Managing stress before exams

Managing exams

To manage exams well, we need to stay at the peak of our functioning capacity. Too much stress can spoil our performance, but we all need a certain amount of adrenalin in our bodies to take on the challenges ahead.

Here are some pre-exam tips for improving your performance

  • Plan your revision in advance by listing achievable targets and tick them off when completed.
  • Practise deep breathing and relaxation techniques before the exam.
  • Don’t let your mind wander into catastrophic thoughts like "I can't understand this author", " I'm going to fail this paper" or "I'm not going to pass my degree".
  • Make time for fun, but avoid alcohol or drugs, as they can affect your memory and de-skill you. Avoid going straight to bed after revision, otherwise you may have difficulty sleeping with thoughts rushing around your brain.
  • Use active learning techniques like summarizing as you go along and asking yourself questions as you read.
  • Make sure you stay in touch with sympathetic friends and family: having someone to offload your problems to can help.
  • Avoid coffee late at night, which may over-stimulate and increase feelings of anxiety.

How you may feel before exams

Most people feel frightened of exams to some degree.
  • Some know from past experience that they perform well in exams and look forward to the thought of being put to the test.
  • Some are apprehensive because they know they haven't done enough work.
  • Some know from past experience that their personality type does not match the high anxiety\hard drive style best suited to exams.

Most exam fear, however, is irrational and unhelpful to the process of achievement. Occasionally it is expressed as an extreme fear or phobia in a statement such as "If I fail this exam, my life won't be worth living". If you find thoughts like this running through your mind and you are also afflicted with physical sensations such as sweating, breathing difficulties, panic attacks, memory losses, consult your doctor straight away. Do not leave it until the week before the exam! GPs are used to these symptoms and will often prescribe helpful medication.

The Counselling Service is also primed to meet exam anxiety\phobia in a helpful and supportive way. The fact is that you are able to pass exams if you make the right kind of well-timed effort. The sooner you consult us, the more easily we will be able to help you.

Many students suffering in these extreme ways have calmed down significantly after a period of counselling and done well in their exams. Group or individual counselling gives you confidence and helps you to tackle your studies in a more organised way.

Some breathing and relaxation techniques to practise

Good breathing and relaxation are vital to general health and especially to performing in a high-stress situation. If you are breathing correctly you are much less likely to panic. With enough oxygen entering your brain, your thinking will be clearer and more effective.

Quick relaxation

Sit comfortably and place one hand on your stomach. Take a deep breath through your nose, counting to four. Hold it for four counts. Breathe out through your mouth counting to four. Repeat three times, every hour or whenever you start to feel tense.

Longer relaxation

Find a warm, quiet place to lie down and relax for 20 minutes. Practise tensing and relaxing each muscle group progressively, moving down the body. For example:

  • Head and shoulders
  • Arms and chest
  • Stomach and buttocks
  • Legs and feet

Tense the muscles….relax the muscles…breathe deeply…and so on…

After the deep breathing and relaxation exercises you may be ready for some positive self-suggestion. Having thought carefully about your strongest points and what you are best at, select a phrase and repeat it to yourself softly as you breathe deeply. This can be your own secret phrase. You may even want to use it repeatedly as a mantra to counter negative thinking at anxious moments.

Here are some examples of other people's positive statements about themselves:

  • I am patient and persistent
  • I'm methodical
  • I'm organised
  • I'm good at managing my time
  • My energy is free-flowing
  • My ideas are good

Revision Techniques

Read through past exam papers in a group of fellow students and discuss possible answers.

  • Put everyone's essays in a heap in the middle and pick ones to read.
  • Test each other in a group.
  • Use spider diagrams for note-taking and testing your memory as you revise.
  • Use highlighter pens and different coloured paper for different topics.
  • Be inventive. Use keywords, rhymes, mnemonics.
  • Tape record information and play it back to yourself while asleep!
  • For further Information see the How to Revise pages in the Student Intranet.

How to cope in the exam itself

  • Try to avoid tense conversations just before the exam.
  • Remember your breathing and your positive self-statement.
  • Organise time in the exam very carefully.
  • Read through the entire paper first.
  • Decide which questions to answer and circle them.
  • Allocate time for each question, including time to write a plan beforehand.
  • Spend about 10 minutes writing your plan, making as much mess as you like before launching into your answer proper more ideas will probably come to you as you work through your plan and it's easy at this point to fit them into the appropriate place. Tell yourself that once your plan is written, the answer is as good as done so then you can relax and write it out calmly.
  • Another advantage of a plan is that if you leave an answer unfinished a kindly examiner may see from your plan that you meant to go on further!
  • Try to keep within the time you have allocated for each question. The sense of structure this gives you will be calming to your feelings and your thoughts.

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