all finishing right now … I have a nice lull right now. In a week it will kick in when I’ll start going to the library,” he said.

Taking advantage of the stress hiatus, Iwrin and Fincham said they spent their Thursday morning at the mall shopping for hats and visiting the puppies and scorpions at the pet store.

Although things seem to be fun and games for now, Fincham said his stress levels around exams usually increase, but getting stressed out just makes him more stressed.

“I would spend more time worrying than I would studying, and that would get me more worried,” he said.

Irwin said this worry he sees in others also skyrockets his own anxieties.

“When I see my friends or housemates hard at work … just seeing people do work gets my mind thinking, ‘why am I not doing anything?’”

Thinking about the future also adds to this anxiety, Irwin said. “I’m job searching right now so that compounds the stress of exams, knowing that I have to find a real job.”

Increased anxiety over the need to succeed around exams has become a common phenomenon. Research has shown that overachievers often do poorly in stressful situations like tests or exams. Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, recently came out with the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, in which she discusses the phenomenon “choking under pressure.”

In her book, Beilock said overachievers often rely a great deal on their working memory during high-stress situations.

When they get into a high pressure situation, part of this working memory is used up thinking about stress. In her book, Beilock said another factor that contributes to underperforming under pressure is the concept of “stereotype threat,” which occurs when people worry that a certain attribute, like gender or race, will influence their ability to succeed.

One common stereotype threat involves women and math performance.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology came to the conclusion that women who are made aware of stereotypes regarding their performance in math will commonly perform worse on math problems than women who aren’t.

Elspeth Christie, outreach coordinator for learning strategies development, said she’s noticed the rise in anxiety throughout Queen’s campus each exam season, adding that the busiest times at the Learning Commons are during midterm and exam seasons.

“Students come for core skills which I consider things like how to read more effectively, how to take notes more effectively and how to be a more efficient learner. We also have people who come with a need to develop their cognitive skills,” she said, adding that they also see students who need help with self-management, which includes help with time management, prioritizing and procrastination.

“We also definitely deal with students who have performance anxiety when it comes to tests and exams,” she said. “So that means looking at their attitude—is the anxiety resulting in a negative attitude and negative self-concept?”

Christie said it’s important to be aware of negative self-talk, which is similar to having a negative voice saying ‘you’re not good enough’ and to neutralize that with a positive voice saying ‘your best is good enough.’ “Another facet of talking to students that have anxiety is looking at really simple things,” she said. For example, if you’re trying to study and are still feeling anxious, it’s helpful to keep a pad of paper next to you while you study.

A similar approach can be taken during exams, she said. “When you look at the questions in the exam … certain questions will trigger certain ideas.”

Christie said it’s often helpful for students to ‘dump’ information. “When you’re reading through your exam and you have these triggers, write down stuff you don’t want to forget,” she said, adding that doing this allows your brain to be free to focus on other information during the exam.

Being in the small environment of Queen’s campus, surrounded by a plethora of fellow overachievers can also contribute to an academically competitive culture. Christie said perfectionism can cause students to get more competitive about marks.

“It’s hard to paint a big brush over all Queen’s students, but I do feel it is a competitive atmosphere and some students cope better with competition than others,” she said.

The current state of the economy can also contribute to a competitive culture because students are often unsure of what they’re doing after they graduate, which causes them to put a greater emphasis on their grades. “The currency at university is marks,” Christie said. “I do feel badly that students are caught up in the currency of marks.”

For more information on coping with academic stress, go to


exam preparation, exams, Psychology, stress

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