Exams cause peak stress events in students' lives, no matter if s/he is at the top of the class or struggling in a few subjects.
It's not that student life isn't stressful in and of itself. Besides the general anxiety that comes from competing in society - even one as self-contained as school, peer pressure can be crushing and non-conformance exacts a heavy toll, from bullying to rejection.
On top of those very real, everyday concerns, students are expected to at least keep up academically if not succeed - in every subject, no matter their aptitude or even if they have any interest in a given subject.
When seen from students' perspective, the pressure they learn under is crushing and then, we have to factor in exams: ACTs or SATs in the US; GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK and equivalent exams elsewhere in the world.
If these ordeals were only about closing out a chapter of one's life before moving on, they would not be such a big deal but UK students know that poor GCSE results can impact the rest of their lives, from the type of work they will do to how much money they could earn over their lifetime.
In the US and, indeed, everywhere in the world, things aren't so different. These days, you almost have to have at least an undergraduate degree to land even poorly-paid positions. Considering the devastating impact a poor exam showing can have on a student's life, it's no wonder kids stress and fret, even months before exam time.
There are several ways to minimise the negative aspects of exam anticipation and one surprising upside to all of that stress. Your Superprof now outlines tactics to help you confront your exams and walk away at least comfortable with your efforts.
Don’t Let Fear Take Root
For some students, exam time provokes anxiety and sometimes outright panic. Considering what's at stake - their entire future, who could blame them?
The remedy for anxiety: instead of fighting it, accept that the worst-case scenario could actually take place.
You might not do as well as you would like; you might even fail. Should a total failure be your result - that would be unlikely, it would not necessarily spell the end to your studies or hamper your future professional success.
Most schools and universities offer make-up tests and exams and other ways to boost your grades. They rarely only offer one chance to prove your worth as a dedicated, motivated student.
Once you get the fear of failure under control, focus on all the work you have done well and the good results you have already achieved. There is no reason to doubt that, if you continue to work as you have been, your results will reflect your laudable work.
Join the conversation: how would you cope with exam failure?
Learn Time Management Skills
Successful students aren’t necessarily those who spend the most hours swotting away; rather, they are are the ones who know how to balance their academic, social and family lives.
Time management means that, far from hiding from the world and spending all of your time and effort on your academic life - a common tactic desperate students employ as they cram for their exams, you can enjoy your friends, family, screen time and even leisurely walks if you enjoy them.
We'll talk about exercise as a part of your overall strategy for staying calm in just a bit.
To manage your time effectively, first, work out what you need to do. You should go into a bit of detail, listing your tasks as follows:
- How many exams will you take?
- Which subjects will you test in?
- Which subjects do you like?
- Which ones are less appealing?
- Which ones do you get good marks in (and which ones do you score poorly in)?
- How much weight does each subject have on your future career?
That last point is particularly relevant.
Let's say you intend to major in Journalism at university; maths skills would not be as important as English and Arts and Humanities subjects. Conversely, if you plan to become an astrophysicist, spending as much time reviewing musical theory and art history as you would on maths and physics would not serve you well.
Hammering these points out can be challenging so you might turn to your teachers, caregivers and friends to help you rank your study priorities.
Once you know what you need to get done, make a study schedule and stick to it. This way, you will achieve all your study goals throughout the year, and you will not have to cram when exam time comes along. As you plan your studies, don't forget to leave yourself some free time so you don't get burned out!
Studies show that taking charge of potentially stress-inducing situations is the best way to triumph over them. Such is true for everyone, not just for students.
In this way, at least, study stress is good; as you learn how to manage your time (and stress), you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of confidence, better health due to lower stress and more productivity.
Your turn to talk! Would you consider waiting for exam results a stressful time?
Take scheduled breaks
You should not study every evening and all day at the weekend; your scheduled study time should include study breaks. After all, even labour laws demand that workers be allowed breaks; why shouldn't you permit yourself any?
Just remember to time your breaks - don't let your phone, favourite TV programme or magazine distract you for too long. If need be, set a timer to signal the end of break time so you don't overstep your time limit.
Also, decide when these breaks should occur – after you finish reviewing each subject? Every hour on the hour?
Get more tips on how to beat procrastination today or tomorrow.
Exercise, Eat Right and Sleep Well
A feeling of well-being makes everything manageable. If you feel well, nothing will seem impossible, including devoting hours to your studies and flying through your exams.
Adopting a healthy diet, getting moderate exercise every day and sleeping between 7-9 hours each night is the recipe for physical and mental wellness so make sure that even on the busiest of weeks, you take the time to exercise for at least half an hour every day.
