As I’m writing this, a great many school-age kids in middle school and high school are anxious for summer to begin. For many school districts in the United State, the end of the school year is in sight. It no longer seems so far away and so out of reach. I imagine many are already counting down the days until that magical moment when the final bell rings and school is out for the summer.
I know that wait can be agonizing, at times.
I have not forgotten the elation I often felt on the last day of school
But before any students get to that wondrous moment, they have one last obstacle to face. It involves the last round of standardized tests and exam. It may vary from district to district, but this is usually the time of year when most students take the SATs, AP and IP exams, or a general final exam for each class. They are often among the most difficult and stressful tests of the entire year. I haven’t forgotten how hard they were, either. And while I’ve already made my opinions on standardized testing clear, I’d like to use this moment to share another insight.
Back in high school, I took a number of AP exams during this time of year. And towards my junior and senior year, I also took final exams that often required much more studying than your standard quiz. I took many similar exams in college, but most of those varied in that they didn’t rely entirely on scantron sheets and multiple-choice tests. To date, it was those major exams towards the end of high school that ended up being the hardest test I ever took.
I vividly remember staying up late at night during the days leading up to the test, often going over page after page of notes that weren’t always well-organized. I also remember reading over textbooks again and again, but still struggling to remember key points. It resulted in many restless nights. On the nights before tests, I often laid awake in my bed, going over notes and concepts that I knew I had to remember for the exam the next day.
It was not healthy. I can’t overstate how stressful this was for me.
Even though I ended up passing and even acing some of these exams, the work I had to put in just didn’t feel worth it. And in the grand scheme of things, I don’t feel like all that studying helped me actually learn the concept. Even if I passed or aced the exam, I genuinely can’t remember any helpful knowledge coming from it.
However, this harrowing experience did have one important impact. But I wouldn’t feel it until I graduated college and started working in the real world.
Looking back on all the jobs I’ve had since college, including the ones I found really terrible, I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed or as anxious as I was when studying or taking those tests. That’s not to say all the jobs I’ve had were easy, by comparison. They certainly weren’t. I’ve had a number of jobs over the years in which I’ve come home feeling sore, drained, and miserable. But even on my busiest days at those jobs, I still didn’t feel nearly as stressed.
And I think that’s an important perspective to share because I imagine there are a lot of young people right now worrying about what the adult world has in store for them. Their only real experience with hard work and stress comes from school. They’re constantly told by teachers, counselors, and administrators that the work their doing now is critical. And it’s meant to prepare them for the much harder work they’ll face in college or the adult world.
If someone out there has been telling you that, I’ve got an important message for you.
Unless you plan on being a doctor or lawyer or a sweatshop laborer, that’s not accurate. That’s just administrators trying to get you to work harder so that you’ll get better grades, which consequently makes them look better. The truth is never that simplistic. And you often don’t find that out until much later in life and after some significant life experience.
But even if you don’t have that experience, you can still maintain a better perspective than I ever did when I was young. I made the mistake of treating every major exam like a defining moment in my life. I genuinely believed that if I didn’t ace every test, my life would fall apart and I would fail at everything moving forward. I also believed that each passing year would get harder and harder. Eventually, I’d have to spend every waking hour studying or working, never having time to enjoy my life. Again, it was not healthy. I did real harm to my mental health by thinking that.
I eventually had to learn that both college and the adult world don’t have to be this never-ending toil of joyless rigor. Once you have some agency and guidance, you can chart your own path. Yes, you’ll still have to work. And yes, you’ll still have to struggle at times. But it’s not nearly as arduous as these exams and the teachers who give them make them out to be. In time, they will be a small sliver of a much richer life.
To date, I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard or been as stressed out as I was when taking my high school exams from this time of year. Every job I’ve had came with challenges. But rising to those challenges never felt so tedious and arduous. On top of that, I actually got paid for that effort. That definitely took some of the stress out of it. And even in the worst jobs I’ve had, there was a general structure and logic to it all. I knew what I had to do and why. Whereas with school, it was just a matter of doing what the teachers said and getting the grades they said you needed to get.
Time, life experiences, and the benefit of hindsight has helped me see those exams for what they were. As agonizing as they were, a part of me is grateful that they hardened me to the rigors of hard work and stressful nights. Compared to my last few years of high school, every job I’ve had has been less stressful and more manageable. That helped make navigating the adult world easier in the long run.
Even so, I wouldn’t wish that kind of stress on anyone. And I sincerely hope anyone reading this who’s still in school can gain some insight from what I’ve shared.
I know it’s still so overwhelming, having the end of the school year be so close, yet having to navigate final exams.
I know it seems like your entire life revolves around school and these tests, at the moment.
I only ask that you take a step back and appreciate that these challenges will help make you stronger in the long run. You need not fear what comes next. Because if you can survive high school even slightly better than I did, then I promise you’re already strong enough to build a brighter future for yourself in the years to come.