‘Breathe, pause, and take a sip’: How I handle exam stress

30 Apr 2019
By Alice H., Student at University of London

I get majorly stressed before exams, a little panicky during them, and then feel completely fine afterwards. And one of the most important bits of advice I got was to accept that I will feel this way and to learn what I can do to control the panic as best as I can, even if I can’t get rid of it completely.

Do you feel some of this too?

Here’s how I’ve learned to cope with exam stress over the years. I hope you find something that helps you.

Before exams

1. Stick to a routine

A healthy daily routine of exercise, hydration, good food and sleep, as well as making a revision timetable, stops me from switching off into ‘official holiday mode’. Knowing in advance what I’m doing every day makes my holidays more efficient and, in turn, me less stressed.

It can be a difficult thing to actually do, and I certainly find it hard to keep a routine during the holidays, but following a routine for a few days definitely lowers my stress levels.

2. Take regular breaks from revision

My university has drilled into us that this is not a holiday, this is a revision period. And to some extent, this is true. But in order to revise to the best of my ability, I need to take breaks and truly relax after a hard-working school term (after all, I’m only human).

So I don’t overload my revision timetable with unrealistic goals because I’ll only feel stressed and disappointed if I haven’t completed everything by the end of the day. In my regular breaks, I do what makes me feel relaxed - sometimes it’s reading a book (one that has nothing to do with what I’m revising), watching TV, or just simply listening to the Mamma Mia soundtrack.

During exams

1. Arrive at university early

This gives me time to relax and prepare myself mentally. I have time to go to the toilet and maybe find a quiet spot close to the exam room. Sometimes I plug my headphones in to block out all of the other noise around me. I go over topics last minute with my friends, checking that I know all of the material. But deep down I know my lecturers are right: if I do not know the material 10 minutes before the exam, I probably will not know it during the exam.

All I can do in the short time period before the exam is to try my best to relax and focus on what I definitely do know, and to stop thinking about what I don’t know (it is impossible to know everything that is on a subject syllabus).

2. A water bottle is a must

When I get more stressed and panicked than usual, my throat gets drier. Taking a sip of water can be a great way to pause and rethink during the exam, especially for a difficult question. Of course, I don’t want to drink too much in the exam room, so I don’t fill my water bottle up all of the way.

3. Only look at the clock and the paper

It can be very tempting to have a peek at everyone else to see how far they are in their papers and to know if I’m behind or not. But I remind myself that it doesn’t matter if the person next to me has written two pages in 10 minutes while I’ve only written half a page.

Every student has different writing speeds and, therefore, will write different amounts. The main thing I try to do is to be specific in answering the question that is being asked, rather than writing heaps of general background information.

And if I do start to worry? Then I tell myself these words:

‘Okay, it is okay, I don’t understand this question but I am going to breathe and pause as I have time. This is okay, I am going to read this question slowly and not rush it. I still do not understand what is being asked but I am not going to panic; I am simply going to drink some water and breathe.’

After exams

1. Enjoy and relax

I try my best to not think about what I could have put for that one question on the third page of the paper that could have gained me extra points. I may not be able to completely rid my mind of the ‘what if’ questions, but I can at least distract myself by doing fun and relaxing activities on my well-deserved break.

On exam results day, you may not receive the results that you have been dreaming of since starting your GCSEs and A-Levels, and this can be quite disheartening when you feel as if you have worked your hardest. You are allowed to feel sad and let your feelings out. The main thing to remember is that you worked your hardest - and that’s what really matters.

Read next: Meditation: How just 5 minutes left me relaxed and peaceful

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My interests include reading (‘Harry Potter’); I obviously watch Netflix and am currently binge-watching ‘Gilmore Girls’ (somehow watching Lorelai drink so much coffee at ‘Lukes' while he grills her about how unhealthy it is, has really increased my intake). The Big Bang Theory + FRIENDS are also good contenders in the TV Shows that I watch. I also enjoy writing, this is normally non-fiction; however, I am now attempting to write something that is fiction.