Top Tips for Dealing with Exam Stress

Exam time has arrived, the sun is always shining and you are stuck in doors hitting the books, right? Or are you feeling just too overwhelmed and under pressure to focus? Anyone can suffer from exam stress, but if you feel that it is getting all too much some of the tips below may help to relieve the pressure

General exam stress-busting tips:

Believe in yourself.
You are capable of passing the exam. You wouldn’t have been given a place in the class or on the course if you didn't have the ability to do it.

Don't just worry - take action!
If you don't understand some of your course material, getting stressed out won't help. Instead, take action by seeing your course tutor or asking your class mates to help you understand the problem.

Talk to a friend
confiding in someone you trust and who will listen and be supportive is a great way of reducing stress and worry.

Don't put yourself under too much pressure
Aim to do your best but recognise that if you think that "anything less than A+ means I've failed" then you are creating unnecessary stress for yourself.

Tips for the revision period:

Time is of the essence!
Boost your confidence and reduce any pre-exam stress by avoiding last minute cramming. Leaving plenty of three to revise means you know you have prepared well.

Play is as important as work.
Make sure that you build in time to have fun and relax to between study sessions. Develop a timetable so that you can track and monitor your progress.

Take a break.
As soon as you notice you are losing concentration, take a short break, go for a walk, talk to a friend or just listen to some music. Then you will feel refreshed and able to concentrate on your revision again.

Another cuppa? Don't think so.
Don't drink too much coffee, tea and fizzy drinks; the caffeine will make you feel 'keyed-up' and make your thinking less clear.

Eat some ‘superfoods’.
Eat healthily and regularly; your brain will benefit from the nutrients. Replace sweets and sugar with ‘superfoods' such as berries, bananas, oily fish, nuts and broccoli. 'Superfoods' can help boost your concentration, energy and mood.

A change is as good as a rest.
Experiment with several alternative revision techniques so that revision is more fun and your motivation to study is high. Check out these revision techniques:

Give your body a workout (as well as your mind).
Regular moderate exercise such as a brisk walk, swim or session in the gym will boost your energy, clear your mind and help reduce any feelings of stress.

Tips for keeping calm during the exam:

Try to avoid panic.
It's natural to feel some exam nerves prior to starting the exam and that can be a positive and motivating feeling. However, getting excessively nervous is counterproductive as it hinders your ability to think clearly.

Breathe deep.
The quickest and most effective way of eliminating feelings of stress and panic is to close your eyes and take several long, slow deep breaths. Breathing in this way calms your whole nervous system.

Blankety blank?
If your mind goes blank, don't panic it just makes it harder to recall information. Instead, focus on slow, deep breathing for about one minute. If you still can't remember the information then move on to another question and return to this question later.

Don't dwell on past exams.
Don't spend time focusing where you think you went wrong. Often we are our own harshest critics. Congratulate yourself for the things you did right, learn from the bits where you know you could have done better, and then move on.

Take a look at the 3 categories outlined below and see which one best describes the type of student you are.
Some students get stuck in one pattern, others may pass through each phase.
When you have identified what type of student you are or what phase you are currently in, click on the appropriate link below for tips on how to help yourself.

What type of student are you?

  1. 1. The Self-Indulgent student -
    • denial of responsibility / or overconfident
    • not lazy, but has low frustration tolerance
    • escapist tendencies
    • requires stimulus to raise anxiety (e.g. approaching deadline)
  2. The Tense & Fearful student -
    • denial of potency - deskilling self unnecessarily
    • self-critical, low self-esteem
    • overwhelmed by the importance of the exam, pressure to succeed
  3. The Perfectionist student
    • denial of vulnerability, wanting total control
    • critical of the "system", passive-aggressive
    • sets impossible goals, so never feels "good enough" or "safe enough"
    • obsessive, workaholic tendencies; or procrastination

The Self - Indulgent Student/ Phase

Procrastination can be tough to overcome because you can easily delude and sabotage yourself: you do everything but the priority; make excuses; find other diversions.
Avoidance can become a self-reinforcing habit. It may be that nothing but the approaching exam deadline will raise anxiety sufficiently to kick start revision.

