How to knock exam stress on the head and stay calm, focused and prepared
Pressure to succeed in exams can feel overwhelming, and a manageable amount of stress is a normal, healthy response.
If you succumb to these feelings and let them get on top of you though, they may negatively impact on your studies and exam performance.
The good news is that you can beat anxious thoughts and feelings by arming yourself with the right tools to manage them.
Here's TSR's definitive guide to dealing with exam stress, with plenty of advice from educational psychology academics and students.
1. Am I stressed? How to tell
You could be showing signs of stress if you're:
- Feeling more tired than usual
- Struggling to focus and feeling overwhelmed
- Experiencing disorganised thinking and forgetfulness
- Having negative thoughts about your exams and ability
- Feeling teary and more emotional than usual
- Feeling distressed or uneasy
- Struggling to sleep or stay asleep throughout the night
- Waking up from sleep and feeling exhausted
- Suffering from regular stomach upsets
- Losing your appetite
- Feeling run down
- Feeling sick and shaky, with a very fast heart rate.
Everyone is likely to feel some of these symptoms before an exam, but, really, what makes the experience different from normal nerves is how someone feels about it. If the symptoms feel manageable and are not disrupting your exams, or your exam preparation, or your life in general then they are likely to be normal, and nothing to worry about.
– Kevin Woods, professor of educational and child psychology, University of Manchester
2. Planning a healthy revision schedule
A routine is so important, and daily activities or hobbies shouldn't be ignored just because it's revision or exam season.
If you're a gym bunny, love to run regularly or enjoy playing a sport, keep it up. Exercise releases happy hormones and will do a lot to keep you feeling grounded. Although it won't make you completely stress-free, getting sweaty will help detox the emotional intensity you may be feeling, and it'll give your brain a reboot with a much-needed break too.
Likewise, if have a creative hobby like painting, sewing or drawing, keep going. These kinds of activities will help you to zone out, giving the body and mind a much needed rest.
Create a solid revision plan and work through it, paying attention to your smaller study goals. Spend time working through past papers and prepare yourself as best you can, then give it your best shot on the day.
Only you can decide how much revision to do, but many students find 15 to 20 hours a week is a sensible amount of time to study for A-levels. Identify the revision methods that work best for you and find an effective way to manage your time such as the Pomodoro Technique.
Relaxation and entertainment are equally important as studying so it is vital that you have at least one to two hours daily for leisure activities, such as sports, reading fiction, listening to music and hanging out with friends, to prevent burnout.
3. Managing stress with positive thinking
If you know that you are likely to experience anxiety and exam stress, then you can be proactive in how you look after yourself in these situations.
Simple psychological techniques, like visualisation, mindfulness and positive thinking, can help you deal with stress.
Take some time before exam season to learn about relaxation techniques, or seek out support services. If you already have strategies for minimising or reducing your stress, put them into practice before you start to feel too stressed.
Remember not to compare yourself to others. Talking to other students about exam and revision can be helpful, but if it makes you worry that others are doing better or are further on with their revision than you, limit it or turn it into something positive.
If you have a friend who’s doing especially well, ask them how they are managing that. Do they have specific ways of revising? How do they balance school, revision and relaxing? Is there any advice you can take from their experience?
Try to regulate any physical symptoms you might have with things such as ‘four-square breathing’: This is when you purposefully, and slowly, breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold empty for a count of four, and then repeat. Focus on the feeling of the air leaving and entering your lungs, try to fill your whole lungs, right down to your abdomen. Intentional, deep breathing can calm and regulate your automatic nervous system.
Some people find visualisation helpful – this involves actively imagining scenes that are relaxing and tranquil for you. The scene you imagine doesn’t have to be real. What is most important is how the scene makes you feel. The more senses you include, the more powerful it will be. If you imagine yourself walking through a forest, notice the sounds of birds singing, the light through the leaves, the smells of the earth and leaves, the feel of the breeze on your skin.
