It’s the time of the year we all dread. For some of us, this will be our first attempt at university exams, for others our last. But no matter where we are in our academic journey, we are all stressed out. Exam anxiety is, unfortunately, a normal part of university life and it hits some of us harder than others.
My own battle with exam anxiety has been tough. Or rather, it still is. In the run-up to exams I lose sleep, skip breakfast and often miss out on the first 20 minutes of the paper. That’s not too bad if the exam is three hours long – I can catch up. But, as those of you who do shorthand might know, losing 20 minutes on a 35-minute paper is a problem. I’d sat the 60 words per minute exam three times and failed every time. I knew something had to change, so I attended one of the student wellbeing centre drop-ins. They gave me plenty of stress reduction advice and with their help, I managed to finally nail the exam. Here’s some of their advice – hopefully, you too can get the grade you deserve.
Before the exam, it’s all about eating and sleeping right. A healthy body and a rested mind go a long way in helping to stay calm. When we don’t eat right we feel ill, and when we don’t sleep we feel on edge. Those aren’t helpful places to be, especially when you’re already anxious about the big day. As for revision, the most common mistake I and many others make is cramming too much in instead of breaking it up into bite-sized chunks. 24/7 revision not only stresses you out more but doesn’t serve to help you either. Sometimes the more you do the less you take in. If you break it up into manageable chunks, you can not only find time to relax but also make the revision you do more efficient.
One of the biggest causes of exam stress is the apprehension about what could be on the paper. The truth is that, more often than not, the exams you are about to take are very similar to the ones from last year. By studying past papers, you can rehearse and plan your answers before the exam itself. When you sit down on the day, you can do so confident that nothing on the other side of that sheet will surprise you.
On the eve of the exam, wind down. While many people would keep cramming at this point, it’s much better to take things slow and relax. Have a walk, go to the gym, play Xbox – whatever makes you feel calm. For me, this is about the time I begin to feel sick with worry, and that puts me off my dinner. But, it’s so important to eat or else our brains can’t function properly. For those of us with weak stomachs, I recommend toast. Dry grainy foods are much easier to keep down than rich or greasy dinners. It’s also best to double-check the time of your exam, its location and prepare your bag with whatever supplies you need the evening before.
The morning of the exam is very much like the night before. Continue taking things slow and don’t take long looking at your notes. Before the exam make sure that you’ve eaten, drunk plenty of water and been to the bathroom. That’s the easy part. If you’re like me, once you’re in the exam the real dread begins to creep in.
Before starting, take deep breaths and read the instructions carefully. It’s always good advice to read every question twice, but this is especially important if you’re stressed. Being stressed can lead us to make silly mistakes, and not reading something properly is an easy way to lose marks.
If you stress most at the start of the exam, it might be worth using that time to plan your answer or write down key notes from your revision. Jumping straight in might not help. I like to write a plan and give myself a chance to get in the zone. Remember that you can go to the bathroom during exams. If things get too much ask an invigilator if you can go to the toilet. Wash your face, take a second to compose yourself and then head back in.