Final exams present a unique set of stressors, inducing fear even in the most confident people. When the parade of horrible thoughts comes marching in—I can’t do this, I’ll never get all this done, Everyone is so much more prepared than me, I don’t understand any of this—stop that procession in its tracks and declare out loud that these feelings are not facts.
Instead, replace the fear with the following facts.
You have taken tests harder (really) and you have succeeded. You are not striving for perfection. You are seeking to demonstrate a baseline level of proficiency. You can and will do that. Remember that to finish the race is to win the race. Focus less on the grade and more on the learning. You are learning for the sake of developing and honing your skill set to be an effective citizen of the world. You are not your grades. There will be many, many other opportunities to show your potential and promise. Fear is most often a product of exhaustion. When it all seems too much, get a good night’s sleep. The next morning, you begin again.
Replace worrying about the work with actually doing the work. Let your repeated refrain be do the work, do the work, do the work. Take baby steps, in small strides, repeatedly and persistently. There is valor and virtue in the very effort and in the climb.
Comparison is self-sabotage. If you compare yourself to others, you will become either arrogant or insecure. Do not do that.
Your job is to be fullhearted in your studies and preparation, for your own sake. You know how bad it feels to think that you did something—anything—only half-heartedly. You owe it to yourself to be able to say, “I worked hard and tried my best.” If you can say that, you have succeeded.
At the same time, try to keep your ego out of your efforts. You are working this hard for something greater and mightier than yourself. Whatever your path, you are working to be an instrument of justice and mercy. You are striving for all of the people who sacrificed and struggled so that you could be here right now. Whether in body or spirit, they are cheering you on.
You are giving it your all for the countless people whose lives will be made better because you did. You will use your hard-earned degree to show the children who succeed you that the dream is still attainable. You will apply your expertise to be a giver of hope, bringing light to dark places and giving a voice to those who have yet to find their own. You will be a force for good.
One day soon, you will use your stature and knowledge to ease the pain and worries of others. On that day, you will achieve even more than success. You will achieve significance. That significance will not be conferred by any grade. It will come because you had the courage to bear benevolent witness to the suffering of others and the intellectual and emotional acuity to respond with both compassion and technique.
The author, featured in the Harvard University Press publication What the Best Law Teachers Do, teaches in the Barnard College political science department. She is an alumna of Barnard College and Columbia Law School.
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