Revision Tips
Timetable your fixed hours (lectures/coursework, travel, eating & sleeping) and your recreation time.

  • Make the recreation compulsory, not the revision work.
  • Focus on "starting to work", not on putting in a certain number of hours each day.
  • When you start a piece of revision work, only concentrate on it for 30 minutes. Then record this achievement on your timetable schedule and give yourself a reward
  • Start as many 30 minute periods as you can. The aim is to get into the habit of "frequently starting" to revise.
  • After some success with this approach, you can gradually extend the study periods.

Defining Work
At first, "work" can legitimately involve all the necessary preparatory activity for revision:

  • Sort out your notes, obtain necessary photocopies, past exam papers, details of exam requirements, etc.
  • Determine in overall terms what topics you want to cover and by when and chart it visually. Make the chart a rough guide, resist getting too detailed.
  • Choose one topic you find moderately challenging but not threatening. Break it down into manageable chunks and make a start.
  • Find out what environment results in more productive study: your room? the library? studying with a friend?

The Tense & Fearful Student/ Phase

Revision is delayed or undermined by self-doubts and self-putdowns.
The more you entertain such negative thoughts, the more deskilled you feel.
In particular, you may find yourself engaging in the following the distortions:

Common Thinking Errors

  • Exaggeration - magnifying negatives, ignoring positives
  • Over generalization - e.g.. expecting everything to be bad, always, because of one negative experience
  • Catastrophizing - anticipating disaster even from a
  • minor setback, real or imagined
  • Polarization - black or white, all or nothing mentality
  • Emotional Reasoning - confusing thinking with feeling (e.g.. you feel an idiot, so you must be one)

You need to find ways to challenge and contradict these negative thoughts, replacing your critical self-talk with constructive self-talk.

What would you say to a friend who is bogged down by a similar internal dialogue? Probably something empowering and realistic, so now you need to practice saying it to yourself!

Revision Tips

  • Face your fear! Identify your fears and if there is some reality to it (e.g. "it is very unlikely that I'll get the grade I need") think of ways of accepting this possibility. Then formulate a back-up plan, which may not be ideal, but is still worth working towards.
  • Remember that your personal worth and future happiness are not conditional on the outcome of your exams! Let yourself imagine the worst possible outcome and then ask yourself how likely is it that the worst case scenario will come true? And if it did, what would my options be then? By facing your fears and making a plan for what you would do if the worst did happen, you will regain some control over the situation and the fear will diminish.
  • Break a large task into manageable parts!
    Negative thinking will exaggerate the difficulty of the task but you probably know from past experience that once you get started and have devised a realistic study programme, you the usually manage to get things into perspective
    By breaking a large area of work into smaller chunks, you gain a sense of control over the overall task and it will help to focus your energy more efficiently.
  • How did you make through exams in the past? Remind yourself of past success and be careful to avoid comparisons (e.g. "I did okay, but Jane did much better").
    Also, watch out for discounting past achievements (e.g. "it was a fluke that I passed")
    instead, generate positive self talk accept compliments, give yourself credit
    These techniques will help contradict a pattern of feeling like you don't deserve success whenever possible.
  • Watch out for the distortion of events or situations! If you wake up with a big day ahead of you and you say it will be just awful I'll never get it all done" you are setting yourself up for a negative experience. Instead, try to alter your perspective: "Looks like a busy day, could be a very productive one. I'll get a load of things out of the way".

The Perfectionist Student / Phase

Most of us want to do things well and can be perfectionists at times.
The trouble arises when this attitude becomes inflexible and counterproductive.

Types of Perfectionists

Perfectionist expectations may cause you to delay starting revision, because the task seems too daunting you will want to cover everything and be in total control. Sometimes only a rapidly approaching deadline will free you to consider a more pragmatic approach, giving you permission to expect less of yourself.

