Exam stress

What is stress?

We all experience stress from time to time. This can happen when we have too much to do or if we feel that we are unable to cope. A certain amount of stress from time to time is inevitable, and in some cases a little bit of stress can help us to perform better (in exams, for example). But severe stress or stress which continues for a long time can feel extremely unpleasant, and in some cases can lead to health risks such as heart disease, migraines, anxiety and depression. Stress can be caused by life changes or events which we feel unable to control. Even happy events can cause stress if they bring big changes or require us to do things which we are not used to. Stressful events can be moving away from home; taking exams or problems with studying; health problems; bereavement; relationship problems.

Physical symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Pain
  • Sweating
  • Feeling tired all the time

Emotional symptoms

  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling tense or anxious
  • Low mood
  • Having negative thoughts about yourself

Cognitive symptoms

  • Going blank
  • Experiencing memory lapses
  • Negative thoughts

Coping with exams

Most people find exams stressful. While a certain amount of pressure can help us to perform well in exams, feeling really stressed isn’t going to help you to perform at your best. Make anxiety work for you and not against you. Take some time now to identify the root of your anxiety. Are you a generally anxious person? Are you inadequately prepared – not enough revision time, poor revision skills, scant knowledge of parts of the course because of illness, other absence or lack of effort earlier in the year? Have you had a bad experience in a previous test and think that this will happen again? Now, having some more idea of why you are anxious you can move on what to do about it.

How you can help yourself?

Start your revision early. Preparation can help. Being well prepared is the best way to reduce rational anxiety. Leaving revision to the last minute is an excellent recipe for stress. Take a look at your time management and basic study skills. You’ll feel much more confident about your exams if you have put the work in beforehand.

Organising your space. It might help to think about where you work. Try to separate out the places where you work from the places where you relax. Even if this all happens within one small room, you could create a ‘working place’ which contains your papers, books, etc. and everything you need for your work. Can you identify where you work best? If it helps, change work space during the day – your room, the college library, or working with a friend and then by yourself. You could experiment with moving all distractions out of your work area and putting these into your ‘relaxation areas’. Similarly, keep work out of the latter, so that when you are relaxing or sleeping your work does not intrude into this space.

Make a revision plan. Planning how you will use your time will help to reduce stress later on. List all the topics you want to revise and decide how much time to spend on each one. If there’s too much work to do in the time available, prioritise your study around the most important topics. If you have a choice of subjects, focus on the ones that you know best or you have the most information about. Think about what type of questions may be asked. Try to pull together concepts and ideas from all your sources (lectures, notes, primary and secondary texts, practical exercises, class discussions) and integrate these into a cohesive answer. Don’t panic if the work-load seems excessive, or your revision time or course work has been interrupted for some reason. Set realistic targets, learn core concepts and learn these well.

Take a break. A good revision plan will also include time to relax. It will help to reduce stress and will enable you to work more effectively. It’s not wasted time. Most people can only concentrate fully for about 45 minutes. If you’re studying for more than an hour without a break you’re less likely to retain new information. You can get some exercise as well. This is a great way to reduce exam stress. Exercise can reduce physical tension and will help you to feel more positive. Furthermore, sleep is essential to refresh your body and brain. Ease off studying an hour or 2 before bed -time.

Increase your motivation. Begin with easier/more interesting subjects. Plan rewards for yourself when you have achieved your goals. When you’ve achieved this, give yourself a reward. As you achieve your goals, gradually increase what you set out to do. (This approach can also be used as a technique to train yourself to concentrate more effectively.) Remind yourself why you have chosen to do these exams -if you do not want the qualification, you do not have to do them!

Change how you think about exams. Many people fear exams because they see them as of utmost importance. Exams are only part of your overall learning and assessment, and you will have other chances to show your knowledge and skills. Be realistic. If you set your target too high you may never reach it, and feel anxious and demoralised in the process. Try to avoid thinking of yourself in a negative light. “I’m not as good as my sister, flat-mate, boyfriend”. “My parents won’t like me if I fail”. “Yesterday’s exam was a nightmare, so today’s will be too”. “My life will be ruined if I don’t get a five”.

On the day of the exam, resist the temptation to do some last minute revision. Anything learned at this point will only cloud your mastery of the overall concepts of the course. Avoid other students who you know will be anxious. No need to add to your own stress. Take time to read the questions carefully and plan your answers. Writing everything you know about the topic without focusing on the question isn’t going to get you a good mark. If you do start to panic, close your eyes and take some deep, controlled breaths for a couple of minutes. Reward yourself after the exam, whatever the outcome. After all, you did the best you could. If things didn’t go well, move on. Plan ways of doing better next time.

After the examination. Try to avoid an exam post-mortem. If you’re meeting upb with someone and ‘have’ to talk about the exam, agree that you’ll only do so for five minutes. Get food or sleep, or do something physical, if you have a lot of adrenaline, such as going for a run or a swim.

"I’ve tried all of that & I am still anxious about exams”

Sometimes your anxiety is at a level that paralyses you and you are unable to put into practice all your good intentions. Seek help. The counsellors are here to help you find out why you are so anxious and what you can do about it. But see them in good time, preferably early in the academic year before the problem becomes entrenched, and certainly well before you begin any revision.


University of Nottingham Counselling Service – Guides and leaflets

Northumbria University Counselling and mental health support – Self-help

Durham University – Information Leaflets

University of Cambridge Counselling Service – Self-help