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Exam stress: 8 tips to cope with exam anxiety

Exam time is really not easy, so you won't be alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed by revision from time to time. But remember: you got this – and these stress-busting tips can hugely help.

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Credit: Dean Drobot (left), Rebecca Fondren Photo (right) - Shutterstock

Ah, that old familiar knot in your stomach that tells you exams are looming. While some people like to believe a bit of anxiety and pressure can be beneficial around exam time, science suggests otherwise.

When we're stressed, our brains release high levels of cortisol which can cloud the way we think and gets in the way of rational thoughts. Because of this, it's important to stay as cool, calm and collected as you can during the exam period.

Yes, easier said than done.

Follow the practical steps below to relieve exam stress and the awful symptoms. The tips will also improve your productivity, help absorb more information from revision notes, and increase your chances of absolutely smashing it in your exams.

How to reduce exam stress

Here are the best ways to manage your stress levels and stay calm before and during your exams:

  1. Prioritise your time when revising

    colourful calendar

    Credit: Chutima Chaochaiya - Shutterstock

    Prioritising your time, subjects and workload will help reduce your anxiety levels, as you'll be able to ensure that the really important stuff is covered – and at the right time.

    If you've got more than one exam to tackle, draw out a simple diagram with dates of each exam and how many topics need covering for each. This will give you a clear idea of how much time you need to dedicate to each exam topic and when you need to get started on your revision, so there won't be any nasty surprises.

    As you progress through your revision, tick off the topics that you've completed – this will give you a small sense of achievement, knowing that you've finished something and are making your way to the finish line.

  2. Make a revision timetable

    revision timetable

    Credit: Cmspic - Shutterstock

    This is pretty closely related to the tip above, but we can't emphasise enough how taking a bit of time to get yourself in order will make you feel more confident for these exams.

    As our step-by-step guide to becoming ridiculously organised rightly states, making a revision schedule and writing to-do lists each day will keep you super prepared and on track to getting everything done – and on time.

    Working out a daily routine and sticking to it is also good for the soul, as you'll feel a lot more in control of how your day pans out. Remember to factor in regular breaks (we recommend at least 10 minutes every hour and a half or so, if not more) as these will do you wonders.

    Keen on mastering the art of productivity further? Check out our guide to getting stuff done.

  3. Exercise and eat healthily

    woman jogging in sunset

    Sometimes the idea of exercising during times of high stress feels like the last thing you want to do, but we guarantee you will feel better afterwards. In fact, you could even have a bit more energy to do an hour more revision afterwards if you're feeling up to it.

    Exercise gets your blood flowing and your heart pumping. It's a proven stress-buster as it fills your brain with endorphins, which are basically happy hormones. So, once you stop working out, you can feel a lot more alert than you had been earlier.

    Give yourself that push to go out for a run, visit the gym, or even just head out for a brisk walk if you fancy a lighter form of exercise.

    Eating the right foods during stressful times is also absolutely crucial for mental health and wellbeing.

    We have an entire list of the best foods to eat during exam time. Not only have these snacks been proven to reduce stress, but they also increase brain power. Win-win.

  4. Take breaks from social media before exams

    social media icons on a phone

    Stepping away from social media during the exam period, as hard as it might be, will do wonders for your stress levels.

    Checking the latest updates on Instagram, Facebook and the like while revising is the worst type of procrastination possible, as we all know how quickly the time disappears when you're swiping through your social feeds.

    In addition to this, many of your friends will be in the same boat, so are likely to be talking a lot about how much they're studying (or not studying). This is likely to stress you out even more, or at least influence how much time you're spending revising.

    If you need a bit of help unchaining yourself from your phone, give the Hold app a go. Hold gives you real rewards (including Amazon vouchers, cinema tickets and free coffee) for simply avoiding the use of your phone.

    You get points every 20 minutes, meaning you can break up your revision periods with some well-earned rests (and well-needed – science says that revision is much less effective if you study for any longer than about 90 minutes straight).

