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Outsmart the exam monster

Exams can cause a lot of anxiety for many students. Exam time can be stressful, and many students struggle with the pressure from their school, their parents, or even themselves.

Published: 23 November 2018

Exams can cause a lot of anxiety for many students. Exam time can be stressful, and many students struggle with the pressure from their school, their parents, or even themselves.

This pressure can be felt at all stages of exam time, from when you’re studying, to when the day of exams has arrived, and even when exams are over. Finding ways to deal with this pressure will help to make exam time less stressful.

Preparing for exams

Making a plan and being prepared is the best way to avoid becoming overwhelmed about exams. Studying can be difficult for many people, and it might take you some time to find a way to study that works for you. Here are some things that can make studying easier:

Make a study plan

Structure your study and give equal time to each subject, making sure the time you're setting aside will be enough to cover the topic you want to look at. Instead of spending hours on one subject, start off with 45 minute time slots and work from there to find what's best for you.

Try to stick to the plan. If you have a lapse, don't stress out. Just pick up where you left off. It happens, and you will pick things up again much faster if you forgive yourself.

The Pomodoro Technique

If you're struggling staying focused on one topic, give the "Pomodoro Technique" a go, which involves working in 25 minute bursts with 5 minute breaks in between. Have a look in the app store for a pomodoro timer app.

Avoid distractions

Try to keep a clutter-free study environment. The best place to study is at a desk with enough room for your things which you can keep tidy.

If you find it hard to stay off social media, try downloading an app on your internet browser that can block websites like Facebook or Twitter for a certain length of time. Turn off the TV and put your phone away so that you can stay concentrated on studying. If music helps you focus, try to keep the volume low in the background.

Keep hydrated

Keep a bottle of water close to you while you're studying. Slight dehydration can lead to a lack of focus and concentration, so it's important to drink enough water when you're studying. 

If you run out of water, it's an opportunity to get up and stretch your legs when you go to refill before settling back into your study.

Be careful if you’re drinking caffeine while studying. While a small amount of caffeine can help to keep you focused, too much can have the opposite effect, leaving you jittery, anxious, and unable to get much-needed rest at the end of the day. Caffeine is also de-hydrating, so be sure to drink plenty of water if you’re having coffee.

Get enough sleep

Avoid staying up all night cramming before an exam as you'll need all your energy the next day and a lack of sleep will affect your concentration and memory. Getting a good night’s sleep is the best thing you can do to make sure you perform well in exams and stay focused during study.

Take proper study breaks

Remember to take breaks every now and then. Breaks are important for productive study and for your mental health. It can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and from getting burnt out.

This includes taking regular breaks during a study session to stretch, get some water, or have a snack, but also making time to do something you enjoy in between study sessions and exams to take your mind off things for a while.

Managing stress during exams

Many people find exams stressful, even after spending a lot of time studying and preparing. Even people who have been confident in the weeks leading up to exams can start to feel nervous the day they arrive.

Be aware of how you’re feeling in the days running up to your first exam, and take steps to manage your stress so that you can stay focused. Learn more about stress here.

The night before an exam

Try to avoid any last minute studying the night before or on the morning of an exam. When you’re finished reviewing your notes, make time to relax and try to get a good night’s sleep. Make sure you have everything you need for the exam the next day, such as pens, pencils, calculators, and your student ID. Decide when to wake up and when to leave, giving yourself plenty of time to have a good breakfast and get to the exam hall. It’s also important to make sure you know how you’re going to get there, and if you’re using public transport, carefully check the departure times for each day that you have an exam, because they can vary from day to day. Double-check your timetable and take note of the time and location of your exam.

The day of an exam

Make sure you eat well in the morning, because if you skip on breakfast it will be difficult to concentrate and you won't have enough energy to get you through the exam. It's also a good idea to bring a bottle of water with you to the exam hall to keep hydrated. Go to the bathroom before the exam starts so that you won’t lose out on time during the exam if you need to go.

Try to avoid learning new information at the last minute that you haven't already covered in your study. If you want to do a little bit of prep to keep yourself focused, take out a pen and paper and just write out some key points that you want to cover. Preparing flashcards with some key points could also be helpful, but avoid cramming them with too much information, stick to the most important stuff.

Stay away from anyone who is complaining or panicking about the exams. They could make you feel anxious and distract you at the last minute. Instead, keep to yourself or talk about something unrelated.

In the exam hall

Once you're in the exam hall, all you need to do is focus on getting down your answers. Take a few deep, slow breaths before you open your exam paper and start writing. It will help to calm your nerves.

Take time to read the exam paper carefully. The main reason people do badly in exams is that they don't read the question carefully and don't do what they are asked. Work out how much time you have for each question. Start with the question you feel most confident about and keep a check on the time.

Leave five or ten minutes at the end of the exam to review everything and to make sure all your identification details are filled in.

After the exam

When the exam is over, it's time to let it all go. Avoid going over the questions and answers afterwards, because there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.

Make sure to take a break before you jump into studying for the next exam. Your mind will need a break, and you deserve it.

Waiting for results

Even when the exams are over and out of the way, a lot of students still feel anxious when waiting for their exam results, especially if they are worried that they haven’t done well.

It may be a few weeks or even months before you find out the results of your exams. If you find they are on your mind a lot, try to find other things to focus on. Once the exam is over, there’s nothing more you can do.

If you’re feeling really anxious about your results, talk to someone. It helps to get things off your chest.

Talk to someone

If the pressure of exams is getting to you, talk to someone you trust, like a parent, guardian, or another trusted adult.

You can also speak to the school or guidance counsellor about your exams, and ask if they can help you find ways to manage the stress.

Supporting a friend or family member during exams

If you know someone taking exams and you want to support them, then there are things you can do to help them handle the stress. Simply being there to listen will help, but here are some other things to keep in mind:

Know their timetable

If you are familiar with their schedule, you know when it might be a good time to stop by for a chat or when it’s not. You can also send them a quick message before their exam to let them know you're thinking of them.

Go outdoors

If you think your friend has been cooped up for too long, try to bring them for some fresh air and go for a bit of a walk, even if it’s just to the local shop for a snack.

Be their study partner

Some people work well alone when it comes to study, but others work better with others. Offer to do some Q&A style study with them if they feel like changing up their pre-exam routine.

Try to keep them calm

It can be easy to get sucked into the ‘end of the world’ conversations about whether or not your friend will get 600 points or their first choice, or who wrote 10 pages in their exam today. Remind them that all they can do is their best, and no matter what happens things will still work out okay in the end.

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