– Kevin Woods
If we remember that stress is a physiological response to a situation or event, then to some extent we can control this reaction with our thinking and behaviours. If you’re feeling stressed it can be helpful to put that feeling into its context and perspective – “I am feeling this because this exam is important, not because I am unable to cope.” By turning stress from a purely negative feeling into one of motivation, we can change our outlook.
Everybody's experience of exams is individual. You are not in direct competition with others and your experience is totally separate to theirs. You might need more or less revision than your friend, and you might be aiming for different grades.
– Tamsin McCaldin, doctoral researcher in educational psychology, University of Manchester
Remember to go in with a positive attitude and believe in yourself... life doesn’t end at the end of the test.
4. Talking it out
Talking to people when you feel stressed or under pressure really helps. By explaining what you’re feeling to someone else, you can think things through more clearly for yourself and understand what you’re feeling and why.
Spoken out loud, the things that are causing you stress and pressure often seem much less scary than when they’re just in your head.
The person you’re talking to, whether they're a friend, family member or teacher, might also be able to give you tips and advice that will help you deal with what you’re feeling.
Deciding who to talk to can be a difficult step. It needs to be someone you trust, and you need to feel comfortable talking to them about the way you’re feeling. Sometimes a friend is a useful person to talk to but sometimes they will be too close to the situation and may be feeling stress and pressure themselves. You might consider talking to someone in school such as your form tutor, head of year, or a pastoral leader.
There are also organisations and services outside of your school you can go to for support. These are different in different locations, so you might need to look them up. Talking doesn’t need to be in person. It’s possible to find someone to talk to online. For example, Childline has a one-to-one online chat service that puts you in touch with a counsellor through their website, and they’re knowledgeable in all things stress and anxiety.
– Tamsin McCaldin
5. Looking after yourself
There are three vital things your body needs to keep well: healthy food, plenty of water and good-quality sleep.
The NHS states the recommended daily amount of water is 1.6 litres for women and two litres for men. Obviously, everyone's different, so you may find you want to drink more than this.
Making sure you stay hydrated is important – upping your fluid intake improves brain function and also helps distribute nutrients around your body whilst removing anything you don't need.
It's important to nourish your body with lots of healthy grub. Make sure you fuel your body and mind with lots of vegetables, fruits and nuts, and keep to a balanced diet of three meals a day – an empty, rumbling stomach will make it incredibly hard to concentrate!
Try and eat as naturally as possible and stay away from refined sugars found in sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolate. They might tempt you in by giving you a boost initially, but very quickly you'll fall into a sleepy, demotivated slump.
Sleep is so important; it's your body's healing time, when the cells repair and your brain detoxes the millions of thoughts racing through your mind during the day.
If you find you've started dreaming a lot, it's probably because there's been a lot playing on your mind during the day. If you can identify what these things are, write them down before going to bed. By acknowledging what they are, it'll allow you to sleep a lot more soundly.
Try to keep to the same sleep pattern that you maintained prior to exams too. To help you get into that sleepy zone, give yourself 30 minutes to wind down without the TV on or your phone in your hand. Pick up a book instead, and switch the light off as soon as those eyelids start to droop.
For more advice on how to take care of your mental health, read our guides to 10 things you can do now to instantly improve your mental health, Looking after your mental health at university and Simple tips on keeping sane at university.
It’s important to know what helps you and what makes you more stressed. Look back at other times when you have been feeling stressed, or overwhelmed, and think about what helped you then. You are the one person who knows you best.
It might be that you can help unwind and relax through exercise, whether that’s just a walk to the shops, or a more intense workout at the gym. Or, perhaps you are more likely to relax with a book and a warm drink, or by playing video games.
Getting enough sleep is good for everyone, even those who aren’t feeling stressed, so do try and make time for that. By getting enough sleep you’ll also be helping yourself to perform your best in your exams. The same goes for having a balanced diet – plenty of fruit and vegetables and fluids – and getting all the right nutrition to allow your body to function well.
– Kevin Woods
Preparing for an exam is more than just revising. You've got to get enough rest and make sure that you drink enough water and are eating properly. Revision is only half the preparation.
