Dealing with exam stress
Help and advice
Stress is a natural, human response when you're put under pressure. From exams to sport to meeting someone new, stress is your body's way of telling you that something is important.
Stress isn't always a bad thing. It can help you focus, prepare better and perform under pressure. How you handle stress and your emotions when you're challenged is what matters.
Many of us experience stress at exam time. Here are strategies and advice that can help you handle exam stress.
What exam stress looks like
Stress can make you withdraw from social activities or your friends, feel overwhelmed or cause you to lose your appetite or comfort eat. It can also lead to headaches, tense muscles and sometimes even feeling sick. Which is why it’s best to learn how to handle stress, especially during exams.
Preparing better for exams
Do you find yourself cramming the night before? Or is your calendar full of reminders to study? How you revise and prepare for your exams has a big impact on your stress levels.
It's not about how many hours you spend studying, it's about how well you use your time. Two hours of focused study without distractions and with regular breaks will often be better than five hours of study where you're distracted, procrastinating or slowing yourself down by trying to perfect every detail.
Planning ahead with clear goals will help you avoid all-nighters, study well and minimise the pressure on yourself.
The sooner you get started the less pressure you'll put on yourself as it gets closer to exam time. Making notes in class, trying different note-making styles (using visuals, flow charts, mind maps, etc) and regularly revisiting your notes is a a good way to get a head start while you're still learning. If that doesn't work for you, take our learning preferences quiz to get the most from your studies.
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 read the module learning outcomes in you handbook to work out what might come up
- 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? Which questions are worth the most marks?
- 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 – whether its a walk or competitive sport, exercising each day keeps you fit, takes your mind off study and releases endorphins in your brain to lift your spirits
- 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:
If you start to panic, feel overwhelmed or get seriously stressed about your next paper, there are some strategies you can use to help calm down and keep rolling.
- 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.
Sometimes, if you push yourself too hard to succeed, you unintentionally contribute to your own stress. If stress is mounting up or you're feeling down, check whether you're getting stuck in a cycle of overly negative or self-critical thinking.
When this happens, replace your inner bully with a more self-compassionate growth mindset. Give yourself recognition for how you're feeling and offer yourself encouragement instead of criticism. Having a growth mindset means seeing every challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow. It also means being ready to ask for help when you get stuck.
Asking for help
When you get stressed it's easy to withdraw and not want to talk to anyone. But talking to others when you're struggling doesn't mean you aren't good or smart enough – it's how you get better.
- Chat with your close friends – it can be helpful to talk about how you're both managing your exams
- Discuss ideas with your classmates or study group – you might come up with something new together
- Speak with your parents or carers about how they can support you best
- Chat to your teacher or lecturer about what you're studying, no question is too simple
- Connect with your school counsellor or uni welfare officer, who can offer advice and point you towards support services
When to get support
If the you're doing all you can to manage your stress levels and it isn't enough, speaking to a family member, friend or wellbeing professional might be helpful for you.
Chances are they've seen people who have experienced something similar. They can offer you advice, solutions and professional support to help you do your best. You can contact:
Advice for your parents or guardians
A lot of the time, your parents or guardians aren't sure of how to support you through the challenge of exams.
You could sit down with them and discuss with them how they would like to help you, and what kinds of help you would like. Ways your parents might be able to help you could be:
- Being there for you and finding constructive ways to understand and express your stress
- Helping you set up a good study area
- Helping you stay active, keep eating well and getting good rest
- Prompting and guiding you when they're helping with coursework, rather than doing the problem for you
If you're a parent, find out more on how you can best support your child through exams.