Dealing with exam stress
Help and advice
This page provides tips on managing exam anxiety. The advice below might not remove your anxiety but it should help you to feel less stressed and more effective. Don't worry if you find some of these techniques tricky to start with – stick with them and you'll find they're worthwhile in the end.
Part of coping better with exams means knowing that revision should start early. You should start revising for a summer exam in around early February. Starting revision early gives you time to revisit topics before your exam. Revisiting information repeatedly over time helps you store information in your long-term memory.
You don’t need to be chained to your desk while you revise. You can revise on the move – while you're walking, cleaning, or standing in a queue.
If you're struggling or looking for some extra support, speak to our Academic Skills Unit (ASK) or our Wellbeing team. You'll find them both in the Nuffield building. You could also see your Faculty Support Tutors, or talk to your tutors and lecturers.
Starting your revision early is key but there are other ways to prepare for exams as well. Familiarise yourself with what your exams will be like if you can. You won't know everything about an exam, but these 6 things can help reduce your stress:
- Explore the exam topics and spend some time considering what might come up in the exam
- Know the day, time and duration of each exam – and write them in your diary or calendar
- Visit the venue to familiarise yourself with how to get there, where you could wait and what the exam room will look like (if you can)
- Find out what equipment is or isn't allowed ahead of time
- Find out how the exam paper or task is structured – is it multiple choice, short answer, long answer questions, or a practical? Is it divided into sections?
- Use past papers if you have access to them – they'll give you an idea of what to expect
Look after your physical health
Looking after your physical health is important all the time, but it's especially vital when you're under pressure. A good diet and the right amount of sleep can help increase your energy and improve your concentration, focus, and memory. All of these contribute to your subject understanding too.
- have breakfast the morning of an exam to keep your blood sugar levels up
- have a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and foods that release energy slowly like brown rice, oats, nuts and seeds
- exercise regularly to improve your mood and concentration levels
- get enough sleep and build a nighttime routine – lacking sleep will affect your ability to remember and communicate information, while having a bedtime routine can help you sleep and reduce your stress
3 tips for dealing with panic:
- Control your breathing. Inhale slowly through your nose until your lungs are full, then exhale slowly through your mouth and relax your shoulders as you breathe out. Inhale slowly, then exhale quickly and relax your shoulders. Try different combinations until you find a speed that works for you – you might prefer slower exhales, faster exhales, or different combinations depending on how you are at the time.
- Exercise some of your muscles. This works in and out of the exam hall. Gently bend, tense or stretch your fingers, arms and legs, straighten your back, or relax back into a chair instead of sitting forward.
- Spend time thinking about something that relaxes you. Allow time for this. Forget about the exam – even just a minute can be effective. Do this any number of times before or during an exam.
Keep a healthy attitude
Try to maintain a positive outlook on the exams ahead, and remember to keep the exam in perspective. Although exams are important to your degree, your overall success and future doesn't depend on the outcome of any one exam. An exam is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your learning.
Positive visualisation can help you relax in an exam setting. Every visualisation adds to and develops positive neural pathways. Revisit the visualisation in the exam room to help reactive those pathways. This technique can be very effective if you know what makes you nervous – like the idea of taking an exam.
Whenever you think of an exam, immediately visualise something which makes you feel more positive, relaxed or happy. Gradually add visualising yourself sitting comfortably in the exam, relaxed and confident. Do this any time, anywhere.
Try sitting comfortably at a desk, breathing deeply, and relaxing to reinforce the visualisation. Sit at a table with a paper in front of you and imagine an invigilator telling you to turn your paper over. Using positive visualisation for specific worries like scanning the questions, choosing a question, planning your answer or starting to write can help too. Visualise yourself walking out of the exam with confidence.
Positive thinking works similarly to visualisation and is particularly effective if you struggle with negative thoughts. Imagine success. List the study qualities you do have, and consider how they've help you before and during an exam. If you're still unsure, you can contact your personal tutor or the Academic Skills Unit to help build your revision and exam skills. Repeat positive statements to yourself every time you have a negative thought or say something negative about exams.