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Tips to Overcome Exam Stress


Thinking of ways to overcome exam stress? Did you know that you need to relieve stress after your exam is over, so that you can prepare for your next exam? Here are some ways for reducing exam pressure and handling exam stress.

Active Learning Before Exams

Try to revise in an active way: do not just read notes through, but perhaps make a list of key points (writing reams of new notes is very time-consuming and is not an effective method of revising!). Test your memory as you go along and try to devise questions/answers concerning the information you are learning.

Some people find it helpful to use memory aids such as memorizing a trigger word which is associated with a ‘chunk’ of information, making a trigger word out of the initial letters of key points or names, or finding a way of visualizing information.

Practising Before Exams

Spend some time going through past exam papers and practise answering questions within the allotted time. It does not matter if your attempts go wrong to start with – in fact, now is the time to make these mistakes! Such practice will give you a good idea of the format of the exam, the sorts of questions you could get, and will give you invaluable practice in planning and structuring answers under time pressure. In makes no sense to get your first ‘practice’ at this during the real examination!

Remember that you are not expected to produce an essay under examination conditions, which looks like it took a week to carefully polish. So, be realistic: people tend not to be able to write ‘perfect’ essays during exams. Keep focusing your attention on the task in hand (i.e. answering the question) rather than being distracted by ‘what if’s’.

Sleeping better Before and During Exams

Here are a few pointers that may help during periods of revision and exams:

  • Don’t work in or on your bed – keep bed for relaxation and sleep.

  • ‘Switch off’ before going to bed: stop working at least an hour before you intend to sleep and spend the time doing something more relaxing e.g. listening to music, talking to a friend, having a bath, doing relaxation exercises, taking a stroll.

  • If you stick to a regular bedtime and getting up time, it will be easier to maintain good sleeping patterns.

  • Too much alcohol will prevent you from sleeping properly and will tend to make you tired the next day.

  • Do not ‘catastrophise’ about not being able to sleep well i.e. stop telling yourself that you will not be able to do anything thenext day if you cannot get to sleep. Even, when you are not sleeping much, you will still be able to function well, think logically and do difficult mental tasks. It is mundane, vigilance-type tasks and mood (e.g. irritability) which are mainly affected by lack of sleep. Most people manage to sustain sleep deficit over a few days (but not weeks!) before needing to ‘catch up’.

Tips for the Day of the Exam

  • Looking after yourself – for example, getting enough rest and eating reasonably – is more important and effective than trying to do some last minute cramming. Examination day should be planned before hand so that you can take things gently in order to conserve your energy for the examinations.
  • Do not get up very early, as this will just make you more tired. Eat breakfast, but do not drink too much liquid! If you have spare time, do something you find relaxing – have a bath, go for a stroll – and keep away from those whose stress levels are contagious.
  • Rather than trying to learn any new material, perhaps just look over a few key points.
  • Arrive at the exam hall comfortably in time but not too early; the tension hanging over this short period of waiting just before the exam is highly contagious you should try minimizing your exposure to it!
  • It is natural to feel some anxiety when you go into the examination room. Use the few minutes before you are allowed to begin to do some simple relaxation and breathing exercises; sit back and separate yourself mentally from those who are getting stressed.
  • Read the exam paper through slowly. When you have chosen, your questions read them twice to make sure you have understood and not misread the question. If you are allowed to do so, underline key words or phrases in the questions.
  • Answer the correct number of questions and divide your time equally between them – or according to the marking scheme if questions have different weightage.
  • Some people write out essay plans to all the questions they need to answer at the beginning, so they can add things as they occur to them while working on other answers; others take each question in order. Which method works best for you, or is most appropriate to the format of your exams? After doing your plan, look back at the question and check you are answering the question asked – you do not get credit for a brilliant answer to a question you were not asked!
  • Take regular ‘micro-breaks’: whenever you pause at the end of writing a paragraph or stop to think for a moment put your pen down and sit back, even if it is just for a moment.

Avoid Panic During Exams

In an examination, it is not uncommon for one’s mind to go blank for a moment, or to be confused by a question put in an unfamiliar way. At these times, it is easy to begin to panic. This is likely to take the form of doom-laden thoughts as well as physical symptoms such as feeling your heart racing, feeling faint, hot or sweaty. Although these symptoms are disturbing, perhaps even frightening, they are in fact very common and are not at all dangerous.

First, pause for a few moments: put your pen down and sit back; slow your breathing down a little. Let your body relax. Relaxation andbreathing exercises will help to reduce these symptoms. Reassure yourself that you are not going to collapse or lose control – these things never happen because of anxiety. Push upsetting thoughts to the back of your mind and re-focus your attention on relaxing, and then back on the exam itself. No matter how bad the anxiety feels, do not leave the exam, as the anxiety level will fall within a short space of time. Panic is always time limited and the symptoms will reduce in a short while.
When you are able, get back to work – remember that it is better to put something down rather than nothing.

Relieving Stress after Exams

Before the day of the exam, it can be a good idea to decide what you are going to do immediately after the exam ends. Standing around and joining in with others’ delight or dismay is always discouraging. If you have something already planned, you can simply leave others to do the post-mortem, while you go and do something more enjoyable.

If you are exhausted, some food or a sleep may help; if you are still wound up, you could do something physical, such as go for a run or a swim. If you are going to meet up with someone, you could agree with them that you will only talk about the exam for 5 minutes – or even not at all.

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