Live or study? – The highs and lows of my first exam phase (2022)

Reading time: 6 minutes

LIFE STORIES This was supposed to be an article about my exam preparation during my first semester at university. But sometimes things turn out differently than planned. Today I know that good grades at university are not everything. What really counts is living. So don’t hesitate to live your best life despite studying.

I know that I’m not the best person to ask for useful advice on preparing for exams at university. After all, I’m only in the first semester of my physics degree and I’m horrified to realise that I’ve hardly studied for my first exam, which is due in three weeks. And yet I’m doing my best to give you my perspective on the exam preparation period. I want to take you with me on the countdown to my first university exams.

I don’t know how I’m going to do. And although this is a blog about the best learning strategies, I just have the feeling that my usual learning methods here won’t work the way I imagine. But maybe you’ll still get some added value for your studies from these lines. And if not, I hope I have at least entertained you.

Those who think make mistakes

I remember a tutorial we had recently (was it two weeks ago?). Our tutor, let’s call him Sam, was telling us about the year above him. There, ALL the freshers had failed their maths exams – and even when the mark scale was lowered by a whole 50%, only 4 people got through. A glaring case. We didn’t want to end up like that. We wouldn’t end up like this, we were sure of it. And yet … There were only 5 weeks left until the lecture-free period began, and hardly any of us had started studying yet.

“Starting next week, we will do exam preparation in addition to the tutorial,” Sam just announced. “Already?” someone asked from the hall. “You’re already late if you haven’t started yet,” Sam countered, “I mean sure, theoretically it’s also feasible to start three days before …” And he told us about an exam for which he had watched all the videos of the lectures again at double speed the day before. He had passed. “But I wouldn’t recommend that to you at all.” “And what do you recommend instead?”

“The trick is to just practise so much that you don’t have to think much in the exam itself. Because when you think, you make mistakes.” I keep hearing these words from Sam in my ears. They sound plausible. But how, pray tell, is it possible to stop thinking? Sam had only one unsatisfactory answer to this question: “Practice. At some point, the thinking process will become so automated that you will be able to read the tasks and write down the solution in one go, as if in a trance.”

Well, let’s get to studying!

study always - when to live?
studying – always and everywhere

I don’t believe that by the time the exams come around, I’ll be able to write down all the tasks in the exams as if they were automatic. But I have made a plan. There are just under three weeks left until the ExPhy exam (experimental physics). By the end of this week, I want to have my learning overview ready, then next week I’ll learn the content and then I’ll have a few more days to calculate exercises.

The situation is similar for MaPhy (Mathematics for Physicists). Here I don’t have to learn anything by heart, but the overview will take forever! I want to have it ready by the time of the ExPhy exam so that I can do lots of exercises the following week – when I will also have to take a look at Astro (Introduction to Astronomy). Well, can you still see your way through? Me neither …

When I’m honest, I have to say that at the moment I can’t imagine how I’m going to manage this in addition to my normal lectures. Because whenever I’m motivated to start preparing for the exams, something else comes up or I’m already so tired from the day that I lose all concentration. Or – like now – I remember that I wanted to write something for my blog and get distracted.

Whereby, such compensations are also important. After all, I don’t live to study, I study to live (a better life). And if I don’t get anything else done besides my studies, that’s no life at all. But I don’t think it’s quite in line with reality to talk about a life outside of university during the exam phase …

“Next semester will be better. I’ll stick to MaPhy right from the start so that I don’t have to catch up so much afterwards,” I said once when we met in our study group. “Everyone says that,” Lynn interjected, “and no one follows through.” I gave her an angry look. That was exactly what Sam had told us last week too. But, naive as I am at the moment, I still believe in my plan. After all, I hardly know a more ambitious person than myself.

First doubts

With one and a half weeks to go until the ExPhy exam, I’m starting to notice that my preparation is going a little differently than planned. I’m still working on the study overview because I’m taking an extremely long time to really understand every detail. It’s actually fun, because I realise that I only half-understood some of the facts before, but now I’m getting the full picture. Since we were allowed to write on a cheat sheet (A4, front and back), there is also no pressure to learn all the formulas by heart. I have already worked on the mock exam that was made available to us online and passed it satisfactorily. So it’s actually going quite well.

Or rather, it would be going quite well if I didn’t have to take care of all the other modules besides Exphy. MaPhy in particular is anything but pleasant. I’ve only repeated the first 25 pages of our 150-page script, and my motivation to spend hours on Greek formula symbols and abstract mathematical structures could be higher. At the beginning of the semester, I was motivated. Finally getting to know real mathematics! But I soon realised that university mathematics is basically like Latin. A foreign language with lots of vocabulary (definitions) and grammar rules (principles like complete induction – and that’s still the simplest example).

