6 Unusual Tips for Coping with Pre-Exam Stress

My cousin Claire reminded me that teenagers across Australia are currently feeling the pressure of trial HSC exams, and a few months ago teenagers across the UK were feeling similarly stressed as they (and I) prepared for their Higher exams. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, what the exam (or interview or driving test etc) is, nor how old you are… exams have the debilitating knack of making most of us feel physically or mentally unwell.

Now I have to confess that I suffer from post-exam stress more than pre-exam stress – and I’m the first to admit that you can’t change anything after the fact so worrying about it once you’ve left the exam room makes no sense whatsoever. But when I was studying for my exam in Higher Psychology earlier this year, I had a lot of respect for my classmates who were taking multiple subjects (when I was doing just the one for fun). What did concern me though, was that I hadn’t sat a 2.5hr long exam for at least 10 years!

If you google it, there are actually lots of resources online that will give you tips and methods for dealing with pre-exam stress, and extra support may also be available through your educational institution and/or your local doctor (GP) if you are suffering more than most. It would seem silly for me to rehash info that is already out there, so instead I’ll share some unusual tips that I picked up whilst doing my Higher this year:

  1. When we are trying to learn something, our brain makes connections to things we already know or stuff that is meaningful to us, which might be why we learn things that we’re really interested in much quicker than something we find boring. Even if a mathematical equation or a topic we need to learn seems totally annoying – we can create our own meaning for it that makes it more memorable. An example of this is that I can still remember SOH CAH TOA from high-school trigonometry because someone once told me it was a swear word in another language! Whether it was or not, it clearly appealed to my sense of humour all those years ago as I can still remember it to this day.
  2. Memory and concentration can be affected by your mood and how you are physically feeling, but this isn’t just about making sure you are comfortable when you go into the exam (like not being too cold, or needing to go to the bathroom etc). For example, if you learn something whilst you are feeling excited then chances are you’ll find it easier to recall the info when you are feeling excited again rather than grumpy. Before you start studying, spend a minute thinking about feeling confident, focused and energised. Take a break every 30mins or so whilst studying and repeat it. Then before you go into your exam, take a few minutes to tap back into that feeling – this will not only distract you from feeling stressed, but will also help your memory to tune in on things you learnt whilst you were feeling that way.
  3. Memory can also be strongly influenced by the environment we are in at the time of learning, and sometimes that means we need that same environment to be able to remember things. Use this to your advantage by studying in conditions that are as close to those of the exam as possible! This does mean that studying with the TV on in the background, whilst lying down, or late at night can be less helpful than studying somewhere like the library during the day, seated at a desk. It might sound boring – but try it for yourself and see if it makes a difference.
  4. Past exam papers are widely available for most topics, and whilst I certainly found doing a few of them under timed conditions helped me, there is another way that these can be an important part of your preparation. Simply read through the questions from at least 4-6 past papers. Chances are, there will be a wide variation of the types of questions asked, how they are worded, and what parts of the topic they ask about. This means that you may spot a few that you’ve got no idea how to answer – in which case it might pay to do a bit of extra study on those questions. It also means you’ll be more familiar with the style of questions that you may face when you open the exam paper, so you are less likely to be caught off-guard.
  5. Study in a way that works for you. There is no right or wrong way to study, and what works for one person might not work for another. Notice whether you find it easier to simply read through text books and make summaries, write out your notes multiple times, use mind-maps or visual images, rhymes and acronyms or different colours to highlight things: whatever works best for you, is the best way to do it!
  6. Last but not least – don’t indulge the feelings of stress! This might sound impossible or just ridiculous, but if we focus on the stress and bad stuff then it’s like a broken record. Every time you find yourself worrying about your exams, choose to think about something else instead. You might choose to think about something totally different like your favourite hobby/song/colour (as a distraction), or you could choose to focus on how good you’ll feel when you get the exam result you wanted (visualising your success), or reverse the stressful thought so “I’ll fail my exams” becomes “I’ll pass my exams” (the opposite of the stressful thought). Each time you catch yourself thinking negatively about your exams, change your thought! This might mean you need to do it a lot to begin with, but gradually your thoughts will become more helpful.

Of course, none of these tips will overcome a lack of planning or refusal to study – and the sooner you start preparing, the more preparation you’ll be able to fit in before exam-day. At high-school I tended to cram rather than get myself organised, but the one thing ActionPodcast and my experience has taught me is that a little (tiny) bit of effort every day is far more effective than a whole lot in one big go!

Good studying, and remember – small steps each day!