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The student guide to handling exam stress





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In the run-up to exams, stress can creep in right when you don’t want it to. The pressure to succeed can overwhelm us, creating a state of mind that may negatively affect both our preparation and exam performance.

And though exam stress can be inevitable, it’s also manageable. With the right methods, tools and approaches at your disposal, you can turn that negativity into something positive. To help the stress from getting on top of you, this resource is here to provide some pointers on what to do before, during and after your exams.


Before your exams


Plan out a schedule


You might think that the run-up to exams should be all work and no play, but revising doesn’t have to mean putting your hobbies on hold. It’s important to give yourself things to break up the revision with – aside from the usual activity of just going out with your mates.

If you like going to the gym, for example, keep at it! All that exercise releases endorphins, maintaining that all-important positivity while you prepare for exams. Similarly, for creative types who enjoy things like painting, sewing, or drawing, these outlets allow you to take the focus off worrying about revising, giving the mind a rest in the process.

On the preparation side of things, creating a strong revision plan and sticking to it is highly recommended. Map out how much time a day you want to spend on certain subjects and modules, and stick to them. Make sure you’re giving yourself regular breaks too; there’s a tendency to overdo revision, but there’s only so much information you can take on in a given time period.


Stay organised


Give yourself a strong start by organising what you need to know about your exams beforehand. Know when your exams are and how long you have to revise for them. If they’re going to be marked in a particular way, then identify how the marks are going to be allocated, and how much you need to learn for each one.


Get into some good habits…


Whatever your revision techniques are, it’s important to strengthen them by maintaining good form that can help reduce stress along the way.

As we’ve mentioned, frequent breaks are important. It’s been said that we can only concentrate properly for 30-45 minutes at a time, so don’t force yourself to do more if you feel like you can’t. And when you do have a break, don’t stay at your desk – make yourself a cup of tea or go for a walk; fresh air can perk you up and help to clear your head.

Maintain a good diet that keeps energy levels consistent – slow-release foods such as bread, rice, pasta, fruit and veg are always a good idea, as these can ensure blood sugar levels don’t spike and then suddenly drop. Drink lots of water too – hydration is hugely important when it comes to keeping you focused.

When and where do you work best? If you find the library too distracting, or you’re just too sleepy in the morning, then find times and places that work for you instead of forcing yourself to revise the second you get up.

Critical self-talk may occur during exam periods too, so make sure you’re taking care of yourself in this regard too. Breathing exercises, visualisation, mindfulness and positive thinking can all help to keep negativity at bay, and can be great stress reduction exercises in the long term, too.

And at the end of the day, try to get a solid eight hours of sleep a night. Burning the candle at both ends never helped anyone.


…and avoid the bad ones


As well as increasing your good habits, it’s important to reduce some old habits you may have fallen into as well. Since your anxiety levels will likely be quite high anyway, don’t add to the jitters with the use of stimulants –  yes, caffeine will keep you alert, but you’ll feel a lot more on edge when you’ve had five cups of coffee before lunch.

Likewise, it’s worth steering clear of alcohol and other depressants too. Alcohol, in particular, can make it tough to stay asleep, and nobody wants to be revising with a hangover the next day either.


During your exams


The morning of the exam


It’s a good idea to have a checklist of things to do the morning of the exam, like the following can help you get in the right frame of mind:

  • Wake up early
  • Do some last-minute revision and go through the most important points again
  • Make sure you have the things you need for your exam including your ID, pens and any other equipment close at hand
  • Eat a healthy breakfast to keep you full and focused
  • Drink some water
  • Practice four square breathing: slowly, breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold empty for a count of four, and then repeat. This will help you stay calm and relaxed beforehand.


Approaching the exam


Once you’ve started your exam, make sure you’re using the right techniques in approaching your answers. Time management is one such tactic. For essay-based exams, spend a few minutes at the start planning your structure and main points; make sure you’ve read the questions properly rather than rushing into things, and if you don’t know how to answer a question, come back to it later.

student studying

Stay on topic too; always keep the question in view so you don’t lose sight of the answer while you’re busy scribbling away.


After your exams


Look into extenuating circumstances


If you perhaps didn’t do as well as you’d hoped, there may have been a valid reason why. If you weren’t feeling 100%, either physically or mentally, over the course of your exams, or you’d recently experienced a family bereavement, then you should make sure your university knows about it.

You’ll have to provide proof such as a doctor’s note, but institutions are receptive to these claims of extenuating circumstances if they’re presented in a timely manner and backed up with the right evidence. Your situation will be taken into account, and marked accordingly.

If however, you felt like you were OK to still sit the exam, you may not have realised how much these circumstances might have affected your performance and well-being. If this is the case, it’s still worth gathering evidence and approaching either your department or Students’ Union. If you gain their support, it’s still possible to convince the university you deserve a ‘first-attempt’ resit, with no cap on the mark you can achieve.


Resitting exams


If you feel like you under-performed, you can still resit certain exams. They won’t be the exact same exam as the one you took the first time, but it will be a similar format. If you don’t qualify for extenuating circumstances, your resit mark will be ‘capped’. That means, if you ace the exam and score high marks, the resit will be capped at a bare pass mark of around 40 or 50, depending on the programme of study and marking scale used by the university.


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