Have a plan

By far the best way to counter long-term anxiety is to have a plan and to stick to it. Make a schedule for your week, on paper or on a computer: seven days, with all the hours of every day. Fill in class times. Next comes study time. Being a full-time student is exactly like having a full-time job: you have to spend about 40 hours a week on your studies. If you spend a total of 15 hours a week in class, you have to schedule another 25 hours of study time.

That means you have to study about four hours every day, six days of the week. A full-time course is structured to fill that amount of time. If you don’t put in the time, you are not going to get the results.

Here’s a statistic to focus the mind: only 50% to 60% of people who enrol at university in South Africa ever graduate. Less than 40% get a degree within four years. Where do you want to fit into the statistics? Are you going to be part of that 40%, finishing within the minimum time? Then you have to put in the hours.

Evenings are great for studying: 19:00–20:30, half an hour for coffee, and another session 21:00–22:30 gives you a solid three hours. You will probably take Friday night off, so remember to find those three hours somewhere else in the week.

Look critically at your schedule. Often you have an hour or so between classes. Block out some of these pockets for “free time” when you can just hang with friends or potter about on social media – you need that as well – but don’t let all your mornings vanish in this way. You can “find” solid hours in those in-between times. Find a quiet place and get some of the less strenuous work out of the way.

Whatever your religious convictions, it may be a good idea to work for longer hours on six days every week so that you can give yourself one day off. You will find that it becomes an oasis you look forward to and a motivation to keep going on the other days. We all need a rest day, a day off every week!

Once you have filled in all your study hours, add scheduled times for sport, clubs, or student affairs. Last, but not least, find time for friends and family and for yourself, to read a novel or to listen to music or to do whatever feeds your soul. With the structure of your week settled, you can look at your to-do list and find times when every item can be attended to. If you know you have an hour in the late afternoon to organise a soccer game, you can put it out of mind while studying. If you know you’ve scheduled another hour and a half of study time from nine in the evening, you can have a lazy cup of coffee with a friend before that. A schedule is a wonderful invention.

Ensure realistic performance expectations

Research shows that many students demand too much from themselves in exams. Someone who usually gets 60% for maths may suddenly demand 75% of himself or herself; or a student who achieved straight As in matric may expect to do the same at university. That is not going to happen. If you find yourself thinking “60% is the same as failing to me”, do a reality check. See where your marks are now. Work hard to keep them there, then slowly build on that. If we set realistic performance goals for ourselves, we will become accustomed to success rather than failure, and nothing motivates like success. Identify any unrealistic expectations you may have, especially in the subjects you find most stressful. Then draw up an action plan, setting goals that will slowly but surely get you from where you are now to where you want to be.

Resist comparisons

Comparing your exam performance or preparation with that of your classmates can cause paralysing stress. When we use other people’s achievements as a standard, we probably set our expectations too high or too low. Make a list of people with whom you tend to compare yourself and your performance. Consciously resist doing so. Rather use your own performance as a standard against which to set your goals. Competing against yourself is the best and healthiest way to improve

Positive self statements

The way we see ourselves and the way we think/ talk to ourselves both control the way we will respond in stressful situations. Each time you start thinking or saying something negative, such as “I failed last time, I’ll probably fail again this time”, challenge this attitude with a logical, forceful self-statement: “OK, so I failed last time but that doesn’t mean I’m going to fail again this time. I’m better prepared and I’ve got a new approach to my work.”

This does not mean fantasising. Don’t sit and daydream about being successful. That will only make you give up at the first hurdle. If you have an exam coming up, don’t visualise the A grade; visualise yourself studying hard and successfully. Reward yourself whenever you succeed: if you manage to concentrate in class or get through a difficult piece of work, congratulate yourself. You’ll get to feel good about yourself, and your self-confidence will improve. Write down some positive statements and say them aloud on your way to class or to an exam. Use these examples or come up with your own: I am confident. I am enthusiastic. I do what it takes to reach my goals.