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How to psychologically prepare for your exams by Tom Feakins, Master Mariner

For the MCA OOW oral exam, I was filled with adrenalin and nerves – it’s natural. During a previous career I had worked as a bouncer, dealing with endless conflict, but somehow this was more nerve wracking!

I was undergoing imposter syndrome, convinced I did not know enough or deserve to be here. Every word coming out of my mouth was not justifying either my knowledge or those months of hard study….

Eight years later I sat my Master’s oral exam. Although anxious my mind was relaxed, but ready. When the examiner was changed at the last minute, I merely smiled, knowing this was something out of my control, and concentrated on passing the exam.

Between the two exams I had sailed worldwide on a wide variety of ships and gained confidence and competence in my role as an OOW, and then as Chief Officer. I was also lucky to have some solid role models and mentors. Just as important as those skills and support was psychological preparation, which ensured the ability to control my emotions and mentally prepare to be alert and ready. I relied on 3 principles to prepare myself:

i) Don’t reach mental ‘burn out’ before the exam

Maybe studying until 0300 the night before the exam works for you, and you will wake up a few hours later feeling well rested, ready to take on a mentally exhausting exam. However, an early night and a clear head will give you a better chance of success. When fatigued it is easy for your emotions to take over, rather than taking a logical structured approach to answering questions.

ii) Do something completely different the night before

Taking yourself away from those flash cards and textbooks will set you up for seeing things clearer. A walk, run or engaging with others, who are not in the marine industry, may all help give you headspace.

iii) Only worry about what you can control (Stoicism)

This will help ensure you do not overwhelm yourself and become stressed, before the exam even starts.

Elements you can control:

  • Practise being under pressure (have friends and colleagues put you on the spot)

  • Your knowledge

  • How you dress

  • Plan your routine before the exam day, so you arrive with time to spare

  • Watch how much coffee you consume beforehand!

Elements you can’t control:

  • What the person before you did/did not say in the exam room

  • What your friends did/didn’t get right five days ago in their exam

  • What the examiner is thinking

  • Questions you can’t answer – do your best and move on.

Anxiety is very natural, and a bit of adrenaline is a good thing to keep you on your toes, but crippling anxiety can be overcome with rehearsal and a psychological preparation routine. I found The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters extremely useful in understanding the principles of how to control emotions and mentally prepare for exams.


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