Reducing Pre-Exam Stress and Anxiety

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In his classic 1953 work “Zen in the Art of Archery,” philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel applied the wisdom of the East to the simple act of shooting a bow and arrow. Herrigel, who lived in Japan for six years, exhaustively practiced both archery and flower-arranging using non-Western techniques and condensed those lessons into a short book. The singular theme that emerges from “Zen in the Art of Archery” is that great archers fundamentally aim at themselves rather than the target—that is, they focus more on their own execution of the task than a positive end result, which should flow naturally from a flawless performance. If people concentrate too much on the objective and not enough on the steps required to reach it, then they’ll fall short every time.


This point was not new and had even been discussed previously in the context of archery. As early as the 3rd Century B.C., the great Chinese Daoist sage Chuang Tzu explained the principle in the following poem:


When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets—
He is out of his mind!


His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting—
And the need to win
Drains him of power.


When people begin to get ahead of themselves, thinking of the possible positive or negative outcomes rather than their own efforts, that’s when anxiety begins to set in. They begin to think, “What if I screw up?” before they’ve even taken the first step toward their goal. Therefore, it’s important to be in the here and now and focused on carrying out immediate tasks. This applies in attempts at certification exams as well. Candidates for, say, a CCIE certification will have less stress going into the test if they spend more time beforehand contemplating and getting practical experience with the routers and switches covered in the exam than increased income, elevated prestige and promotions that won’t come until they attain the credential.


Here are a few other suggestions for certification candidates who need to reduce their pre-exam jitters:



  • Conduct Honest Self-Assessments: It’s important to identify both your skills and limitations and evaluate them against the time and effort it takes to achieve a particular objective. Is this attempt a plausible one, or are you shooting for the moon? Striving toward a goal that you truly believe you can accomplish will supply you with self-assurance. You want to stretch yourself to some degree, of course, but if you’re going for something that’s well beyond your capabilities at the present time, then you are setting yourself up for the kind of stress that can poison current and future endeavors.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: Then practice some more. And after that, when you’re absolutely sure that you have it down, practice a little bit more. The idea is to master whatever you want to learn about through frequent repetition so that it becomes second nature, like blinking. This way, you won’t second-guess yourself when answering questions on the exam, thereby inducing unnecessary panic. Also, reminding yourself on a regular basis just how much you practiced can give you a certain measure of confidence.
  • Maintain the Proper Perspective: While you should focus as much as possible on your own execution, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to keep your mind off of your goal entirely. When you reflect on your objectives, though, don’t dwell on them in ways that will produce anxiety. Avoid all-or-nothing, black-or-white, win-or-lose, et al modes of thinking about passing or failing the exams, and don’t exaggerate the consequences of the former or latter result. If you find yourself building up stress by daydreaming about outcomes that haven’t even occurred yet, go back to studying the subject matter and building up your knowledge for the test. Like Herrigel said, to hit the target, you have to aim at yourself.
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