I recently asked a number of students for their thoughts on good ways to minimise exam nerves, and I have put together some of the most common tips they gave me.
Overall, the most common advice was to use controlled breathing to ward off stress and panicky feelings. Spending 3 minutes breathing slowly in and out sends a powerful message to your brain to calm down and regain control.
Here is a summary of some great ideas:
In the final couple of weeks leading up to the exam
- Being prepared for the exam you are going to sit is an important way to avoid getting stressed about being under-prepared. The process of reducing exam nerves can start several weeks before you go anywhere near the exam room.
- Practice breathing deeply and slowly for 3 minutes at a time on a regular basis.
- Revise for 45 to 60 minutes at a time before taking a short break.
- ‘Little and often’ is better than trying to study for long sessions in one go.
- Turn your focus more and more to mock exams and past papers the closer to the date of your real exam you get.
- Make sure your diet and sleep are both regular and healthy.
- Relaxation apps like Headspace can be very useful.
- Have a ‘home team’ of friends and family who you can share your stresses with, and who can help take pressure off you for jobs like shopping or school runs.
- Don’t just study. Do other things like going to the gym and out for meals.
- Treat yourself when you hit key targets in your study plan.
The day before the exam
- Don’t try to learn anything new at this stage.
- Make sure you know where the exam venue is and how you are going to get there. Consider a ‘dry run’ if you haven’t been to the venue before.
- Prepare your ‘exam kit’ ie pens, calculator, bottled water, chewing gum.
- Get some exercise, some fresh air and some green space.
- Get to bed early and get a good night’s sleep. You really won’t improve your performance by staying up late trying to cram last-minute knowledge.
Immediately before the exam
- Plan to arrive at least an hour early in case of travel problems.
- Have a routine to calm you down and make things feel familiar. I used to sit in the same little café before each of my exams having beans on toast and fresh orange juice.
- Breathe deeply and slowly for 3 minutes if you start getting stressed.
- Visit the bathroom.
- Avoid comparing how much revision you have done with anyone else.
During the exam
- Breathe deeply and slowly before starting.
- Remind yourself that failing an exam really isn’t the end of the world, and that you will give it your best shot.
- Write down any equations or acronyms you have memorised that might be useful.
- Spend a few minutes looking through each of the questions.
- Start with questions that you feel most comfortable with. Leave harder ones until later.
- Take the time to read each question properly, clearly identifying what they want you to do. I think it is worth reading each requirement two or three times.
- Summarise the key points in the question on a sheet of paper.
- Breathe deeply and slowly if you find yourself panicking at any point.
- I used to ask to go the bathroom if I started getting overwhelmed. Even if I didn’t really need to go it gave me a few minutes to clear my head.
- Try to avoid second-guessing yourself and constantly changing your answers. Trust yourself that your first answers are likely to be good.
After the exam
- Don’t spend ages dissecting the exam and your answers; it’s done now so try to forget it.
- Relax and celebrate getting through it!