Of course, in a way, it’s exciting to finally learn the background behind the maths rules I know so well from school – but learning this new language under all the stress is anything but child’s play. It’s more like brain juggling, which requires a lot of concentration. Concentration that I hardly have at the moment. I don’t know how I had imagined studying … but definitely not like this!

Reality

I took a lot of selfies like this when I just needed a 5 minute break.

In the last weeks of lectures, I put absolutely everything that wasn’t related to exam preparation on the back burner. I hardly went to lectures or tutorials anymore, only looked at the exercises briefly without doing them, neglected social contacts. And I simply didn’t make any progress in preparing for the exams. At least: one week before the ExPhy exam, I had finished my own 53-page lecture notes and could finally start working on my cheat sheet.

Nevertheless, the study plan didn’t work out at all. What I had planned to do was simply too extensive. For example, my idea of going through the entire MaPhy script before the exam and writing down all the important sentences was not a bad plan in itself, as it helped me enormously in understanding the first pages of the script. However, as the exams approached and I realised that I had only managed to get through 57 of over 150 pages of script, I abandoned the plan.

Instead, in the last week of lectures, I sat almost 24/7 at my cheat sheet while my fellow students diligently worked through old ExPhy exams with our tutor. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for that, because for some reason I had got it into my head that it was more important to have all the concepts and formulae in my head than to calculate real exercises.

I got through the week and the ExPhy exam on a Saturday at 1pm. I had a good feeling. My gut feeling (which was that I would probably have around 80% of the points) was not to deceive me. Last week we got the results. 84,27 %. That was good. With the changed assessment average, it was a 1.7.

It’s one more week, you got this!

I couldn’t really be relieved, though, because now there were only 8 days left until the day of days. The day of the MaPhy and Astro exams. There was still a lot of preparation to do for MaPhy and I hadn’t even looked at the Astro lectures in the last few weeks. It came as it had to: I sat at my desk for 6 to 10 hours each of the next few days preparing for the exam and struggled through all the topics covered this semester.

I won’t lie, it was anything but easy and took quite a toll on my mental health. Not to mention that I was so tired every three hours that I would have preferred to sleep through the rest of the day. I know of other fellow students who sat in the library from morning till night to study in peace. Admirable. I couldn’t have done that without going crazy. To sit down in the library every morning and know that you would spend almost the rest of the day here studying…

I needed something nice to get through the day every time. That’s why I had something planned for every evening: whether it was a dance practice or a meeting with friends. How lucky that a very good friend of mine lived in the same student dorm as me! This resulted in funny Instagram stories that gave the impression that I was having the time of my life. Nobody could have known that this was absolutely not the case.

And then one day it came. The day I had been dreading for the last few weeks. Two exams in a row. And I have to say: yes, I’m still alive! The MaPhy exam went rather sub-optimally (and that’s what almost everyone I spoke to said), but Astro was okay and I’m just relieved to have it behind me. Now there’s only one exam left, but I can do it from home, so I’ll be comparatively relaxed about it.

Interesting: There are 6 stages of studying for your exams!

A burden falls from me

Three days later on the plane to Punta Cana.

Yes, dear friends, my first semester as a physics student is over and I am exhausted. It was much more exhausting than I thought, so I’ve decided to de-stress the next few semesters – no matter how long I have to extend my studies to do it. It’s worth it to me. To begin with, a few words about the borderline part of stress: boredom. I remember very clearly my first article on the topic: “Why you should be bored sometimes“.

Back then, I was still at school (was it really that long ago?) and completely exhausted from the exam period. That’s why I wanted to make the best of the holidays, namely nothing! and just clear my head. Today, 2 years later, I’m sitting on the plane to Punta Cana with the same thought in mind. Or to put it another way: Caribbean, here I come!

Far away from everything …

I have decided to get bored again after a long time. Admittedly: too much boredom can also be stressful. But in fact it is good for you. I’m already noticing this on our 10-hour flight to the Dominican Republic. Since the flight crew has decided that now, after a 6-hour flight, it should suddenly be rest time and has instructed to close all the sun visors – but I am wide awake – I have been sitting here in the dark for at least three quarters of an hour and don’t know what to do with myself.

And yes, of course it’s boring (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have started writing this article), but somehow I can suddenly take a deep breath. Breathe deeply without thinking about unfinished tasks or upcoming exams. Just me, the music in my ears and my thoughts. A beautiful trio.  How happy I am to finally be able to read again (I didn’t get to do that at all during my studies), to listen to the sound of the sea (obviously there is no sea in Potsdam) and to adjust my daily rhythm to myself, not to the university.

