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Dublin: 16°C Sunday 7 August 2022

Leaving Cert: seven years of hell in seven days

One reader tells us about her experiences of trying to overcome crippling anxiety during her Leaving Cert exams

Image: Xavi via Flickr/Creative Commons

This piece was written by a student at the Cork Life Centre, which offers an alternative learning environment to marginalised young people, and is reproduced with their permission.

FOR SEVEN YEARS I have been in the second level education system in Ireland. Seven whole years.

I have undergone seven years of scaremongering, of judgements, threats, dismission and condemnation.

Four years of being terrified to go to school in case I had forgotten something or had overlooked some work.

Four years of shaking so badly that I physically couldn’t write.

Four years of getting 3-4 hours of sleep on weeknights because I was so scared of the following day.

My experience of primary and secondary education in Ireland has shattered my self-esteem, obliterated my self-confidence and annihilated my sense of my own self-worth.

It has been five years since I had my first major panic attack.

All of this, and much more, has led up to seven days.

Source: Hugo Chinchilla via Flickr/Creative Commons


Anxiety has always had a huge impact on my life. Even my earliest memories include the fear and uncertainty that anxiety brings. It stops me from interacting with people and from doing the things that most people do when they are young.

The Cork Life Centre it is different. There is none of that pressure. There is no sense that the Leaving Certificate is the be-all and end-all of your life. Yes, it is important but your results should not determine your self-worth.

For me that was the hardest thing to wrap my head around. I was indoctrinated into the educational systems view of academia.

My parents never put pressure on me to excel in school. The only thing that they asked of me was to do my best.

It is the educational system and associated societal pressure which has made me wholeheartedly believe that doing well in the Leaving Certificate, and in all exams in general, is imperative and is the only thing that matters.

I believed that anything less than 100% meant you had failed, and because you ‘failed’ then you were worth nothing.

It was irrelevant whether you were physically and mentally healthy as long as you got 600 points in your Leaving Certificate.

The Exams
To an extent I still do believe that exams are the only thing that matters. However, I have to acknowledge that while I know I will not get a ‘perfect’ Leaving Certificate, or even a ‘great’ one, the fact that I went into that room every day and sat there and attempted those exams is important.

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8721161104_7a35cc6cae_o Source: kennysarmy via Flickr/Creative Commons

I fought tooth and nail in order to get good results. I burnt myself out. I stared at a page for hours, reading and re-reading it, but nothing would go in.

I had panic attacks. I had little sleep. I had some excruciatingly bad days. But I did it.
I fought and today I am 44 days without self-harming. I have gotten through seven of the most stressful, anxiety inducing days without relapsing or having a full-on panic attack. I sat my exams.

I could not have done it without the support and guidance from both the staff and the students in The Life Centre.

Moving on
My exams are over. The Leaving Certificate is over. What now?

I don’t know what I want to do, but I know that I need to take time to work on myself and to try and repair as much of the damage as I can before I even consider college.

I don’t know anyone that knew what they were going to do when they were 18. In mainstream schools, you are not taught how to survive past the Leaving Certificate. You are only their responsibility until you do the Leaving Certificate, then you are on your own.

It is assumed that you will go straight to college from secondary school. That is not always the case and there shouldn’t be the pressure to conform to that presumption.

Exams results do not define you – sometimes you have to see that for yourself. You make your own path in life.

I gave up striving for 600 points quite a while ago. But I did it. I sat my exams. I did what I could. And at 4.31pm today, it was all over. The Leaving Certificate was over. So now I focus on what’s next.

Read: 15 memories anyone who studied CSPE for the Junior Cert will recognise

Read: “That’s me!” Donegal student hears about himself during Irish listening exam

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