With English Paper 1 and Home Ec done and dusted today, Looking for an Ashley pens a letter to her sixth year self with advice for the exams.
I was talking to a few friends recently who have younger brothers and sisters sitting the Leaving Cert this year. We talked about how stressed/not stressed their siblings are, and how different/alike we were at the same point in our own lives.  I sat my Leaving Cert in 2013, four years ago. I was 18, and a few months prior I had completed my CAO with all the things I might like to do in college and for the rest of my life. That's a LOT of pressure for an 18 year old, who's biggest decisions otherwise is what to wear out on a Saturday night, or what to get on a roll from the canteen at lunch.  
 
A lot of stress comes with the Leaving Cert and the CAO and deciding what the hell you're going to do for the rest of your life.  We are told at a very young age that we have to make one of the biggest decisions we'll ever make - what do we want to do for the rest of our lives, who do we want to be.  And it's a HUGE task to take on, with at least 8-10 exams of varying subjects to study for in the hopes of getting enough points to get into a college course, that realistically, you could hate when you get there.  The fact that you have to remember 2 years of material and spew it back on a piece of paper in the attempts to get those points is utterly insane.  
 
There is a lot of pressure put on teenagers to decide so young what they want to do for the next 50 years of their lives, with, most often than not, very little guidance, (I mean, guidance counsellors can be great, but they can't read minds, and if you haven't any idea what you want to do, how will someone else?). And pressure comes on you from all angles; parents who want little Johnny to be a teacher and little Mary to be a nurse when all Johnny wants is to play football and Mary wants to be a beautician. (Okay, very stereotypical - Johnny can be a beautician or nurse too and Mary can be a teacher or a footballer, but you get my point).
 
Not only is there pressure from parents, but teachers and peers too. Teenagers tend to compare themselves to their friends (I know I did) and teachers pressure students who maybe aren't reaching their full potential because they are just lacking motivation because of stress and not knowing what they want to do.  
 
I had all these worries during my Leaving Cert, so I'm going to share them with you all, and some advice to my younger self, in the hopes that this might help someone else out along their way.  
 
(Anything in italics like this will be a reflection/explanation of my experience, or advice to add into the letter.)
 
Dear 2013 Mary Kate, 
 
- First things first.  Relax. CALM DOWN.  Take it easy, you're pushing yourself so hard you're getting more worked up about things than you need to be.  You're going to drain yourself out.  I know you're stressed and it's tough, but take a break once in a while, go for a walk, eat some chocolate; anything to clear your mind for a few minutes is exactly what you need to do.  Find a release that calms you and make time for it everyday, (you like walking and listening to music now) and trust me; that anxious knot in your stomach will lessen.  I know you are still struggling to keep your anxiety at bay, but you are able to do it. Just breathe, relax and clear your mind and the answer will always come to you. 
 
- Please go into school more often. Later on, you're going to regret all the times you missed when the group are talking about the best memories from school.  You're going to miss out on stupid little things, that will end up being remembered long after you thought they would.  And you really should be there to learn. I know your system you have when you stayed at home works for your anxiety, but if you go in more, you might just do a little better. Yes, you'll do just fine with the way things went and everything works out fine for you, but who knows what you could have done, if you had have gone in more! 
 
(I dealt with anxiety and depression throughout most of my school days, and the Leaving Cert years really brought out the absolute worst of it.  If I didn't study enough the night before because I had 5 hours of homework to do, or I didn't get all my homework done because I tried to study for a test, I would get that horrible sick feeling of dread of going to school the next day, and would feel physically sick at the thoughts of having to face school. I'm a perfectionist at the best of times, and if I didn't think I was going to be able to do my best, it was hard for me to handle.  Most days, I didn't go simply because I couldn't handle the stress.  Instead, I'd stay at home and catch up on study and sleep there.  It was helpful to me in a way, but it made me feel like an outsider most of the time come the end of 6th year, because I'd missed so much.  It's insane how a schooling system can make teenagers feel so stressed and anxious to the point of sickness that they decide missing school is the only option.  When I was younger, I LOVED school, and I loved learning (still do) but the emphasis on the Leaving Cert and points and exams and the pressure that individual teachers put on students and comparing myself to my friends left me hating school.  And this is the first time I've said this to anyone that isn't my mam or my best friend.)
 
- Stop being so tough on yourself. You're not perfect, no one is.  Stop telling yourself that you're not going to do well; you'll do just fine. Stop worrying so much about points and about where you're going to go to college like it's the most important thing in the world. It's not. Yeah, you'll hate college sometimes and give out about it, but you'll make great friends and have great experiences that will make it all worth it. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else too; you're not them and they're not you. You all have different strengths and weaknesses. Play to your strengths and forget about what everyone else is good at. 
 
- Don't stress too much about filling out the CAO, you have loads of time to do it, and you will figure out something you actually want to do. Keep looking through the booklet, talk to your guidance councellor and your family and people in general about jobs, and something will come to you.  
 