Just thinking about my own thoughts, it occurs to me that one might get the impression that studying is the worst thing in the world. That’s not the case, of course. On the contrary: I made a conscious decision to do it and I don’t regret it. The contents of the degree programme are very interesting (apart from MaPhy – the abstract, Greek-sounding version of mathematics …).

I always noticed how much I was absorbed in some of the tasks and even the lab practical was a lot of fun, contrary to my expectations (because I am actually a very theoretically inclined person). At the moment, I still don’t know what field I’ll end up in, but on the other hand, I can’t imagine doing anything besides physics or journalism.

Value of life

Nevertheless, and this is what this article is mainly about, my first semester was anything but satisfactory. And I’m not talking about my grades. I’m talking about the value of life. What good is it to sit at university for 14 hours a day and forget about the rest of my life, my hobbies, my family and friends?

I have long since realised that the three-year standard period of study is by no means the rule. Sam, our tutor, once told us that in a higher class, out of an initial group of over 60 first-year students, only two people had completed their Bachelor’s degree in the specified three years. That’s less than one-thirtieth of the students!

Okay, maybe that’s an extreme example, but the message becomes clear: no one will tear your head off if you do one, two or three semesters longer. No one will judge you if you fail an exam. For example, a friend of mine told me that he failed an exam almost every semester, then tried again and today he has a good Bachelor’s degree.

Again, of course, you have to differentiate between “I do everything I feel like doing and a bit of university on the side” (I absolutely don’t mean that!) and “I study conscientiously, but also allow myself my free time and live my student life“. How nice the second option must be!

Over the last months my "student life" has looked more like this:

Monday: get up at 6:30 a.m., drive to Potsdam, take all the lectures, meet for hours in the study group and, already completely exhausted, go shopping with a friend in the evening.
Tuesday: do the second round of lectures and exercises, next study group, exercises, go to my weekly dance class in the evening, then sit on assignments again until at least 11pm.
Wednesday: online lectures and work through the afternoon on assignments, maybe take a photo walk in between, then go to the tutorial and continue working.
Thursday: lab practical, attend the admittedly often very entertaining ExPhy lecture, do assignments afterwards and look forward to the evening relaxing with a friend (because I absolutely can't take any more and desperately need a break).
Friday: lectures and exercises all day, continue working in the evening.
Saturday: clean the flat, online tutorial, go home, continue working on assignments there.
Sunday: the only day that is not quite so university-oriented: university only in the morning and early afternoon, then relaxing, maybe posting an Insta-post and getting annoyed that I haven't managed to continue working on my blog yet again.

So much for my week.

Changes

The introductory weeks at the very beginning were more in line with my expectations. I miss being able to quickly put on make-up before a lecture, having the afternoon free to look forward to a games evening organised by the student council and hopefully meeting lots of new people. It was these weeks that forced me to get out of my comfort zone. Looking back, I experienced some very entertaining stories, maybe embarrassed myself a few times and most importantly: made great new friends.

But as the semester went on, I saw them less and less, and when I did – it was only for university stuff. No more private evening walks, no more pub crawls in a larger group, no more light-hearted conversations. Just: “Have you done the last MaPhy assignment yet?” “So, are you stressed out right now too?” or “Will you come to the tutorial tomorrow?” All of this led to me eventually getting to a point where I don’t want to go back.

Unbelievable how quickly time flies when you’re bored. 1.5 hours later, still on the plane in the middle of the Atlantic and I feel an inner calm for the first time in several weeks. No stress, no fear of the future, just inner peace. And I want it to stay that way. I have firmly resolved to enjoy this holiday with all my heart, despite all the adversity, and to press the reset button afterwards. I will consult a study advisor and reduce the amount of work I have to do in the coming semesters. I will continue to study conscientiously, but also allow myself enough free time in between and make the most of my student life.

Joy of life

It’s funny that now that I know my exam results, they don’t matter to me in the slightest. Of course I was happy when, after a week on holiday, I found out that I hadn’t failed the MaPhy exam as I had feared, but had even achieved a quite good result. And even more so when I was able to see Astro’s result the next day. Passed. Now I could really finish with the first semester. In retrospect, I even think that this was the moment when I arrived completely on holiday. From that moment on, I was able to fully immerse myself in the wonderful Dominican world. Something had fallen away from me. I was alive again. 

In the meantime, the holiday is over. I am kind of sad to be back in dreary Germany. But I also got a lot out of the last 14 days. I want to bring some of the incredible happiness of the Dominicans into my world. With me to university. I feel strong enough now and firmly believe that I can do it.

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