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Coping With Exam Anxiety


Normal levels of stress can help you work, think faster and more effectively, and improve your performance. If you find your anxiety overwhelming, your performance could be badly affected. Becoming aware of what causes your anxiety will help to reduce the stress. Then you can manage it better and do yourself justice. Most of us suffer from anxiety around exam time. It's normal. The anxiety can cause:

  • Patchy sleep and sleepless nights.
  • Irritability or short temper.
  • Stomach butterflies.
  • Poor appetite, or comfort eating snacking.
  • Tendency to drink more alcohol, or smoke more.

Causes of anxiety

Take some time now to identify what is causing the problem. Once you know what causes the stress you can start looking for solutions. Your anxiety may be linked to:

  • Being generally anxious, a bit of a worrier.
  • Being poorly prepared.
  • You've had a bad experience in a previous exam.
  • You're a perfectionist - anything less than an A grade is a failure.
  • You're not feeling well or you're on medication (check with your GP or the University Health Adviser).

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Anxiety reduction

The key to reducing anxiety is to make an early start with your revision. Six weeks should be enough for end of year exams, depending on how many you have, and where you are at in your studies. Take enough time to do yourself justice. Remember revision is just that - it's about seeing something again and refreshing your knowledge. It's not about new work. If you have worked at a steady pace throughout the year, revision will be relatively straightforward. If you have less than six weeks available to you be realistic about what you can do. For a start, you only need to know a limited amount, so consult with your tutors who will be able to identify core material. If you feel that stress is seriously going to affect your exams or make your life a misery in the run-up to exams do something about it now. Talk to a friend, a tutor or see one of us in the Counselling Service as soon as possible. Give yourself plenty of time to work out a solution.

1. Normal anxiety.

You're anxious before exams, and the stress increases as the big day approaches, but is actually manageable when you sit down to write your answers:

Plan your revision

    • Set aside plenty of time for revision.
    • Sift through your notes, essays and reports and focus on essential material.
    • Be active: restructure and condense your notes.
    • Plan answer outlines.
    • Rehearse questions you might expect in your exams. The Library and/or your Departments will have copies of previous exam papers.
    • Seek help and guidance from tutors if you don't understand something.
    • Don't sit reading for long periods! It quickly becomes boring and your concentration will start to wander.

Take proper breaks

    • Studying 24/7 will wreck you long before the actual exam.
    • Divide the day into three periods of 150 minutes each and revise for two of them. When you are not revising, get well away from your desk.
    • Plan one day a week to be completely free of revision. 
    • Break up your day with other activities. Domestic chores are really useful!
    • Keep up with some of your other activities.
    • Get the support of your friends, your family or your partner.
    • Be cool and keep to a healthy lifestyle.
    • Avoid any substances that promise limitless energy! There's usually a downside, and revision time is not a good time for experiments.
    • Exercise regularly! Find something you enjoy (swimming, jogging, walking or hiking etc.)
    • Yoga, tai chi, meditation or techniques for relaxing the mind and body are worth learning.
    • Your brain needs energy and also rest. Eat little and often.
    • Go for quality food, e.g. wholemeal bread, pasta, nuts, fruit and lots of vegetables.
    • Go for quality drinks, e.g. plenty of water and real fruit juice.
    • Make sure you wind down after your revision for a couple of hours before hitting the pillow.

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2. Panic the night before.

You're relaxed during the revision period. Panic sets in the night before, or on the day of the exam, but you can cope once you're in the exam room.

  • Learn in advance how to relax; then you will feel confident that if you panic, or your mind goes blank, you can regain control.
  • Try using humour to beat the negative thoughts (I'm definitely going to fail, I haven't the foggiest what this is all about). Watch a good movie, read a comic or magazine, or remember your favourite jokes.
  • Do your best to be well prepared (see previous section).
  • However anxious you feel, try to avoid working too close to the exam, like the night before or in the morning before. Take a walk, have a bath, talk to someone, go for a swim. Do something relaxing!
  • Eat something, even if you feel sick. Bread, crackers or cereals are good tummy settlers.
  • Make sure you know where and when the exam is. Try not to arrive at the exam hall too early, or too late. Seeing and talking to other anxious people will only raise your anxiety. Arriving late may also increase your anxiety!
  • Have everything ready to take with you. Does your calculator need a fresh battery?
  • Have some light reading to browse through while you are waiting to go into the exam room. Leave textbooks and notes at home!

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3. Panic during the exam.

  • You have just sat down in the exam hall and you feel your panic starting to develop.
  • Make yourself comfortable. Have you been to the toilet? Check that you are not too hot or too cold. Adjust your clothing. Take a few deep breaths and sighs to reduce tension. Sit with your eyes closed for a little while. Then and only then, turn over the exam paper.
  • Most people feel tense at this point. Whatever your state of preparation, your task now is to do your best.
  • Take your time to read through all the questions and instructions carefully. Do it at least twice, to make sure that you get a firm grasp of the questions.
  • Pick out the questions that relate well to your revision. Don't rush anything. Taking adequate time at this point will pay off handsomely. If you can't decide which questions to answer, pick out those you can answer and come back to the others later.
  • Plan your answers. This is really important! Five minutes spent on a plan and rough notes will help your thoughts to flow.
  • Do your best to ignore everyone else while you are at the planning state. Not easy, but it helps.
  • Do you want to answer the "difficult" or "easy" question first? Doing an easier one can boost your confidence and relax you. Tackling a more difficult one while you are still alert may be best for you.
  • Manage your time. Keep an eye on the time, so that you have enough time for your final answer. If you don't have enough time, make a skeleton answer in note form. At least you have put something down!
  • Look after yourself. Do you need a snack? Are you getting enough fresh air? Feeling cramped?
  • Avoid perfectionism. It's good to check spelling and punctuation, but no one is expecting posh prose!
  • If your panic gets worse: stop, put down your pen, and relax. Breathe slowly; close your eyes for a few moments. If it helps, put your head on the desk. Shake your arms. Move your head slowly from side to side to relieve tension. Say something positive and encouraging to yourself. Imagine yourself somewhere else (where you feel happy and relaxed).
  • If you feel unwell, ask the invigilator if you may leave the room for a short while. Taking a few deep breaths of fresh air or a drink of water may be just what you need to calm down.

Catherine McPhail
© 2003 The Counselling Service, The University of Dundee
reproduced with kind permission

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