Surviving The Leaving Cert. – My Advice To Last Year’s Me

Right now, I have to say I’m in a pretty good place. I’ve just passed all my Semester 1 exams, doing a course I absolutely love and I’m in the middle of planning my trip to Amsterdam in March, with some of the best people I’ve met since coming to college. However, this time last year was a completely different story and at that time, I never imagined I’d be doing any of the things I’m doing now.

The Leaving Cert. year means different things to different people, for me it was probably the worst year of my life. Of course it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and stressed in the run up to exams, but the stress and anxiety I experienced was in no way natural. I put myself under vast amounts of mental stress, which in turn led to me being unable to perform to the best of my abilities. I was too focused on other people’s opinions of me, and not giving what I wanted enough thought.

I’ve spoken about panic attacks on the blog previously, and they’re something that have effected me for years, however my worst experiences were definitely during the Leaving Cert. The worst one of all happened almost exactly one year ago – HPAT Day. Never in my life had I experienced so much pure and utter fear as I did that day. I can still recall how my whole body went numb and my vision went blurry as I walked to the exam hall, an experience I hope I never have to relive.

That severe anxiety was a result of my fear of failing and the immense stress I had been putting myself under. The first and most important piece of advice I want to give anyone in a similar situation to mine last year is to never put yourself under so much pressure that your body can’t cope, because that’s what those panic attacks were, my body’s way of crying out for help. No matter how important the exams may seem or your teachers/parents make them out to be, your physical and mental health have to come first, because without them you can’t tackle anything.

Secondly, I’d urge you to have a clear and realistic idea of what YOU want to do with your life. I know at 17/18 years old, it’s extremely difficult to decide on a career path as you’re still living under the thumb of your parent’s and teacher’s guidance and you’re yet to experience the world as an adult. Because of this, I think it’s really important to chose an area that you have a genuine interest in. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to pursue the ‘obvious’ career from a certain area of study, there’s always room for scope and discovery, but going down a route you have zero interest in, just because there’s money in it or your parents think it’s a good idea is never a good option.

I’m the first person to encourage someone to follow their dreams, but reality has to play a part too. Be realistic and sensible when it comes to your CAO preferences, know your own capabilities, and if that’s proving difficult, talk to your school’s guidance teacher. Personally, I had a fantastic guidance teacher during 6th year and she really helped me to find the right path and reassured me that I’d get there with hard work and self belief.

My next point is one I know some of you won’t want to know about, but please hear me out. When choosing colleges to apply to, I know a lot of people will base their choices around what their friends are doing and it’s seriously a huge mistake. I know at the time, you can’t imagine being separated from your friends of 5+ years, but believe me, college is a new beginning for a reason. I embarked on my college experience more or less alone, most of the people I had been friendly with in school went in different directions. Five months on, I’ve made the best friends I could ask for and I’m so glad I was brave enough to go it alone and jump in at the deep end. I’m not saying you have to forget about your school friends, all I’m saying is as soon as you start college, you’re an adult and you have to make the best choices for you, nobody else.

I’m aware that all the advice I’ve given so far is pretty deep and meaningful, not your typical lectures on ‘mind maps and study plans’. When it comes to all that stuff, I think everyone is different. Personally, I found practicing exam papers to be a life saver, I owe my high grade in Biology to hours of exam paper work, especially as last year’s paper shook so many students. Also, I personally found that I did better in subjects that I admired/got on well with the teacher, so if you find some teachers more interesting than others, listen that bit harder, they give a lot of amazing advice that we don’t always appreciate and it’ll help you in the long run.

When it comes to relationships, both platonic and otherwise, during the Leaving Cert. I know most teachers/parents will tell you to cut (more so the romantic kind) loose full stop. I agree to some extent, they can be a huge distraction to some and you don’t need extra stress at such an exhausting time in your life, but I think the main question is whether the person holds you back from reaching your potential or encourages you to achieve. At the end of the day it’s your life and your decision but please listen to the advice of those around you because they do care and can sometimes spot a toxic relationship before you can, and this goes for friendships just as much as boyfriends/girlfriends. Again, college is whole new ocean of opportunity where you’ll meet so many new people so never let someone else control your decisions.

I hope the honest and frank advice in this post helps some of you during what will no doubt be a tough few months ahead. My last words of wisdom are to focus on this time next year, when like me, you’ll be able to recall your Leaving Cert. year with a smile and a sigh of pure and utter relief!

J x

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