Managing Exam Stress

When exams come round, it can be a very stressful time for students. The sheer pressure of needing particular grades - in some cases to enable you to further progress with your degree - can be counterproductive. But the truth is, your mental and physical wellbeing trumps every exam grade you’ll ever take, and you need to make sure you take steps to maintaining a positive all-round atmosphere in your life. Let’s take a look at what you can do to best recognise the signs of anxiety, and how you can get through those intense study seasons!

Pre-exams: Recognising exam anxiety

Before exams happen, it’s important to check in with yourself to see how you are coping with the expectations and stress. Here are some signs of anxiety or excessive stress that you should look out for, and, ultimately, manage.

  1. Having trouble sleeping
    Bad sleep before exams can make a dramatic difference in your performance. Our brains need rest in order to be able to renew themselves and make you feel fresh the next day. Over time, a buildup of bad or a lack of sleep can have long-lasting effects which will no doubt alter your ability to both study and perform well. If you’re not getting at least 6-7 hours a night leading up to exams, you’re setting yourself up for a struggle to feel on form (without having to rely on caffeine). A great way to combat the problems you might have around actually resting and falling asleep, is to download a meditation app, or make yourself a relaxing playlist to listen to as you lie down!

  2. Short temper
    You may find that stress and anxiety caused by exam preparation can affect your relationships if not managed well. If you suddenly notice your temper is shorter than normal and you’re finding it harder to connect with people, this might be a sign you need to manage your time better. If you’d like some more advice around making sure you’re taking care of yourself and minimising the impact of stress and anxiety, take a look at our self care blog.

  3. Negative self-talk
    ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I’m useless’, ‘Maybe I should study something else’, ‘I’m not as clever as my classmates’ … these are common examples of negative self-take that can start to disrupt your mental wellbeing and become believable lies if you say them to yourself enough times. Try telling yourself ‘I can do this’, ‘I’m capable’, ‘I’m studying this because I want to pursue my goals’, ‘I’m just as (if not more!) clever than my classmates.’ - You’ll notice a positive change in your mood over time and it will help boost your confidence all round!

  4. Avoiding classes
    It might sound a little bit strange but sometimes stress and anxiety can become so bad that it leads us to actively avoid going to classes - usually, because it means facing something we are scared of deep down. If you are skipping class because of exam pressure becoming too much to handle, it’s important you find time to discuss your fears with your tutors. Attending classes helps you stay on track and reach the goals you have set yourself for the future! You’ll spend enough time at home doing other things, so use this opportunity to see your classmates and get your head in the game! 

If you suffer from bad exam anxiety or some of these signs seem a little too prominent, it’s probably time to start thinking ahead about how you can get it under control as best you can. Don’t worry, though, because we’ve got some advice to help!

Pre-exams: How to manage your exam stress

  1. Eat and drink well
    Your diet affects everything from your sleep to how active you can be. It can help shift your mood and make your feel more alert during the day. Make sure not to over eat or not eat enough, and find a happy middle ground that makes you feel good. Examples of healthy food options that can help boost your energy levels include nuts/scroggin, fresh fruit and vegetables (including antioxidant-rich berries such as cranberries), fish, avocados (yay!) and dark chocolate. Make sure to sit down at least once a day for a proper meal if every other hour is taken up and you’re eating on-the-go!

  2. Get enough sleep
    That means detaching yourself from technology a decent amount of time before laying your head down, and giving yourself enough time in the morning to wake up as you feel most at ease. Bedtime isn’t just a child’s thing - make yourself a feasible routine that gives you the rest you need to be at your best.

  3. Believe in yourself
    You have to be your own biggest advocate. Start telling yourself you are capable of great things and this will help you get motivated and focused. As mentioned before, try replacing any negative self-talk with positive self-talk, and make a list of the things you want to achieve! Once you’ve clarified where it is you want to go, you’ll feel more in sync with your study and become more at ease about all the effort required to pass!

  4. Organise your time and study notes better
    Messy notes = messy head. If you can organise your study notes more effectively, this will make life so much easier when it comes to revision. Colour coding is a great way to help you categorise different ideas, and make topics seem less daunting. Again, for more advice on this idea, check out this blog for time management tips!

  5. Get a tutor or involve yourself in groups
    If you’re struggling, the worst thing you can do is suffer in silence. Ask for help, or find yourself a tutor. Often, some universities have peer tutoring schemes, so that you can learn from people who have done or are doing the same course as you. Even one or two sessions can help relieve pressure, and you can gain some insights into what not to do! Many universities have study groups and student associations where you can specifically find help and support. Remember you don’t have to tackle this alone!

  6. Spend more time outside
    Even if you choose to study in the park because you hate being away from your notes before exams, fresh air can work wonders for your mood and mental wellbeing. Take moments to pause and reflect on what’s happening in life, and let your mind calm down before taking on the mountains of revision you need to complete.

Exam time: Dealing with hard exams

If you find yourself turning over the first page of your exam and freaking out at the first question, or perhaps you flick through the questions and realise this is going to be harder than you imagined, the worst thing you can do is panic or get upset. The main reason being is because you can’t do anything about your situation, so causing further stress for yourself is in no way beneficial. Try thinking positively and constructively, no matter what the exams throw at you! 

What’s the best thing to do? Take a deep breathe, and scan your mind for the closest thing you can think of that might enable you to answer the question(s) in some way, shape or form. You might find that by simply putting pen to paper some kind of answers come back to you! You can leave, but really, where’s the benefit in this? Even if it takes you longer to get to grips with what you could write, it’s better to make efforts where you can. 

Post-exams: Dealing with bad (or worse than you were aiming for!) grades

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our outcomes don’t align with our expectations or hopes, and it can bring us down. It’s important not to dwell on the past and find ways to get better for next time. Here are some ways to help you cope with bad or unexpected grades:
  • Give yourself a little bit of time to be upset or angry if that is your initial emotional response, but once you’ve had a few moments to get it out of your system, find positive actions to take that can help you redirect your energy. Perhaps talking with friends or family can help you get your feelings in check.
  • Try to figure out what went wrong and improve on it for next time. Each failure you face is actually a fantastic learning opportunity!
  • See if you can get a tutor or a friend to help you rejig your study systems and try to learn new ways to absorb and explain information.

The key thing you need to remember is that your self-worth and level of adequacy is not defined by your exam grades. Bad or good, you are defined by your reactions and actions you choose to take afterwards. So, if you want to minimise the chances of exams going wrong, or have experienced an exam going badly, then sit back and reflect on what you can improve in your university life and journey. There are lots of people out there to help you get through the stress and anxiety that may come with exam periods. Remember there are also fellow students in the same boat, and you can help each other get through and succeed!