Coping with Exam Stress: 7 Ways to Manage Pressure
05 July 2018
As end of module and final exams approach, I’m sure we don’t have to tell you just how stressful the next few weeks can be. Endless days in the library, social media blackouts and all-nighters may help you retain more information – but they do little good for stress and blood levels.
That’s why we’ve put together a list of handy tips to help you manage stress at this trying time of year. Not only will this improve your mental and physical wellbeing, but it can also help you perform better when it’s time to flip the exam paper over and pick up your 2B.
We’ve also enlisted the help of student and young person mental health organisations to offer their advice on how best to handle the pressures of the exam period. Marta Polizzi of the University Mental Health Advisers Network and Nihara Krause of teenage mental health organisation stem4, have kindly shared their advice.
We hope these seven tips help you tackle the exam period, achieve the best results possible and really savour that post-exam pint.
1. Prepare well in advance
The panic created by a lack of preparation is perhaps the greatest cause of stress in the run-up to exam time. Finding yourself on the eve of a big exam with a stack of books unopened is a dreadful experience, and one that is best avoided at all costs.
So, a simple, yet hugely effective pre-emptive resolution is to make sure you’re well prepared. In the run-up to exam time, make sure you segment your revision across your modules, so you can schedule small windows of concentrated revision. Make a physical calendar of your study schedule and try to stick to it – perhaps even rewarding yourself for every five study segments you fulfil.
This is echoed by Marta: “Make sure you plan and organise your time well. Break revision into small parts, don't set unrealistic expectations for yourself, and try not to leave everything for the last minute. That will just increase your stress!”
2. Make studying social
Shutting yourself away from distractions may seem the best tactic during the intense pre-exam study period, but it may have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing and could lead to stress. A simple smile from a friend when you’re nose-deep in the books can be a great stress-buster, and will help you to feel like you’re not alone in this.
Furthermore, your friends may have the answers to a tricky question you’re looking for. Rather than stressing out trying to find a reference about Nietzsche’s views on perspectivism, a friend may be able to offer perfect insight and clarity.
Marta agrees, and suggests adding a little structure to social studying: “You could attend exam revision workshops with friends through your library to gain skills in revision, or attend exam revision lectures to get information about past papers. Give yourself plenty of time to revise for exams to consolidate your knowledge and build up your confidence.”
3. Stay active and keep fit
Marta and Nihara are in agreement about the importance of remaining active during exam time – so resist the temptation to stock up on instant noodles and lock yourself away for days on end. Exercise can help clear your mind and release endorphins which will keep you motivated and energised. A study session after a river-side walk is bound to be more fruitful than an all-nighter in a dimly-lit room.
Nihara suggests you maintain a strict period of rest, whilst also doing at least half an hour of exercise per day, whilst Marta offers the following:
“You can’t expect to stay focused 24/7, your brain will need a break, and you will too. Go outside and keep your mind off exams. Use this time to do some exercise and keep active, and eat healthy and well-balanced meals. Research confirms that these activities can help relieve stress and improve academic performance.”
4. Develop a positive outlook
Using the above three techniques, you’ll be in a good position to start developing a more positive outlook during exam time. Rather than viewing the exam period as a potential banana skin – view it as an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and your skills. Even if you’ve not covered every inch of every study guide, you’ll still have plenty of knowledge to share and arguments to raise.
Nihara suggests the following three-step strategy:
- Change fear thoughts to challenge thoughts – focus on what you can achieve rather than on what you can’t.
- Visualise the positives ahead and the results which will make the current effort worthwhile.
- Be brave about getting things wrong and see mistakes as opportunities to do things again and get them right.
5. Use the full support network available to you
Universities are great for providing students with the support networks and assistance they need throughout the term and during exam time. As this traditionally-stressful part of the year approaches, we’d recommend using as many of these resources as possible – as well as friends and family, of course. Marta offers this guidance:
“Many universities organise exam stress workshops – so you can learn some deep breathing relaxation techniques and mindfulness tricks to deal with stress. Make sure you have opportunities to talk to someone about your worries before exam revision starts, including your friends and family. Write down exactly what your worries are and whether you have control over them or not.”
Some universities have even implemented puppy rooms to alleviate exam stress. If your university offers this, be sure to indulge and go bust stress by hugging a baby dog or two.
6. Create your perfect study playlist
Music can help stimulate the brain immeasurably and can be an effective antidote to exam stress. Before you kick off the main stretch of study, it’s well worth putting together a revision playlist. Classical music and instrumental tracks are great, as they stimulate the brain without distracting with words.
Alternatively, artists such as Sigur Ros provide great study playlists. Their vocals are sung in Hopelandic, a made-up language without meaning, so won’t set your mind racing in the wrong direction.
Just be sure not to place your all-time favourite tracks on the playlist, as this could permanently associate the song with study time – potentially ruining it forever.
7. Build a study space
We’ve alluded to this throughout this guide, and we think it’s worth reiterating this again – it’s vital to build a healthy and beneficial space to study. Your room is a natural option for this; it’s where you’re most comfortable and where your belongings are.
Make sure your study space is packed with natural light, full of fresh air and in close proximity to all essentials (plenty of snack and drinks, and breakout activities). Comfortable seating, a surplus of stationery, and a trusty, speedy computer are all essential items to ensure your study periods are as fruitful as possible.
Above all, your study space must be a location you’ll gladly spend a few hours at a time – somewhere you won’t resent or enter hesitantly.
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