(I'm studying journalism now.  In 6th year, I didn't want to be a journalist. I just knew I liked English, reading and writing so I thought: hey let's give this a go, and I suppose it's alright!  If nothing else, it has helped to add fuel to the fire in my obsession with picking out grammar and spelling mistakes!) 
 
- SERIOUSLY. Don't have an effing freak out when you don't get your first choice on the CAO, and stop thinking it's the end of the world.  ITS NOT!  You're still going to go to college, you'll still be in Dublin, and in fact, you'll be in town and you'll soon find out that living in the inner city is something that you actually love! You'll never want to move to the outskirts cause that's too quiet and boring for you.  You love people watching and the city is the perfect place for that.  You're going to be anxious as hell for the first few days in Dublin and you haven't a clue where you're going, but bit by bit, you'll start finding things out with the help of said new-found friends, and you'll learn that you feel more at home here than you have anywhere else in your life.  
 
(Like seriously, I was a proper little drama queen because I didn't get my first choice it was actually quite funny now that I think of it.  The whole Leaving Cert experience was tough for me, and that whole summer had been full of ups and downs too because I went through a tough break-up and I guess I just needed a win.  Well, that's how I rationalise my upset at the time anyway. Little did I know at the time that I did win, but it wouldn't be until I got up to Dublin and met the amazing people that I now call my friends/family that I would see that.) 
 
- Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.  Sure, you think she/he is smarter than you, she/he probably is in some ways, but you are just as smart in other ways, and don't think just because you're not the best at everything means you're not good at some things.  In fact, I'm sure there are people who look at you the way you look at him/her and say damn, if only they were as smart as YOU are. Just accept the fact that some people are better than you at some things, and that's okay, because you are you, and you are good at what you do, and that's all you need to worry about.
 
- Take more time to relax and chill out. Stop spending all your spare time either in books or stressing that you're not studying enough.  Those few days during the Leaving Cert and during study week when Mam brought you and Laura to Courtown just to get ice-creams so you both would relax were exactly what you needed.  Stop placing so much importance on the Leaving Cert, it's not the end of the world and when it's over no one cares anymore and you can forget all about it. There are always back-ways into things, so who cares how you get where you want to be, as long as you have fun getting there!
 
- Don't let the break up get you down and prevent you from doing your best in the Leaving Cert.  You did your best under the circumstances, and I'm so proud of how well you held yourself together.  I know you guys broke up only 9 days before the Leaving Cert started, I know you's were together for almost two years and you feel totally heartbroken right now, but it gets better.  Yes, it's going to be hard, the Leaving Cert was always going to be hard and you didn't need this stress piled on top of it, but just put it to the back of your mind until its all over. Trust me, it's not worth getting yourself all worked up over. Remember why you worked so hard up until now, so you can get away from small town living and start living the rest of your life the way you want to. Also, stop hoping you guys will get back together when all the stress dies down; you're only gonna set yourself up for disappointment, and besides, you have the whole summer to enjoy being single and prepare for college without having to worry about anyone but yourself. Think of it as a blessing in disguise.  
 
(I'm not going into anymore detail about this.  It was obviously hard for both of us and no one needs that during the Leaving Cert.  I was in two minds about adding this because it's very personal, but it also involves someone else, who didn't give his consent to being talked about so his privacy has to be respected too. But I just thought, if someone else is in the same situation as I was, I would love to be able to help them, even in the slightest bit, even if it's just knowing they're not alone and that if someone else can get through it, so can they.  And if you are going through something similar, you can get through it, and you will be fine, trust me, there are worse things that can happen!) 
 
- Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing and focus on you.  You need some you time right now to get through everything, and honestly you'll enjoy it.  The most important person is you; be your own number 1, and look after yourself.  Stay healthy, eat well, sleep well, drink loads of water, and try to exercise and you'll feel so much better because of it. 
 
- Don't leave your art history exam early, you'll end up kicking yourself! Yes, you're the only one in the room with the invigilator and that makes you all kinds of anxious.  Yes, it is your last exam and you want this torture to finally end. Please just try to calm down and remember that it's almost over, that extra half an hour won't kill you and it is more than likely the difference between a grade. Stay until the end because you never know what you'll remember, and please for the love of god, PLEASE don't forget the name of the Loughnashade trumpet! You know this, trust yourself, it will come to you.
 
(Seriously, this haunts me to this very day that I forgot this. I could draw it, talk about it and all, but for the life of me couldn't get the name, I kept thinking Crucknashade?? What even is that? I spent so much time on Art History and I remembered reams and reams of stuff to get me through all of the essays, because I just genuinely liked it.  But forgetting this little thing on the day, and knowing that I knew it, only I couldn't get it on paper and now it never leaves my memory!)
 
I think that's all, so just one more thing: good luck, I have every faith in you. I know you'll be fine (Granny has a candle lit for you, how could you not be!) 
 
Love from, 
 
2017 Mary Kate xo
 
Article courtesy of Mary Kate's blog Looking for an Ashley, which you can read more of here: http://lookingforanashley.blogspot.ie/