Dealing with exam stress
Help and advice
This page provides tips on how you might manage exam anxiety, and covers 4 key areas: being prepared, physical health, a healthy attitude, and dealing with panic.
The advice below might not remove your anxiety completely, but it should help you to feel less stressed and more effective. Don't worry if you initially find some of the techniques tricky – stick with them, and you'll find they're worthwhile in the end.
Part of coping better with exams lies with knowing that revision should start early. Many students simply don't start revising early enough.
For a summer exam, you should begin revising around early February. To store information in your long-term memory it needs to be repeatedly revisited over time.
Remember that you don’t have 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. This can help both your understanding and your memory.
You can also seek support from our Academic Skills Unit, known as Ask, and 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 as your exam draws closer, it's a great idea to familiarise yourself – as far as you can – with what the exam will be like. You can't know everything about an exam, but you can make sure you know the following 6 things, each of which might help reduce your exam stress and anxiety:
- Explore the exam topics and consider what might come up in the exam
- Know the day, time and duration of each exam – and put the information in your diary or calendar
- If you can, visit the venue to familiarise yourself with how to get there, where you could wait, and what the exam room itself looks like
- Find out if there is any equipment which may, or may not, be allowed – you don't want to be taken by surprise on the day
- Find out how the exam paper or task is structured – whether it's multiple choice, a short answer, a long answer or practical. You could also ask if the paper or task is divided into sections
- You might have access to past papers – if so, it's well worth finding and using them
Look after your physical health
This is important for all of us all of the time, but it is even more important during times of high pressure. A better diet and the right amount of sleep can help increase energy, and therefore aid concentration and focus. Consequently, you may find that your memory and understanding improve.
- Have breakfast on the morning of an exam to keep your blood sugar levels up in a healthy way
- Have a well-balanced diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables; also include foods that release energy slowly, such as brown rice, oats, nuts and seeds
- Get as much exercise as you can – it could improve your mood and your concentration levels
- Get enough sleep, and at regular times – a lack of sleep will affect your ability to recall and communicate information. If anxiety affects your sleep, it is especially important to stick to a routine by going to bed at a regular time and, if needed, seek support
3 ways to deal with panic
Control your breathing. Inhale slowly through your nose until your lungs are full, then exhale slowly through your mouth, relaxing your shoulders as you breathe out. Inhale slowly, then exhale quickly, relaxing your shoulders as you breathe out. You may find that more, slower exhales, are best, that more fast exhales are best, or that it depends on how much you are panicking. Try it out for yourself until you find what works for you.
Exercise some of your muscles. You can do this in an exam. Bend, tense or stretch your fingers, arms and legs, straighten your back, relax back into the chair instead of sitting forward. Be careful not to overdo it. Gentle is best. You can do this alongside the breathing techniques.
Allow yourself some time when you are thinking only about something which relaxes you. Forget about the exam. Even just a minute can be effective. You can do this any number of times during an exam, especially when you start to feel particularly stressed or anxious.
Keep a healthy attitude
There are 3 things to consider, when you're trying to maintain a positive outlook on the exams ahead:
Keep the exam in perspective. Although exams are important, 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.
Try positive visualisation. This powerful technique can be very effective if, for example, you know that it is the idea of the exam itself which makes you nervous.
Every positive visualisation, however small, adds to and develops positive neural pathways. Revisit the visualisation when you are in the exam room, which can help reactive those pathways.
Whenever you think of an exam, immediately visualise something which makes you feel more positive, relaxed or happy. It can be absolutely anything, because it is all about association. Gradually add visualising yourself sitting comfortably in the exam, relaxed and confident. This can work better if you actually act out sitting comfortably, breathing deeply, and physically relaxing.
You can do this any time and anywhere. You could even sit at a table with something used as an exam paper on it, and imagine the invigilator telling you to turn your paper over. Use positive visualisation for anything more specific which you think might make you feel more anxious, for example scanning the questions, choosing a question, planning your answer, or starting writing. Visualise yourself walking out of the exam with confidence. Again, you can mimic this with movement during your visualisation, which increases its power.
Try positive thinking, especially if you know that you are easily sabotaged by negative thoughts. This works in a similar way to visualisation, and you can combine them to make them even more effective. Imagine success. List the study qualities you do have, and consider how they will help you before and during an exam. If you do not feel that you have many, or any, revision and exam skills, seek support in order to gain them, but try not to leave it too late! Repeat positive statements to yourself every time you have a negative thought or say something negative about exams.