Exam Stress - Counselling Newsletter

Exam Stress - Counselling Newsletter

Published: 28 June 2018

The exam period is a time when stress levels are higher than usual. Stress can be positive, helping you to stay motivated and focused. However, too much stress can be unhelpful, it can make you feel overwhelmed, confused, exhausted and edgy. It's important to try and keep things in perspective and find ways of reducing stress if things seem to be getting on top of you. This fact sheet gives you some suggestions of things you can do to reduce your exam anxiety. 

Exam anxiety can be viewed in two different ways, (1) ineffective coping with the inevitable stress of an exam BEFORE the exam; and/or (2) a strong emotional reaction of fear that interferes with thinking clearly DURING the exam. The most commonly reported symptoms are: 

  • Memory blocks or “blanking out” on things that you have studied
  • Fear of failing before the exam is even written
  • Physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, etc.
  • Lower reading comprehension and
  • Poor attention and inability to concentrate

These symptoms can also appear as you study for exams. In order to overcome exam anxiety, you need to work on what you have control over (e.g., how you study, what you study, etc.), and not worry about what you can’t control (e.g., kinds of questions, number of questions, how other students perform, etc.).

Exam anxiety tips

  • Be Prepared Early - The most common cause of exam anxiety is lack of preparation for the exam. Set up a study schedule at least three weeks before your first exam. You may find that you actually need to start studying very early due to other commitments. Planning ahead also assists you to avoid cramming which can be a major cause of exam anxiety.
  • Sleep Well - Regular sleep is one of the best ways to control stress. Getting up and going to bed each day at the same times, allowing for at least 8 hours of sleep, ensures that your body and brain are getting the rest they need for optimal functioning. Students who follow a regular sleeping pattern have been shown to perform 30% better than students who stay up late or get up early to study.
  • Same Caffeine & Sugar Intake - Keep caffeine and sugar intake the same during exam time. Don’t increase or decrease the amount of coffee, tea, energy drinks or cola that you normally drink as your body and brain are accustomed to getting a certain amount. Keep things in your life as stable as possible, especially during exam time.
  • Slow Breathing and Mindfulness - When you display any symptoms of anxiety during studying or during the exam, use slow breathing to calm yourself. Move your attention away from the task and take a few slow breaths. Breathe in the slow count of four and out to the slow count of four. Say to yourself, "calm and relaxed" as you exhale. Practice slow breathing before exams. You can also download the Smiling Mind app on your smart phone and practice mindfulness to unhook from unhelpful thoughts and focus on the present moment.
  • Don’t Study Before Bed - Studying the night before an exam causes your anxiety level to increase. Unfortunately, it doesn't decrease when you go to sleep. Reduce anxiety by taking a few hours off before going to bed in the evening to relax – watch TV, read a novel, go to a movie etc.
  • Review Main Themes - If it causes you anxiety NOT to study the night before an exam, review the main themes of the course earlier in the day. Of course, that implies that you should have already studied well.
  • Find Out Exactly What is Going to be on the Exam - A good class syllabus will identify that for you – check it out and note the readings that go along with the exam topics. Some professors will provide a list of lectures and chapters that will be covered. Gather all pertinent information and materials.
  • Have a Plan before the Exam - As part of your studying, think about how you will approach the exam, and what you will do when you run into trouble. Having a plan in place will assist you to worry less about failing, and help you to concentrate more on passing. A plan may include; read and understand the instructions before you start the exam, budget your time according to the questions based on what you can answer and how much each question is worth, write something for every question even when stuck, review and make corrections and stay until the end.

Aim to Do Your Best - Often, students start thinking negatively when things aren't going well on an exam. This can lead to lower self-confidence and increased self-doubt. Recognize and turn off your negative internal dialogue (by practicing mindfulness). Focus on the task instead of on yourself. Do not try for perfection – aim to do your very best.

  • Look After Yourself - Regular exercise, a healthy diet (plenty of fruit and vegetables), support from friends and time out for fun reduces your stress levels and improves concentration. Time you invest in these activities will result in better quality study.

Visit the MIND SMART exam stress web page for more helpful tips:

MIND SMART exam stress

student.unsw.edu.au/notices/exam-stress