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Leaving Cert

What lesson can we learn from our Leaving Cert nightmares?

Do we attached too much importance to the Leaving Cert?

AS YOU’VE LIKELY surmised from the blazing heat outside, this year’s Leaving Cert is well underway.

Covid years notwithstanding, the state examinations are a fixture in the Irish cultural calendar and seen as something of a rite of passage. 

Around this time of year, social media tends to be flooded with those in their 30s, 40s and 50s telling children not to worry too much about the exams – usually as a byway into bragging about their own poor grades and how that didn’t stop them from becoming a success back when a deposit on a house was around £5,000.

But even as we move on from the Leaving Cert, it is not unusual for people to experience stressful dreams about exams they haven’t prepared for, passages of Eavan Boland they’ve failed to commit to memory, or blanking on the quadratic formula. 

Anecdotally, more than half of the respondents to a The Journal poll said they’ve had at least one Leaving Cert nightmare, and 49% said they’d experienced multiple such nightmares.

In popular culture, the idea of dreaming about an exam for which one is unprepared is a well-worn trope, along with dreams about losing one’s teeth.  

Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP) accredited counsellor Monica Jackman spoke to The Journal about the significance of these dreams.

“Any kind of stress or anxiety can cause nightmares,” Jackman said.

“Dreams can be how we look back on something that has happened and the meaning you’ve given to it at the time. When you have a stressful situation coming up again, maybe you think ‘I can’t cope with it’ so you could have your Leaving Cert dream then.”

Jackman says feelings of not being prepared for something, not being able to cope, and not being good enough are feelings one might associate with their Leaving Cert and then “apply to current circumstances”. 

“Any situation that includes stress or fear can provoke a nightmare, and it can be the Leaving Cert nightmare or it could be something else, but at a time when the Leaving Cert when is on, it’s very common for adults that that is what comes back and surprises them.”

Exam dreams are, of course, not exclusive to Irish people. 

Unlike some other countries, where entry into university can depend heavily on interviews, letters of recommendation, personal essays, and involvement in extra-curricular activities, third-level admissions in Ireland are overwhelming dominated by Leaving Cert points.

With that in mind, it stands to reason that these nightmares might last for longer, and inspire a few extra drops of sweat out of those who suffer them. Exams, like any major event with consequences, will always come packaged with an inherent amount of stress.

But maybe our nightmares are telling us that we should be doing what we can to alleviate that stress as much as possible for the younger generation.

“It would be good on many levels, whether it’s continuous assessment or something, if there was some other way of measuring ability and knowledge that might not be as stressful. That’s just my personal opinion,” Jackman said.

There’s likely to be an increased focus in the coming years on continuous assessment – but for the medium-term at least, for most students the few lonely hours spent under the watchful eye of the invigilator will still remain the most decisive when it comes to accessing third-level education immediately after secondary school.

Not least amongst the stress factors is surely the country’s tendency to turn the exams into a national event, inviting comment from all and sundry on a matter that really only concerns the person taking the exams, their parents and their teachers. 

As long as so much is left to hinge on a set of exams, and as long as we maintain the pretence that the Leaving Cert is a barometer for happiness, fulfilment and future success, the nightmares will likely continue.

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