Notes from the Underground: Managing Stress and Expectations

by Marcus Tan (15A01A), Katrina Jacinto (15A13A) and Celine Liu (15A01E)

This is the third instalment in a termly series featuring advice from the team of counsellors at the Raffles Guidance Centre. This time, we bring to you FAQs on stress management in Raffles, especially relevant now with academic assessments are just around the corner. Our next instalment will centre around the theme of dating and relationships in Raffles, so stay tuned! Click to read part one and part two.

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Us: Academically, how would you know if you’re not doing enough or if you’re doing too much? Is there even a too much?

Liren: A-level is rigorous so of course you are expected to spend a good amount of your time on your work; but it’s also just as important to get balance because if you lock yourself up in the room the whole day its not very good for your physical health and your mental health as well. I suppose it’s probably a bit easier to tell if you’re not doing enough because then it shows in your grades, but the question is how do we know if you’re stressing yourself a little bit too much? That’s when you start losing sleep, not eating well, don’t quite feel like hanging out with people, just want to lock yourself up… these are the kind of things that we look out for so you just have to watch yourself and whether you’re feeling healthy and balanced.

Sometimes you just need to trust in your own abilities. The fact that you’re in RI speaks to your ability, though of course with the IP programme, no O levels, sometimes you’re not so sure. But IP is also rigorous, teachers are always there monitoring you as well. So any problems will already have been flagged out. Getting to JC speaks volumes about what you can do; believe in that. Don’t let anyone daunt you, don’t let others and the pressure of circumstances get you down. Everyone is different, needing ten hours of sleep instead of five doesn’t make you any less of a person.

Us: Are there any situations where you’re trying your best but your grades just don’t seem to be improving? Does that mean you’re just not cut out for school?

Liren: Well I just want to say that standards here are high and many students may not be doing as well as they hope to but eventually they do quite well at the A levels so… don’t give up just because you didn’t do so well the first few times . When I was in JC I was failing all the way until prelims; I think I scored S  for two subjects at prelims. So even if you struggle for the bulk of your time that doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for academic excellence; it just means that maybe you need to put in more time towards more strategic studying. Eventually, most of the students actually do very well at the A levels.

Kah Hwee: CTs are meant to fail you to a certain extent, to put you in place. Take Liren’s answer. Celebrate the Es! Most of us will probably get in the range of Es and Ds at most until year two, then everything starts falling in place. It’s a process so just trust your teachers. Celebrate passing.

Us: Do you have any advice about pacing yourself in JC and not burning out too soon?

Liren: Pacing is as much about not going too fast as it is about also about making sure your life is balanced. You put a good portion of your life into your academic work, of course, because that is your responsibility, but other parts of your life need to be paced so you can take care of yourself enough to continue putting the bulk of your time into your studies. So are there some leisure activities that you do? Are there some relationships that are important to you that provide important support in challenging periods of time? Are there people who can rally alongside you and encourage you? If you don’t put aside time for these relationships in peacetime, when it’s war time and it’s stressful these people are not going to be able to be there to support you.

Us: How do we deal with failure, especially when we are told a lot in class that we will fail? Do you think this is a good strategy when the teachers tell you that?

Liren: I would like to think of it more as trying to help you guys manage your expectations because JC is quite a big jump and the kind of rigour that the A levels requires is quite different from your previous experiences. So what teachers are probably trying to do is kind of manage your expectations so that you don’t beat yourself up and crash when the first CTs come back and you don’t do as well as you used to do all the time in your secondary school. They just kind of hold you guys a bit to make sure you survive.

Us: How do you know what is a realistic expectation?

Liren: In psychology we talk about scaffolding. It means you need to have a certain structure and you need to approach challenges step by step. The Chinese saying goes, 一步登天: ‘with one step you try to fly’; you cannot want to fly before you learn how to walk. You don’t want the goal to be too easily attainable because then you don’t grow. But you also don’t want it to be so difficult that it is practically impossible to get and halfway there, you just stop trying. So realistic goals are mainly goals that are just out of reach but, given support, should be something that is actually attainable and psychologically, helps you to keep yourself motivated to try for the next goal. If you were to talk about GP, it’s wonderful if you can get an A for the first time but if you’re getting an E, don’t expect to get an A the next time, work on incremental changes. That’s what keeps you motivated, because it gives you a sense of competency and mastery you need in order to keep yourself going.

Us: But what if everyone else’s goals are so much bigger than yours, and you feel like you aren’t good enough? Especially in Raffles, where there’s a lot of peer pressure.

Liren: Well, if everyone else’s goals are bigger, that’s their problem. I think that’s a big part of life here – we need to be comfortable with who we are, first of all with the strengths that we have but also with our limitations. If there’s something you’re not good at, we need to be more accepting of it and of ourselves.

