Monday, May 19, 2014

How To Deal With Work Exams

I remember the feeling of relief after I took my last final senior year. I remember going out with friends and celebrating taking our "last exams ever".  I remember being ecstatic that I'd never have to study, cram, and stress over a graded assignment. Looking back I don't know how this rumor of the "last exam ever" is accepted as fact by the majority of graduating engineering students, when many of them will have to start taking qualifying exams for work just a few weeks later.

If only there were such a thing, it would probably be awesome
Sorry engineering students who think they will never be tested again, but I've taken countless classes, quizzes, and exams since graduating college.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, my manager beckoned me to his office. I don't know why but I still have a principal's office syndrome about being called into managers' offices; I am always convinced I'm in trouble even though I know I'm a top performing employee. He told me I'd be taking an exam  for a professional certification in two weeks, and that I should get the study guide today.

Paging through the 1400 page study guide, I realized that I knew practically nothing about the subject. I looked up exam reviews online, and all the recommendations said I should take six months to study. And I had just two weeks to learn it all while still making all of my project deadlines (because my clients don't care that I'm taking some exam that isn't related to their system). Cue me freaking out.

It was like finals week all over, except this time if I failed, I wasn't the only one to pay the price- my company would suffer too because they wouldn't be able to use my certification. I studied every minute I had available the first week: lunches, weekends, after work, flashcards when I got up. The second week my work signed me up for a cram course and we ate, slept, and breathed the course material. During breaks I delegated project pieces to people in my home office, returned client emails, and tried to network with the other students (who worked for a range of potential clients).

And at the end of all of this, was a day long exam. My boss drove me to the test,  and all I could think about was how awkward the drive home would be if I failed. The test itself was a whirlwind (as most tests are)  and the entire day disappeared in what seemed to be a matter of minutes. As I clicked the submit button, I winced.  I was sure I was in for the most uncomfortable hour long car ride of my life. The proctor walked over to my station,  his feet thumping slowly in rhythm with the frantic clicking of test takers.  He handed me a single piece of paper and my stomach dropped.

"Why do you look so sad?" he asked.

"Honestly? I just don't think this went very well," I sighed.

He gave me a confused look and pointed at a line mid-way through the page he'd given me which read: "VANESSA POCKET has passed" in bold letters. A wave of relief washed over me.

In reality, the worst part of exam was the pressure I put on myself. And while a certain amount of pressure helps drive me to success, I had to try to leave out any thought of self doubt while I studied in order to allow myself to learn. If you take a moment to breath and quiet the critical voices in your mind, you can get back into the studying grove that let you get your engineering degree in the first place.

So work exams may exist, and they can be hard and stressful, but they are also a chance to prove your engineering prowess. In an industry where others sometimes presume your gender is the reason for your success, it can be a blessing to have hard results that show your skills. So think of life with exams as a positive thing, and go forth and own them!




  1. Ugh my test anxiety started to rear its ugly head just reading this. I love continuing education, but I really hate formal tests. Does that make any sense?

    1. My sentiments exactly. If only there was a way we could continue to learn without tests to benchmark our success. Tests are never as bad as I think they are going to be, but I still get very nervous about them.


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