Meeting someone who faces exams with a cold indifference is a rarity. Sure, you can tell apart people who personify ‘exam stress’ from the chilled out. Most of us, however, have experienced everything from clammy palms to the taste of prospective doom on our tongues with tests around the corner. And who can blame us? Good results open new doors and determine how we progress up the educational ladder. While exam results and self-worth should not correlate, in many people’s minds they are tightly entwined, given how much time, effort and thought is allocated towards preparing for test papers.
Admittedly, I’m hardly a stoic when an academic challenge is concerned, and the more I care about a subject or topic, the more my nerves are exacerbated. IB history exemplified this: history is my favourite discipline and upcoming university degree. In light of wanting to prove my competence as a historian (and the notorious difficulty of IB history exams), I poured plenty of sweat and tears into my preparation. The actual papers, in turn, felt like a cornerstone moment within a cornerstone set of exams. My nerves, like the proletariat, lost their chains and roamed all over the place.
Nonetheless, I’ve accumulated a set of tricks and principles that help me maintain a balance between composure and a healthy level of agitation both before and during exams. You should remember that a hint of adrenaline is both unavoidable and helpful when working under pressure. But allowing your nerves to go from pottering about to multiplying out of control and engulfing everything in their path a) damages your wellbeing and b) proves counterproductive. Many exam questions demand sound reasoning and composure, which is difficult to achieve in a state of paralysis, which is why you must take care to find tranquility in your rhythm.
So, what mindset changes can be made to remain calm before and during your exams?
Remember: the right mindset is your best asset in all aspects of life, in particular when pushed to your intellectual and creative limits.
There are a few ways to apply acceptance. Firstly, as mentioned above, accept that feeling nervous is natural, and the harder you resist panic, the further it spirals out of control. Tell yourself that a morsel of anxiety, while unavoidable, is not going to worsen your performance. Putting too much thought and effort into staying calm results in you worrying about the process of worrying as well as the exam – why not give yourself permission to worry about the latter, but not both?
Secondly, accept that your control over the whole process, while far-reaching, is not absolute. You control how well you prepare and the extent to which you understand the exam, but not other factors, such as the exact questions which will come up and the human factor involved in interpreting mark schemes. Once you’ve done all you can, from completing every past paper and checking over the syllabus multiple times, accept the inevitable and enter the hall with a mild nihilism in your heart. That way, the result is more likely to be a pleasant surprise.
Change your attitude towards education
Look at learning and exams from a different perspective. Do certain words carry negative connotations in your mind? If so, remove and replace. Change ‘studying’ to ‘the acquisition of knowledge’. Change ‘test’ to ‘conversation’. Instead of ‘this topic is too hard’, think ‘this intellectually stimulating content will satisfy my curiosity once I understand its nuances’. See an exam as a conversation, not an interrogation, because all you’re doing is using your knowledge to solve interesting problems and answer thought-provoking questions, that’s all. Sounds weird, but it works.
Remember that exams are supposed to be difficult (but should feel easier with enough preparation)
Exams are designed to challenge all students alike and see how far you can apply your knowledge. Sometimes (for example, when taking Oxbridge entrance exams), struggling can be a good sign because reading into the question and considering different perspectives fares harder than skimming the surface. Any question can be attempted by students who are familiar with the syllabus and/or the structure of the exam, but some seek to push our thinking a tiny bit further and should be approached in a calm, thoughtful manner.
Steps to take in the run-up to your exam/s to avert panic and engender tranquility
If there’s a secret to this, it all comes down to how much and how well you’ve prepared
Optimising your revision strategy and finding study techniques that work for you fuels a cycle: you study to avert panic and feel composed, which in turn reduces the stress associated with studying and increases the likelihood of peak performance. Asking people why they’re nervous for an exam, the response usually points to a particular topic or a general lack of preparation. Of course, the ‘smart kids’ who spend twelve hours a day in the library feel the same anxiety, mostly because of how much they’ve studied: they don’t want to disappoint themselves, or anyone else, or have their work amount to nothing.
There is, however, a difference between normal performance related-nerves and anticipation for questions the like of which you’ve never seen before. Reduce the chance of facing nasty surprises and start studying as early as possible, double-checking topics you don’t understand and adjusting your approach along the way if something isn’t working. A real advantage lies not with the people who pull consecutive all nighters a week before their exams, but with those who study consistently throughout the academic year. Going into the exam hall knowing you’ve done all you can is your best shield against panic and stress.
Do past papers and questions in exam conditions
Past papers and mock exams are your best friend, and increase in utility the closer you come to replicate actual exam settings, i.e., time constrains, no notes or resources, perhaps done in the room where the exam will take place. Different papers have different formats and question types. Knowing the content isn’t enough; examiner can’t see the full extent of your knowledge, just the parts you successfully apply, a skill which is achieved through the ‘practice makes perfect’ principle. Moreover, by subjecting yourself to the conditions beforehand, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory when faced with an actual exam and the more you do it, the more you’ll develop and exam routine that does not leave room for panic. (Some people pretend the real test is yet another practice to minimise stress, but be careful not to carry this to the extent that you slack or become mindless of time!)
