Harbus LogoBy Maureen Walker –Director of MBA Student and Academic Services.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]L[/stag_dropcap]et’s face it: it’s a rare person who really looks forward to spending 4.5 hours crafting a compelling, evidence-based, word-limited argument about a somewhat random, never- seen-before case. Maybe once in a rare while, a person comes along who just loves taking tests. This would be the person who views final exams as an opportunity to consolidate and confirm his/her mastery of the course content. For most students, however, it’s probably fair to say that final exams just represent unavoidable hurdles to surmount at the end of the term. In other words, if they look forward to anything about exams, it’s to having done them – not to actually doing them. It makes sense then – in fact it’s entirely normal – for stress levels to peak when facing a five day stretch of exams, especially given the non-trivial impact of the results on a student’s final evaluation.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]H[/stag_dropcap]ere’s another truth: as much as we might say stress peaks are entirelysas normal, they actually don’t feel very normal; they can, in fact, feel quite overwhelming. So the question becomes what to do with the stress that is all but inevitable. Perhaps it’s helpful to start with three basic facts.

  1. We need a certain amount of stress just to function well during an exam: to attend and respond effectively to the task at hand.
  2. Optimal levels of stress are positively correlated with optimal performance. (This sweet spot will vary across individuals and situations)
  3. Once the stress level exceeds the optimal zone, performance declines.

The good news is that we can develop stress habits that help us stay in the optimal performance zone. Not surprisingly, these stress habits have everything to do with how you care for your body, your brain, and your relationships.

First, here are some tips for taking care of your body.

This is what you can do This is why you would do it
Sleep – start and stick with a good rest regimen The good news about HBS exams is that you can never cram for them. A good night’s sleep will yield far better results than spending extra hours trying to understand the intricacies of Excel modeling for the first time. In fact, insufficient sleep will reduce memory function, decision-making skills, and other cognitive processing functions.
Eat well – quality and quantity matter As tempting as it may be to fuel up with sugary pastries and caffeine, the positive effects are short-lived and too much can actually leave you feeling sluggish or jittery. On the other hand, foods high in vitamin C have been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Complex carbs and protein always do the trick. It’s also not a bad idea to maintain a steady diet of those “feel good” fatty omega – 3’s in the days coming up to exam period.
Recreate – really, play. It’s true. For adult learners, exercise and recreation play a vital role in learning and help build up cognitive functioning. The little hits of the neurotransmitter dopamine that you get from enjoyable play actually helps to consolidate memory.


Here are a few tips for taking care of your brain.

Here’s what you can do Here’s why you would do it
Be selective about where you focus your attention and what you say to yourself about what you notice. We all talk to ourselves all the time. We can’t help it: our brains are super busy scanning the environment, taking in information, and making up stuff based on past experiences. Every thought that passes through your brain does not deserve serious attention – especially if they are thoughts that are self-deprecating or limiting in some other way. Focus on the thoughts that you would say if you were offering honest encouragement to a friend.
Choose your beliefs carefully. That’s right. Don’t believe everything you think. If you find yourself thinking that you will never build a perfect model #mathfail is coded into your DNA, remember that it’s not true just because you think it. There are other perfectly plausible thoughts that can help you focus on what you are able to do – even if what you do isn’t perfect.
Stay present and do what’s in front of you. Much of the stress that overwhelms us is about stuff that has happened in the past or about stuff that will never happen. Dwelling on something negative that happened in the past will not get you through a BGIE exam. Anticipatory worry doesn’t help either. It doesn’t stave off future problems, nor does it help you address the task at hand. Since these thoughts are likely to pop up, acknowledge them. Don’t scold yourself for having them. Just remind yourself that they are familiar stress habits or thoughts and you can choose not to focus on them. The more you think something, the more likely you are to think it again. So breathe. Refocus. Breathe. And start again. After a while, your brain gets used to it and forms new neural pathways, and those old familiar stress thoughts won’t happen so automatically.

And finally, here are three tips about caring for your relationships.

If you scan your circle of relationships, you will notice that people respond to exam stresses in many different ways. Some people pretend not to care at all – and maybe some people don’t care. Some people will obsess and worry before, during, and after an exam. If you’re not one of those people, stay away from those people.

Here’s what you can do. Here’s why you would do it
Surround yourself with people with whom you share authentic, positive energy You need a safe space to share your doubts, your hopes, and your genuine joy!
Stay in touch with people that you trust, people who have your best interest in mind. Practice asking those people for what you need, and then practice the courage to receive from them.
Tend and befriend others. As it turns out, we are more complicated than “fight or flight” creatures under conditions of stress. More recent research reveals that oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle” hormone, is also released during stress. This is good news. It means that caring for and being cared for by others can make your stress sweet spot even sweeter.

As always, we hope you will come by SAS to talk. We are here to help you discover and expand your optimal stress zone. We are also here to listen and learn. Our goal is to partner with you in saturating our HBS community with sweet spots. Email us at

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