6. The night before an exam
Keeping a clear head, relaxing and taking care of yourself will all help to reduce your stress levels the day and night before an exam.
Do something you enjoy, like watching a film, reading a book or going for a walk. Get some physical exercise to help tire you out, and make sure you get a good night's sleep.
Checklist of things to do before you go to bed:
Light revision – go over important points and test yourself
Remember everything you need for your exam, such as ID and pens
Eat a nutritious dinner
Get your pencil case and clothes ready so you're not rushing in the morning.
Set your alarm, or multiple alarms if necessary
Use meditation and positive thinking to feel calm and relaxed
Read a book and avoid screentime just before bed
I think you definitely need to revise the night before. After, of course, revising the days before that. I think it's great for getting those points stuck in your head before you go to sleep so you can wake up ready. However, I don't recommend staying up all night revising because you need your sleep.
I always use the night before to make an A4 sheet (folded into a little booklet) of all of the points for the exams that I find the hardest but making sure it is brief and concise. Then once I know these, I always feel really assured for the actual exam.
But the night before is definitely a no-no for learning new content. Trying to do that stresses you out even more.
7. Handling the morning of an exam
Again, your morning routine before an exam comes down to personal preference. Some people like to do last-minute revision, while others prefer not to.
Find what works for you, but most importantly relax and think positively.
Checklist of things to do on the morning of your exam:
Get up nice and early
Last-minute revision – go over important points again
Remember everything you need for your exam, such as ID and pens
Eat a healthy breakfast that will keep you full and focused
Drink water, but not too much so you're needing the toilet frequently!
Use breathing techniques and positive thinking to feel calm and relaxed
Here's a more detailed list of things to do just before an exam.
Personally, I have to wake up early the morning of the exam because it just helps me feel more focused than if I just leave it. So, if I were you, I would go to bed at 9pm, latest 9.30pm and try and get up for 5 or 6am but not earlier than this. It is important to get enough sleep or your brain wont function properly and you will make silly mistakes in the exam.
In terms of food, eat something healthy like fruits or a good cereal with a banana but nothing too heavy. Don't go down the energy drink route as the energy only lasts about an hour and after that, you will immediately feel tired.
8. Stress-free exam technique
In an exam, use time management to making the most of your available time so you don’t get stressed, and try to leave several minutes at the end for checking over your script.
For essay-based exams, spend a minute planning your structure and main points. If you don't know how to answer a question immediately, you can always come back to it at the end of the exam. Read the questions properly.
If you feel an exam went badly, it's important not to obsess over it. It isn't the end of the world, and you can resit it if necessary.
Make sure you can see the question you're answering while you're writing. It's easy to go off topic if the essay question is buried under the extract you've just finished analysing, or it's hidden below your pencil case.
Try to reason with yourself. Remind yourself that what you are feeling – nerves, stress, anxiety – is a normal response to the situation. It is your body’s way of trying to help you do your best. Everybody doing any kind of exam feels some level of the emotion. It is not a bad thing in itself, and it doesn’t have to get in the way of you performing the way you want to during the exam.
– Tamsin McCaldin
9. Keeping calm in the exam hall
Doctoral researcher Tamsin McCuldin says that it's unusual for people to experience panic attacks in exams but sometimes this does occur, just as in other stressful situations.
She recommends talking to your school about your anxiety and panic attacks, as they can apply to exam boards for adjustments, called access arrangementsm like supervised rest breaks, alternative site arrangements (taking your exam in a different location) or separate invigilation (sitting your exam in a different room in the school).
Whether you're concerned about having a panic attack in an exam or not, calming techniques are useful for everyone. Take deep breaths, keep your feet grounded and relax any parts of your body that feel tense.
Here are some more tips everyone can use to stay calm during an exam.
The school, exam officer and invigilators should know.
If it happens you should have an emergency routine to try and calm yourself, such as deep breathing, meditation or relaxation technique. You should have prepared for this.
Each minute in panic will be marks lost, so try and remain focused on chasing marks in the exam and do not let your mind wander.