Exercise is a proven stress buster and it also works wonders for a host of conditions – everything from depression to anxiety. Go for a run, a brisk walk or a bike ride to clear your head and get your circulation going.
As for nutrition: during exam time, when the body is already undergoing physical and mental stress, you need to boost your immunity with plenty of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Adopting a healthy diet and enjoying fats, sweets and fizzy drinks only occasionally could have a revolutionary effect on your mood and your mental prowess.
Where sleeping is concerned, you should turn off your phone/pad/tablet at least 30 minutes before bedtime; avoiding the telly is also a good idea. Consider reading a book - not your notes!, having a cuppa and talking with your family. You may even consider meditation.
You might be surprised that exercising, wellness and meditation are among the top tips of waiting for exam results.
Start a Study Group
A new trend in education, called collaborative learning essentially boils down to students helping each other learn - by staying focused on the material at hand, by leading each other to understand what they're studying and by building a sense of community and responsibility.
You can start such an initiative by calling on classmates who, like you, are serious about improving their prospects for a pass on the exams. Try to gather a group of dedicated students who agree to meet at set times to share resources and revise together.
We're not saying to bypass your best mates; if you all can stick to the study schedule and not let sessions devolve into unbridled fun fests, by all means, bring on your besties but if you worry that their presence would distract you or they wouldn't study as arduously as you intend to, it would be best to give them a pass.
During these study sessions, brainstorming and discussion are acceptable but should be limited to your set break times; otherwise, the study group could end up as just another social get-together.
Summarising and Using Mind Maps
The most daunting thing about exams is having to learn, process and summarise reams of information so, as your group learns and reviews together, keeping a running summary of what's been gone over is an excellent plan.
Intelligent study is a concept that involves summarising information throughout the year so that, when exam time comes around, all you need to do is study your summaries and/or mind maps, which use visuals to help you retain information and connect ideas.
If you've come upon that idea too late in the school year to help with your exam review, building a mind map with your study group is the perfect way to make up for that lack.
Did you know that this is one of the top 9 ways to manage exam stress?
Using Past Exam Papers
Studying past exams gives you an idea of the structure your upcoming exam will take, which, in turn, helps you to plan how you will allocate precious minutes of test time to answer each part/question. Past papers may also provide insight into the types of questions and the difficulty of each.
Within your study group or on your own, you could take a past exam under exam-style conditions to see what type of marks you would earn; if your teacher has time and is willing to, s/he may mark it for you. This will enable you and those in your group to identify weaknesses in your study strategy.
Keeping Calm on Exam Day
All of these hacks should go a long way toward helping you keep calm in the run-up to your exams and on exam days themselves.
Indeed, except for the study group suggestion, all of these tips work just as well in life as they do for studying; making them lifelong habits will help you stay centred and sane no matter what life throws at you.
In closing, specifically for exam day, here are a few more tips for doing your best:
- Sleep early the night before the exam: You have been studying throughout the year, so there is no point in cramming the night before the exam. Besides, cramming isn't as helpful as you may think; it may even undo the careful preparations you made. So put your notes away and relax; get a good night’s sleep.
- Read the exam questions well: understand the question or risk losing points. How the questions are worded costs students almost as many points as not knowing the answers does. Also, make sure to allocate more time for longer tasks such as essay writing, and just a couple of minutes for multiple-choice questions.
- If you get stuck, move on: Sometimes, a question will cause you to draw a blank. If that happens, Don’t lose your nerve; move on to the rest of the test and tackle the difficult question(s) later. You will probably find that it will be much easier to answer after you have distanced yourself from it a little.
- In case of panic, breathe: Panic attacks cannot be defeated through sheer will; they are a physical response to a mental/emotional distress. If you feel panic coming on, take deep ‘belly breaths’ and get back to your exam as soon as you feel a little better. Breathing through a panic attack will lower your heart rate, keeping panic from taking the upper hand.
Finally, if you are unhappy with your results once they come in, you can talk them over with your teacher(s).
You would be surprised at how many times students ‘fail’ exams because points were not tallied correctly or because of some other error at the correction stage.
If you are disappointed with your results, ask your teacher to go over your answers with you. If it was marked correctly, ask if there is any way you can take a make-up exam or lift your grade some other way, like handing in an essay or completing a project.
Above all and no matter what: stay calm and put forth the effort you will be comfortable with - in your studies and on your exams. You might not get the marks you aimed for but knowing you've done all you can releases you from any guilt or shame you might have felt had you been less focused.
Now read about how to cope with failing your exams.