  5. Put your worries into perspective

    finger frame over sun

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    This is perhaps easier said than done, but try not to give yourself such a hard time. You're doing your best and that's the best you can do! Keep your eye on the bigger picture, and remember that one "meh" result isn't the end of the world.

    Putting yourself under a lot of pressure can have a negative effect, and as much of a cliché as this is, worrying really doesn't solve anything.

    Being kind to yourself during periods of high anxiety is likely to give you a bit more motivation to work harder, so take a little time out from revision to pamper yourself and catch up with your nearest and dearest.

    If you fancy treating yourself (you deserve it!) have a look at our student deals page to see if there are any good discounts going so you can keep costs down.

    Listen to the Surviving Revision Hell episode of our podcast No More Beans for more tips and a bit of light relief.
  6. Cut out caffeine, alcohol and nicotine

    no smoking sign

    We know, we know, cutting out coffee during exam time seems like an impossible task. How are you ever going to stay awake long enough to memorise that 300-page textbook without your good friend caffeine to get you through? Or cigarettes to help you relax afterwards?

    Well, caffeine is a stimulant and will increase your stress levels rather than reduce them, and the same applies to nicotine. Avoid drinking more than one cup of coffee a day and cut the cigs if you can. And remember, less fags means more savings!

    If you can't cut them out completely, try to at least monitor your consumption. You could always try swapping the coffee for herbal tea or water, which will keep your body hydrated and allow you to cope better with stress. Plus, you can swap the ciggies for chewing gum.

    This might sound obvious, but try to avoid alcohol during exams periods too. Alcohol can act as a depressant when consumed in large quantities and as a stimulant when consumed in smaller quantities – neither of which is helpful as they can both send your stress levels through the roof.

    Cutting out all of these substances will also improve your sleep which, now more than ever, will help you massively.

  7. Do mock exams at home

    Jim Carrey Bruce Almighty typing fast

    Credit: Universal Pictures

    One of the most common reasons for feeling stressed ahead of exams is not being sure what to expect on the day, such as what questions you're likely to be asked, and how best to approach answering them. The best way to overcome this? Practice – and plenty of it.

    If you can, try to find examples of past exam questions for your course to get an idea of what topics have come up in previous years.

    Or, if there aren't any past exam questions available, think about what essay/assignment titles you've been set by lecturers throughout the year and think of other questions that are similar to these.

    It's particularly helpful to try tackling mock exam questions on topics you're less confident with so that you can prepare plans and practice answering them, in case they do come up in the exam.

    By practising how to approach your answers on a range of topics, including your most and least favourite ones, you can put yourself in a great position to show exam markers how much you know and ace even the hardest exam questions.

  8. Improve your exam time management

    red alarm clock

    Credit: samritk – Shutterstock

    It's also common for students to worry about time management in exams. If you're concerned about running out of time at the end and leaving questions unfinished, or rushing through questions and finishing the exam too early, practice, again, will massively help with this.

    When practising mock exam questions, be strict with yourself over timings so that you don't run over the amount you're allowed in the exam.

    In particular, use these practice exams to get yourself organised and work out how long you should leave yourself to plan answers in the exam, and how long you should be spending on each section of your answer.

    If, at first, you find yourself unable to finish your answers on time or you have way too much time left over at the end, keep practising until you really nail the timings.

    It's worth asking your lecturer to take a look through your practice answers to get an idea of areas that you could improve on, and to see if there are any parts of your argument you could develop further. Some teachers will be more willing to do this than others, but if you never ask, you'll never know.

    With all this practice, by the time you reach your exam, you'll be a pro with timings and have a great idea of what kinds of questions to expect on the day. Just in case you didn't believe us before, we hope you do now that you really have got this. 💪

Left your revision to the last minute? We've got you covered with our guide to revising in a day and acing it.

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