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Managing exam stress

What's the greatest problem you face with exams? Is it learning the subject, or is it the faceless examiner? No, your worst enemy is exam stress. It is stress that eats away your energy and morale and makes you ineffective.

With all that revision to do in a limited time, exam stress is inevitable and you are sure to experience it at some point during the long summer examination season. So, if a certain amount of stress is inevitable then it's vital you understand stress, anticipate it, manage it, and overcome it.

Begin your stress management with a pre-emptive strike. Before the exams get too close, plan how your revision is going to work. Construct a revision timetable that's practical – allotting sufficient time to each subject, building in some extra time for unexpected blips and including time for breaks, etc. – and then stick to it: you'll remove from the equation the stress associated with running out of revision time.

Check out our advice articles on revision for more detail: planning the campaign, making the best of a revision session, and making revision active. All are full of ideas to make revision easier and more effective.

And do give time to practicing exam questions. That's nobody's idea of a relaxing activity but knowing what to expect and knowing you've plenty of experience are the surest way to avoid that terrible mind-gone-blank feeling which is the ultimate in exam stress.

Remember that stress is a product of both body and mind and, as such, effective stress management should address both your mental and physical wellbeing. If you are going to be able to achieve peak exam condition then creating a healthy-stress-free environment for your body and mind is a sensible idea and the sooner you do this the lower those levels of exam  stress will fall.

With this in mind

  • don't underestimate the positive impact of keeping your workspace tidy, so you can lay your hands on everything you need,
  • eat properly (yes, keep the junk food to a minimum and, no, don’t try to live on caffeine), make sure you schedule allows lots of breaks,
  • exercise regularly
  • get sufficient sleep to ensure that you are well rested.

Keeping a healthy sense of perspective will help you cope with exam-related stress. Failure would not mean the end of the world, exams are not there to catch you out, the odds are generally in your favour and everyone, yes you included, is capable of remembering a lot of information even if it does not always feel that way.

Ultimately your exams are all about you – what you want, how you work, how you perform. That said, there are quite a few people with an interest in how you get on, and who can’t stop themselves trying to get involved. Your parents, teachers and friends may all, unintentionally, add to your stress so it’s absolutely vital to remember that they are on your side, and to work with them rather than just viewing them as another source of stress.

The trick is to acknowledge the strengths they can bring to the table – for example, let your parents know what you are doing, show them your revision timetable and get them to help you stick to it in exchange for not nagging when you're on a planned break. Talk to them when stress suddenly hits you. They'll appreciate better what you're going through, and may even surprise you with helpful ideas.

Teachers are similar to your parents in wanting to get the best out of you, but they also know more than your parents about the exams you are taking and the work you are doing. So, talk to them when the going gets tough, let them give you the advice they have been giving exam candidates every summer, be sure to ask them for help and do hang on to their every word when it comes to revision and exam-related tips. If anyone has been there, read the book and worn the T-shirt, it’s them

Friends, too, can be a very good source of support and some people find that studying with a friend helps. In general, though, it can actually be quite stressful working to someone else’s agenda, so be careful. The best thing to do when you are with your friends might well be to avoid the subject of exams altogether. The chances are that you will be with them when you are on a revision break anyway so the last thing you will want to be reminded of is how difficult it is to memorise the periodic table of elements, the various subjunctive moods in a particular modern language or the dates of all the key battles in the Second World War.

And, of course, do avoid discussing an exam you have just taken with your friends because if one thing is guaranteed to reignite stress levels after one exam and in advance of the next it is the exam post-mortem when you either hear joyful recollections of how easy that exam was (when you found it quite challenging to say the least) or how awful it was because the answer your friend wrote to a particular question was “totally rubbish” but was also, lo and behold, almost exactly word-for-word what you yourself wrote.

And perhaps a little pre-exam stress and anxiety is there to be embraced and maybe it can be as big a help to your motivation as a hindrance. In fact, perhaps stress is the most normal thing of all when it comes to exams, so why try to run away from it? Instead, tackle it head on, keep your priorities simple and it should be at worst bearable and at best powerless.

In short, keep healthy, keep everything in perspective, keep focused, keep practising before the exams, keep asking for help and, no matter what, keep calm!

This article on managing exam stress was written by Mario Di Clemente, Principal of CATS College London

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