If you have an attack and you are unable to relax, then let the invigilator know. They may take you out. You need to know if they will let you re-enter the exam.
If you know what to do then you can hopefully control or minimise it if it happens.
In the weeks before the exam, get yourself organised and plan how and when you are going to revise. Don’t forget to give yourself time to relax.
In the days before the exam, come up with a strategy, make sure you’ve spoken to your teachers about the format of the exams (How long is it? How many questions?) Ask your teachers which room your exam will be in and ask to visit the exam room so you know what it will look like. Where will you be expected to sit? You can start to visualise yourself being sat in that place, in that room and being calm.
If the worst happens and you do experience a panic attack in the exam hall, you’ll need to take some time to get yourself back in the right frame of mind. Stop what you are doing and either shut your eyes, or leave the room temporarily if you have to.
Practise deep breathing to bring your anxiety levels back down and try to think positively, even if this exam is a difficult one. Once you calm yourself down you will be in a better position to answer the questions. Remember: doing the best you can on the day is all that you can expect of yourself.
– Tamsin McCaldin
10. Killing procrastination – how to stop wasting time
Procrastination can be an extra source of stress when you put your revision off for so long you're no longer on track.
When you wake each day, ease yourself into the day by having a relaxed morning, or even try a couple of minutes of meditation. Sit somewhere quiet, place your hand on your heart and begin to breathe deeply. Focusing on your breath and heart is a powerful tool, and doing this regularly will help you begin your day with energy, mental clarity and balanced emotions.
Before you start your revision for the day, set yourself a study goal to work towards in that session. Jot down something that can be broken into smaller, more manageable tasks, and you'll be much more likely to stay relaxed and focused on what you need to complete.
Simple tips to remember when you notice you’re procrastinating:
Remember what inspires and motivates you
Change your environment
Break your revision into manageable chunks
Promise yourself a little reward for achieving your study goals for the day
Stop trying to be perfect, and just start.
For more tips on beating procrastination, take a look at 18 procrastination-busting ways to stop stalling your revision and five ways to stop procrastinating right now.
Think about all of the stress procrastination gets you into. Everyone has procrastinated at some point in their life. For students it is more than once. Look back to the moments you have procrastinated and all of the stress it got you in. How anxious you felt, how stressed you were and how you were desperately wishing you could turn back time and done it earlier.
Look back to a moment when you got a really good grade on a test or exam. Think about how happy you felt and how proud you were. Beating the know-it-all arrogant kid who thinks they're smarter than everybody else or proving the people who viewed you as dumb wrong.
11. Further support
If your stress becomes overwhelming to the point where it is completely unmanageable, talking to someone you trust in your school can be helpful. Your school or college might have a student support service you can turn to, or perhaps you feel most comfortable talking to your form tutor or head of year. Who you talk to initially is perhaps less important than choosing to talk to someone you feel comfortable with.
For students who may have been disadvantaged, for example due to illness, during an exam, you may be eligible for special consideration. This is a process exam boards use to make allowances for unavoidable circumstances, and can result in a post-exam adjustment to your mark. Your school or college would need to apply for this.
There are lots of places you can turn to for advice on stress and anxiety online and over the phone:
Anxiety UK: anxietyuk.org.uk
Samaritans: samaritans.org or 116 123
Big White Wall: bigwhitewall.com
Stress busting: stressbusting.co.uk
Be Mindful: bemindful.co.uk
Childline: https://www.childline.org.uk or 0800 1111
While some stress can be helpful, long-term or overwhelming stress can stop being helpful and instead start to get in the way of what we want to do and how we want to feel. This is when it becomes important to seek further help and advice.
Overwhelming long-term stress can result in anxiety, or other mental health conditions, so if you are worried that you are experiencing stress which is unmanageable then it might be time to seek medical advice.Things such as talking therapies, or medication, can be of use to different people depending on their level of need. To access most treatments, the first step is usually to talk to a doctor or nurse at your local health centre.
– Kevin Woods