Exam Stress

The bad news is that exams are supposed to make you stressed. That’s because they matter. The problem comes when the stress, instead of prompting you to prepare beforehand and then perform to the best of your ability, makes you feel so bad you make mistakes. The good news is that there are things you can do that will help.


Knowing that you’re prepared is the best possible treatment for nerves. Confidence that you’ve spent time on effective revision won’t solve the anxiety, but will make it easier to cope with. Some students are convinced they could never do enough preparation, so you need to really think through how much is a reasonable amount. This will depend on the subject, how much of your final mark it’s worth and how busy you are. Plan ahead, check the calender and think about how much social life during study leave is sensible. You shouldn’t quit your hobbies and stop seeing your friends, but equally it’s probably not the best time to train for your black belt grading or buy the latest Call of Duty installment.

Turn up for the exam in plenty of time, with spare pens and a calculator that works. Listen to music that will calm you down on the way. Try to make sure you’ve had some breakfast after a decent night’s sleep. Wear your lucky socks, or your favourite piece of jewellery (hidden from the teachers if needed). Your sense of smell is a powerful link to your emotions, so try having a hankie with a squirt of perfume or aftershave – parent or partner, just something that will help you feel safe.


Take a deep breath. Take another. Take a moment to meditate or pray if you’re so inclined. Spend a couple of minutes reading through the paper if you need to calm down. Some students find it helps to scribble a key word on each one, or to underline key words as a prompt for later. You might want to start with an easy question – often, but not always the first on the paper.

If you start to panic, don’t try to work through it. Put your pen down, cover your face with your hands and run through all the consequences of doing badly. (Fail the exam, fail the course, mockery by classmates, disowned by parents, abandoned by teacher, no future education, no hope in life, doomed with the only chance of a career to be discovered on ‘X Factor’.) By this point you’ve probably calmed down. It’s not that bad. You’ve got the panic out of your system, now you can give the exam your best shot, using the techniques that you’ve practiced ahead of time.

Use the time sensibly. Use checklists and mnemonics to help you answer well. If you get stuck, move on and come back to it. Focus on the ‘easy’ marks, like units and short answers. For longer answers, if you really can’t figure it out, write a relevant sentence that uses key words, and hope. Don’t leave any blanks. If you can, put yourself back into the same mindset as when you were revising; what music did you listen to, where were you, what do you remember?

Spend the last few minutes checking your answers, adding odd words and making sure that you’ve done the best you can. Don’t give up before the time runs out – there will be something you can do to improve your marks.


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