What’s the best way to deal with exam stress?

We all get nervous before tests - but for some of us, the pressure becomes too much. We asked an Oxford student and a mental health expert for their top exam stress tips.

Mental health and wellbeing
By Parent Zone ·

Úna

Úna is in her third year of Oxford University where she studies history. She is the deputy editor for The Oxford Student and hopes to do a masters in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies.

Exam stress

As a 20 year old university student, I’m well versed in exam stress.

For me, something important to recognise when dealing with exam stress is that the exam system itself is deeply flawed. Especially at GCSE and A level, it often feels like a memory test. While lots of emphasis is placed on doing well in exams, they actually aren’t the best or even most accurate measure of intelligence. I recently listened to a podcast about the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) in America, and the host, Malcolm Gladwell, explained how the test favours the ‘hare’ over the ‘tortoise’. That’s not to say that ‘hare’ is any more intelligent, it just means that the test rewards speed. But inevitably, the strict time constraint affects the way the ‘tortoise’ sees their intellect, because they are ranked within a system ill-suited to the way that they learn.

Realising the flaws of the exam system can be frustrating, but it’s also empowering to realise that we aren’t defined by a grade in an exam. They are simply a passport to get to where we would like to go.

In my experience, organisation is a vital component in reducing exam stress. Being organised helped me feel in control, even when my workload was overwhelming. I made revision timetables to structure my time and I made sure I wasn’t neglecting any one aspect of my work. Like Dr Ramya Mohan, the expert here, I am a big believer in to-do lists, which helped to structure my day-to-day in revision periods, and gave me a regular sense of achievement, even over little things.

I also agree that taking breaks is really important in coping with exam stress. An important lesson I have learnt through years of exams has been taking a break isn’t ‘lazy’, it’s actually aiding productivity. It can be difficult to see the woods from the trees in periods of intense pressure, but I’ve learnt it is important to gain some perspective and prioritise your health and wellbeing first over any exam. Looking after yourself and taking time away from revision won’t automatically mean you’ll do worse in your studies: in fact, you'll probably do better.

A positive home environment really helped me through stressful exam periods. My parents were great at showing an interest in my studies without being suffocating or overbearing. They accepted that it was my hard work, my exams, my future, and didn’t try to control or micro-manage my revision process. During the exam period, they asked me how the exams went but encouraged me not to dwell on them.

Dr Fiona Pienaar

Dr Pienaar has a background of over 30 years in teaching. She focuses primarily on children's experiences of stress and coping.

Exam stress

Exams…the very word can instil doubt, fear, anxiety, and a sense that your future plans and dreams depend on your ability to remain calm, focused, and remember and recall enough facts. Is it any wonder many people struggle?

Much has been written about whether this way of testing people’s skills and abilities really works. Much has also been written about the stress associated with exams and its effect on mental health.

Given that exams will probably continue to be part of our educational system, let’s look at how we can manage them.

It’s worth noting first of all that some stress is helpful. If you think of stress as a bell curve, as the curve rises up one side the stress, which we call Eustress, is at levels that feel motivating…you’re under pressure, you’re buzzing, you’re driving forward, getting the work done.

Think of the people who tell you that they work ‘best under pressure’. Think of those nights when you had to race to complete an assignment for the next morning, which focused your mind until you collapsed into bed feeling satisfied with yourself.

This works for some people, some of the time, but it’s not an approach you can sustain, especially during exam time. Trying to cram everything in the night before is likely to lead to lack of sleep and increasing stress. As you hit the top of the bell curve, you’re probably still coping, but one small additional stressor or the exam season can tip you over into the downward side of the curve, into dis-stress.

While everyone is unique in their response to stress, some of the common signs that you may be starting to struggle are:

  • Feeling irritable, nervous, anxious, or tired.
  • Struggling to concentrate, or to sleep.
  • Feeling hopeless.
  • Relationships deteriorating.
  • Withdrawing from your day-to-day life.
  • Physical signs, such as headaches, stomach cramps, and elevated pulse.

No matter what stage of your life and studying you’re at, finding ways to manage the stress associated with being ‘tested’ can establish a set of skills and coping mechanisms that will be helpful throughout life.

The excellent piece on exam stress here on Factfindr written by a young person highlights several ways they find managing the inevitable stress of exams, including organisation and planning, breaks while studying, and a positive and supportive home environment.

On top of these, I would suggest that anyone preparing for, or engaged in writing exams, should try and incorporate the following into your life:

  • Take a break and get some exercise. Get out into the fresh (or cold) air and get your body moving. Make sure you are eating regularly and healthily.
  • Keep hydrated – it’s amazing how a glass of water can revive concentration.
  • Get enough sleep. Without a doubt, lack of sleep will eventually impact on your ability to study and write exams.
  • Avoid alcohol, drugs and too much caffeine…for obvious reasons.
  • Stay connected. This may be more difficult for some than others, but try to reach out to others around you in your residence, your school, your friendship group, your family. Feeling connected, even just to one person, can alleviate stress. Having someone to talk to can make a huge difference. If you feel isolated…see the suggestion under SHOUT below.
  • Plan your exam preparation ahead of time. Feeling prepared can help you to actually engage in the exam process and help to reduce stress. You could relate this to the saying: ‘Work smarter, not harder’.
  • Be aware of your thoughts and how they can affect how you feel and behave. Your thoughts can have a positive or negative impact on your stress levels.
  • Be kind to yourself.

In addition…

The NHS recommends a number of stress-busting apps that can support you during exam periods if you’re feeling anxious, fearful, depressed, having unhelpful thoughts, or struggling to sleep.

https://www.nhs.uk/apps-library/category/mental-health/

They also have a list of 10 Stress Busters, suggested by Professor Cary Cooper.

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/reduce-stress/

Universities, colleges and schools have student support services which should be advertised on their websites. Seek information and help from professionals if necessary.

If you feel that your stress levels around exam times are rising to crisis levels, you can text SHOUT to 85258 to have a conversation with a trained and clinically supervised Crisis Volunteer, anytime, 24/7. They will help you de-escalate from a ‘hot moment to a cool calm’ so you can get back to your exam preparation and have a peaceful night’s sleep.