I was an Arts student in Hwa Chong and now when I look back, there are some decisions I made back then that I probably could have made better. I was terrible at Maths, as with many Arts students (sheepish laughter). I was probably more terrible than anyone else. At some point, I was given the option to drop Maths, and some of my classmates actually did that. But I think I had a bit of pride so I tried to push on and eventually that’s what I got – a D. But, to be honest, if I had dropped Maths, I think it would have been better. I wouldn’t have struggled so hard. Emotionally, I would have been in a better place. Also, I would probably have more time to put into my other subjects because, to be honest, I was so bad at Maths, it was taking up a lot of my time and attention. It was causing a lot of distress and I was just getting upset, whereas my other subjects – my History, my Economics – had no problems, I loved them. Looking back, I wish I had been more accepting of my own limitations and have been comfortable enough with myself to say ‘What’s the point in pushing in something I don’t think I’m going to do very well’. So I probably could have made better decisions but sometimes, that’s the struggle that we have. We may not be ready to admit to ourselves that we’re not so good at something.

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Us: It’s one thing for it to happen in your own head, but another to be in the environment of Raffles Institution where we are constantly told that “Your seniors were the best, and this school is the best, so you should be the best too”. How do you deal with the external pressures of not being good enough, like you’re not meeting the expectations set upon you or not living up to the school name?

Liren: Okay, let’s just be honest – yes, it’s stressful being here and there is a certain pressure to live up to the expectations and the accolades and the history of all the people who have passed through these gates before you. That pressure is very real but at the same time I really want to encourage you guys to just be the best person you can be, and to learn to let that be enough. Ultimately, it is your life. Ultimately, you (addressing interviewers) are Celine and you are Katrina and you are Marcus. At the end of the day, on your deathbed, you are not a Rafflesian student. You are yourself – a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, a friend, a human being. So you have to define for yourself what is the best path and what is the best for yourselves. There’s no point letting a particular environment entirely define you. Your environment can shape you, it can influence you and help you to grow. But when it becomes the entire definition of who you are, that can put a lot of undue stress and pressure on a person. I think it’s about looking for and choosing your own paths and then being the best at what you can be doing yourself, even if it’s unconventional or not very mainstream – but you guys are thinkers, leader and pioneers, right? Pioneers are never mainstream, they never will be. The idea is that ‘There is no one path but there are thousands of possibilities’.

Kah Hwee: I wouldn’t say you wouldn’t be bothered at all but you would be able to balance that with your own sense of self instead of blindly following what everybody else says. You would be able to have your own inner compass that says ‘this is something I want to pursue, this something I don’t want to pursue’ and building that sense of self is very important. So I wouldn’t say you’re not influenced at all, you probably would be – and that’s a good thing. You have to be influenced somewhat, there are people around us who are wiser than us, who have more experiences than us and they have good things to teach and tell us. It’s good to listen, to learn from those who have gone before. Yet at the same time it’s important to develop that own inner compass that informs us of what is something that fits for you and what is not.

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Us: What if I’m not getting along with my classmates or CCA mates?

Liren: I think first of all you cannot have the expectation that you’d get along with everybody because everyone has different personalities, comes from different backgrounds, and has different perspectives. Sometimes, you just won’t agree and get along, or be best friends. Don’t have that expectation, but at the same time don’t start burning all your bridges, being upset and angry at everybody, and showing a black face wherever you go. What I always advise students is that even if you can’t get along with everyone in class, if you have a few people you can get along well with, then hang out with these people; people who can edify you, keep your spirits up, encourage you along the way and give you energy. Don’t keep banging your head on a wall that’s not going to open; if you don’t have those friends in your class you can find some in your CCA, or just stick with people you happen to know from your previous school or class. The truth is, as adults tell you, by the time you hit thirty, you’ll only have four or five close friends you get along really well with, not five hundred. These are the friends that really matter, who you are really close to, can share a quick meal with, that’s how it is; just find a few close friends you can get along with and that’s great already.

Us: What happens if you are forced to interact with people you’re uncomfortable with, for example in CCAs?

Liren: Focus on things that have to be done; just interact with people based on a need-to basis. Sometimes in life it’s just about learning to get along and work together; of course it’s better to be good friends, but not always best friends with people you work with.

Kah Hwee: I think it’s also starting with yourself; we all work in new environments. Sometimes we can feel very lost, an issue even adults have. It’s all about mentality; do I go in with a positive mentality? Set yourself up to be part of the group. If you decide to be uncooperative from the start and think that other people must reach out to you, it won’t work; you must take ownership of your own situation. Relationships take a lot of time, emotion and investment; you’re building up a support group you can connect with in times of need.

You can reach the RGC team at  6354 9105, or simply email them at  rgc@ri.edu.sg. Students can also come by the Underground for a chat with the counsellors without prior appointment (or leave a note at the little mailbox outside and they will get back to you as soon as possible).

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