Perfectionist expectations may cause you to start revising early but you are likely to get bogged down accumulating unnecessary information and producing and rewriting "perfect" notes.

Revision Tips

  • Watch out for "should", "must" and "need to" demands that you place on yourself. Imagine yourself as capable of making choices, rather than having to give in to obsessions. For example, replace "I MUST learn all the material" with "It would be nice to learn all the material" this way, you will experience less anxiety and stress if you are not always able to meet your (unrealistically) high expectations.
  • Break a large task into manageable parts! For example, cover the essentials first, add refinements or further details later if there is time.
  • Give yourself permission to make some mistakes! Aim for "good enough" efforts to counter "all or nothing" thinking tendencies (e.g. "if don't get an A, I'm a failure"). Practice being more selective in your work and less harsh on yourself!

Get Organised!


  • Sort out our topics for revision base selection of topics on syllabus and examination on predictions derived from past papers and on guidelines suggested by tutors
  • Revise a routine of study periods that is realistic and productive and includes rest intervals!
  • Pay attention to diet, sleep and recreation, all are important factors in maintaining balance and keeping stress levels under control.
  • Breakdown targets into manageable units. Ticking off completed units creates a sense of forward movement. A checklist for the day's targets (making sure the targets are realistic and achievable) can also boost morale.

Memory Considerations

Systematically review your revision notes the night before or the morning of the exam don't attempt to learn complex new material at this late stage!
Capitalize on short-term memory by glancing at your "difficult" cue cards just before entering the exam hall then try reproducing them immediately when you are allowed to start. Exam Skills
Read the exam paper carefully underline key words and instructions. Don't panic if you feel unable to answer any of the questions at this stage it is likely due to a surge in anxiety!

  • Note how many questions you are required to answer and if any are compulsory the format may have changed from previous years.
  • Tick the questions you intend to answer. Make a rough timetable, allocating equal time to equally weighted questions and allow for about 15 minutes of "planning" and 10 minutes of "finishing off' time overall for a typical 3 hour exam.
  • Avoid getting demoralized at the start! Answer the easiest question first and save the most difficult one for last. Attempt all the questions required usually the first 50% of marks for any question are easier to obtain than the next 50%.
  • Watch the wording of the questions answering a question that wasn't asked means no marks, no matter how thoughtful your answer was!
  • Jot down key ideas that emerge about any of the questions and use them for "planning" an answer. This might show the examiner what you had in mind in case you run out of time.
  • Save the last 5-10 minutes for "finishing touches" crossing out unwanted script, ensuring that questions are clearly numbered and that all answer books have your identification number.

Ways to Manage Your Anxiety

Anxiety and stress are a part of life, but they don't have to take over your life. Self management on a variety of levels is key.

Anxiety Management

Cognitive: face your fears with constructive self-talk

Behavioral: devise and stick to an effective study programme which also includes time for recreational and physical needs

Emotional: contain your fears, through more insight and foresight: use appropriate self-monitoring, distraction and relaxation strategies

Use your time wisely deal with less demanding tasks in periods of the day when you are less alert or focused. If you find yourself struggling unproductively with a problem, take a break or switch to some other work.

Maximize Your Learning
The more you actively interact with the subject matter, making it your own, and linking it to previous knowledge, the more meaningful and memorable it becomes.

Follow the PQRST model:

  • Preview - skim the material to get an overall preview
  • Questions - formulate questions that highlight what you aim to derive from your reading
  • Read Actively - make appropriate notes of key ideas
  • Summarise - identify the main points using lists, key words, flow diagrams, etc. and connect them with knowledge from other sources
  • Test - test yourself by reciting and reviewing the summaries immediately after learning the material and again at later intervals


  • Use flow diagrams, keywords or patterns linking ideas to make master summaries for revision purposes.
  • Use cue cards! index-sized "flash" cards are easy to carry around and are useful for learning information you find particularly hard to remember. You can put facts, figures, formulae on the cards and use colours, keywords, mnemonics and other memory aids to help you learn.
  • Space your studying and give yourself time for the information to sink in. Study related topics together and take regular, short breaks at suitable "achievement points".
  • Compare notes with other students and get feedback and/or clarification from tutors.