Maintain a sense of balance in your life and find activities to combat stress
Many people equate breaks to procrastination and stress out over a few minutes of downtime, without understanding that procrastination and breaks which are intentionally factored into your schedule are two different things. The former is intractable and interferes with your productivity. The latter has a revitalising effect and substantiates your ability to get more done within a given amount of time. In the run-up to exams, of course, temporary sacrifices must be made to avert futile attempts at trying to squeeze everything around your studies. You may have to scale back social occasions or blogging. However, investing a sensible amount of time in your hobbies and wellbeing is needed for good mental health and efficiency in the long run. Put shortly, trying to work past the point when new information stops ‘going in’ (which vary from person to person) wastes time and burns you out. The result? Increased stress and self-doubt.
During breaks from any type of work, we have a tendency to reach for our smartphones. This leaves our brains overstimulated and stuffed with needless information at a time when they should be recharging. Certain activities deliver little value or satisfaction – be mindful with the ones you choose. Go for long walks and allow your mind to roam. Release your stress during a tough gym session. Spend a few valuable hours with your family or meet a friend for coffee, talking as little or as much as you want about the upcoming exams if they are in the same boat.
Last minute revision? Short answer: do what works best for you.
My feelings about ‘cramming’ are ambivalent. I don’t quite know if ‘cramming’ is the right word, because last-minute revision should be a last minute confidence booster, not an attempt to fill gaps in your knowledge and learn new information. Some people, who have faith in themselves and find cramming mentally detrimental, stop revising the night before an exam. Others won’t part with their notes and flashcards until forced to by the invigilator. As someone who falls somewhere in between, I use those final hours to reassure myself that I’ve done everything within my power to meet my targets – searching for distractions simply furthers my stress. Ultimately, listen to your intuition: study until the last minute if in need of reassurance, but if you deem it needless, occupy yourself with something else.
Visualise yourself doing well in the exam
Visualisation is a key aspect of success, delivering a boost of confidence and a reminder of what it feels like to meet, or even exceed your own expectations. A few days before your exam/s, picture yourself sitting down, staying calm and doing your absolute best. There’s a cultural temptation to make self-deprecating jokes and denounce exams, but going with this type of current will not reinforce your self-belief: with sufficient preparation and the right attitude, anyone can succeed in exams, and you must make sure that the latter is not overshadowed by negativity.
Dreading the worst outcome is a natural response to challenge, but anticipating failure dampens motivation and drains you of the energy needed to tackle a stressful situation. I know this sounds contradictory to the aforementioned principle of acceptance, but hoping for and visualising the best outcome, while accepting the limits of your control, differs from saying ‘I must get 100% in this exam, everything must be perfect and no other option is conceivable’. The latter, a sure pathway to anxiety, masks pessimism with positive rhetoric.
On the day of the exam…
Eat a healthy breakfast and keep hydrated
Prepare a morning routine with a time slot for a nourishing meal. Some people find that anxiety drowns out their hunger cues – if this is you, eat something small (like fruit or an energy bar) because you’ll have trouble achieving peak performance with insufficient fuel in your system. Avoiding excessive caffeine, sip water throughout the morning, and prepare a bottle to take with you to the exam.
Arrive yearly, but avoid standing outside the exam hall
Give yourself plenty of room for error and leave earlier than you think you need to, incase of traffic or public transport delays. There’s nothing worse than arriving with just a few minutes to spare (except for, of course, arriving late) and no time to compose yourself before the test starts. There is, however, a word of warning. People have a propensity to loiter outside the exam hall, saturating the air with panic by dreaming up worst-case scenarios and regretting all the revision they didn’t do. Panic fuels further panic; to escape, find an isolated spot (preferably outside) or spend time with people who are known for their composure.
Have a backup plan
Regardless of how well we prepare for anything, life is fundamentally unpredictable. Exam boards like to catch people off guard. Stuttering over a question for longer than expected, your nerves could start to multiply and if this happens, you must have a backup strategy to ground yourself and return to a steady flow. Devise this strategy before entering the exam hall. Some people perform breathing exercises, others repeat positive affirmations. I like to tackle questions within my comfort zone first, returning to the harder ones with time to spare. The chances of mid-exam panic can’t be eliminated in their entirety, but must be seen as a nuisance as opposed to the end of the world.
To sum up: I wholly believe that the best way to avert nervousness is to know you’ve prepared to the best of your ability, which means starting early and orchestrating a plan compatible with your preferred learning style. After all, you’re more likely to panic the night before an exam if faced with unfamiliar content, as opposed to a few topics demanding a final overview. Adopt a mindset of neural positivity, knowing that you’ve done all you can to meet your desired grade. Finally, developing a genuine desire to expand your knowledge will help you overlook the bureaucratic, formula-based reputation of studying. Find a passion for the content (which can be derived from the way in which it furthers your personal development), which will replace the stress inherent to learning something for a one-time application.
Let me know in the comments: are you someone who struggles with exam stress/anxiety? If so, how do you like to tackle your nerves?