Survival Kit for Studies “I faced up to my exam anxiety”

Lena, 25, is in the 9th semester of a degree in agricultural sciences at the University of Bonn. In our “Survival Kit for Studies” she tells us why it isn’t just knowledge that’s important at university, it’s about self-confidence as well.

Lena, 25, studies agricultural sciences at the University of Bonn. Lena, 25, studies agricultural sciences at the University of Bonn. | Photo (detail): Unsplash © Hitoshi Suzuki / Private

The biggest cliché about your degree course – and how much of it’s true:

“They’re a bunch of thick peasants” – to put it bluntly, that’s the cliché often faced by agriculture students. We’re part of the science faculty, but the other courses don’t see us as true representatives.
 
It’s true to say that economic and sociological aspects are important in an agricultural context as well as science. And yes, some students aspire to take on their parents’ farm. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid or less highly qualified. Because they come from a farming background, they’re often way ahead in practical subjects such as soil science or animal husbandry. Some of them have already done an apprenticeship, too.

What’s your normal daily routine?

I always try and go into university really early. If I spend an hour in the library before the first lecture, I have time for some preparation. Then I’ll be sitting in the lecture theatre from ten o’clock onward. It’s often early evening before I’m home again.
 
Alongside that I also spend eight hours a week working as an undergraduate assistant at the Department of Technology and Innovation Management, in agribusiness. Agribusiness refers to agriculture and all the economic activities it entails. I have to schedule four hours in my timetable twice a week for my student assistant role. But it’s incredible how much I learn there, I come across a lot of current research and I’m allowed to have responsibility: for instance, I recently proof-read the introduction of a PhD thesis. I help to compile the learning content, which offers me a different perspective on my degree. As well as that, we make a great team: as many of us are women, there’s a fantastic working atmosphere.

What could you have done without?

The opinions of some of my fellow students regarding how much studying is necessary for particular courses. I would frequently have been better off relying on my own judgement.

What day at university will you never forget?

I’m in my 9th semester – I’ve clocked up plenty of unforgettable moments! For example, when I got the job as student assistant. Or when we presented a business plan for a sustainable pesticide in one of the courses. It was all part of our assessed coursework and was evaluated by a jury. Our group received terrific feedback and a lot of praise. Straight after that, we celebrated with a bottle of bubbly outside the lecture theatre.

What would you do differently if you could start your studies all over again?

I would accept that I have issues with exam anxiety. I was in denial about that for a long time. I thought it was just a normal case of being nervous. But then I got so stressed over it that it made me ill every time we had exams.

But then I got so stressed over it that it made me ill every time we had exams.

Because I didn’t acknowledge that I was suffering from exam anxiety until quite late in my studies, I didn’t start to achieve good grades until quite late either. At that point, I took advantage of the mental strategy training offered by the university. The psychologist running the course provided me with the tools to cope with my anxiety and prevent it. To do this, I visualise and simulate the stress of an exam situation and apply a selection of breathing techniques. That really helped me to build my self-confidence. And now I’m getting really good grades. I’d recommend that anyone who even feels a bit sick before an exam should address this. Physical symptoms are a sign that anxiety has already reached high levels.

What regularly drove you to despair?

I enjoy teaching other people things, but if they then end up getting better grades than I do, that goes to show that it isn’t just about information. The exam situation is a key factor. They don’t emphasise enough at university that the learning content and the situation in which you need to recall it are two very different animals. Then again, different types of exam require different preparation strategies.

What was often a lifesaver for you?

My fantastic hall of residence. The bottom line is having great friends you can just call up and ask for advice, people who will look out for you and give you a positive perspective.

What did you eat on the last day of the month, when did you have to save money?

I’m in the privileged position of being a BAföG grant recipient, in other words, I receive financial support from the state. Apart from that, the cost of living in halls is very low, and as I mentioned, I work alongside my studies. I do live a frugal lifestyle, but there isn’t much I have to go without. I’ve even been able to put by some savings for emergencies.

What question do you always hear at family gatherings?

“So, how are your studies going? When do you finish?” At this point, I can tell them that things are going well, and that I’ll be finished at the end of this semester. But then I’ve got work experience planned for the summer semester, followed by a Master’s Degree in AFECO (Agricultural and Food Economics).

Where might you be found when you’re not at university?

At work or in halls, where I organise events in my capacity as house tutor. Or you might find me in my mum’s garden. There, I make pottery, paint or cultivate vegetables.

What was the highest price you’ve paid for a good grade?

The foundation maths exam – for sure. I paid out a huge amount of money for that. I had extra tuition in maths from friends and a private teacher, and I must have invested six hundred euros in the three attempts it took me to pass this exam. Again, it wasn’t the subject matter that was difficult. On my first attempt, I had a migraine, the second time I suffered exam anxiety – I really was just one point short of the pass mark! At the third attempt, when I was facing removal from the student register, I focused my full attention on that test and didn’t sit any other exams that semester. Everything depended on it: my funding, my place in halls, and the degree itself – my whole life. I passed it – and achieved a good grade!

University also means learning for life. What have you taken with you from your studies to prepare you for the future?

Oh, so much.

I faced up to my exam anxiety and learned that self-confidence is the be-all and end-all, although you don’t immediately need to be arrogant. 

I’m also very aware that a regular work routine is much better than leaving it all until the last minute and then stressing over it.

And my studies have taught me to think critically. Agricultural sciences are very much under scrutiny in the media at the moment. Since I’m also familiar with the farmers’ perspective, I can see both views objectively – agricultural science and its influences on the environment, as well as the media headlines.