Conquering Exams: Strategies and Skills

Practical Preparations
Check the time and venue of the exam and figure out how to get there in good time; have the necessary equipment ready (e.g. watch, pens, etc.)

Emotional Preparations
Mentally rehearse how to tackle the exam as a whole & review your strategies for dealing with anxiety. Consider what might also help: for example, staying away from crow's gathering outside exam halls.

Relaxation Strategies

There are various kinds of meditation techniques around. Generally, they induce an altered state which is normally relaxing and beneficial. However, anyone with a mental illness, prone to confusion, depersonalization, etc. should seek medical advice before trying out such techniques.

Transcendental Meditation
TM is a subtle, effortless technique that requires no involvement with an organization or changes to lifestyle or beliefs.

Benson's "Relaxation Response"

A more mechanical technique to induce relaxation.

  • 1 or 2 times a day, sit comfortably with eyes closed for 15 -20 minutes
  • Become aware of your breathing and breathe easily and naturally
  • On every out breath mentally repeat your mantra, a sound or a word like "relax", "one" or "Om"
  • Maintain a passive, accepting attitude. Have no goals for this time other than to comfortably follow the procedure
  • Don't try to resist other thoughts or strain to think of your mantra clearly
  • When aware of having been distracted by other thoughts, simply return your attention back to the mantra


Practice the following:

  • Sit comfortably with eyes closed
  • Notice bodily sensations and as you breathe out let go of any tension by imaging tension flowing out through your hands and feet.
  • Enjoy a sensation of warmth and heaviness or lightness going through the ID cry in waves of relaxation
  • Imagine the body filling up with healing white or blue light
  • Let the light radiate around you and transport you to a real or imaginary place your ideal relaxation sanctuary. Vividly imagine being there, absorbing it with all your senses Feel the sense of absolute peacefulness and calm, for some minutes. Gradually bring yourself back to your present situation, with a lingering sense of calmness rid inner radiance
  • Do this once a day in a leisurely way and, for a boost, touch base with yare sanctuary at odd moments

Muscular Relaxation
To help distinguish between tension and relaxation, exaggerate and feel the tension (e.g. clenching fists; tightly closing eyes; shrugging shoulders) for a slow count of five and then let go and enjoy the sense of release.
You can work systematically through the different muscle groups to achieve full body relaxation. Use the phrase "All New Exercises Must Take Longer" to help remember each of the body parts you need to work:

All - arms & hands
New - neck & shoulders
Exercises - eye-brows, eye-lids & forehead
Must - mouth, lips, tongue & throat
Take - trunk-chest, abdomen & hips
Longer - legs

Remember to spend more time on the release and relaxation than on the tensing!
During an exam, you can try an abbreviated version while sitting at your desk

  • Pull in stomach muscles tightly, hold for a count of 5 and then release and relax
  • Clench fist tightly; hold; relax
  • Extend fingers; hold; relax
  • Grasp below seat of chair, pull up; hold; relax
  • Press elbows tightly into side of body; hold; relax
  • Push foot hard into floor; hold; relax
  • Relax briefly with dangling arms, or resting head in arms, on desk

Exercise & Mental Rehearsal

Vigorous exercise can burn off tension and counterbalance the passivity of studying and relaxation. Taking a brisk walk or doing some simple yoga postures can also be effective at reducing stress.

Mental Rehearsal
Imagine yourself "doing" the dreaded thing o for example, taking an exam and visualize yourself emotionally coping. Mental rehearsal can help clarify the task in terms of steps and can help desensitize you to the fear through imaginary exposure.

  • Close your eyes and run through the entire exam situation
  • Watch the exam unravel as if on a screen
  • Mentally step into the screen, with a sense of cairn and composure
  • Take in the scene with different sensory organs, all the while imagining yourself coping with the exam and any surges in anxiety