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Exam Stress

It’s common to feel stressed about school exams. You may have exam stress for many reasons such as:

  • feeling like you haven’t studied enough
  • not understanding the material or topic
  • feeling pressure from your parents, teachers, friends, or yourself to get a certain grade
  • thinking or telling yourself that you won’t do well
  • having other things going on in your life that may prevent you from studying like personal relationships or stresses related to home or work
  • worrying you won’t get into university, college, or another program you want to study if you don’t do well on the exam

How your body deals with stress

When you feel stressed, your body has a stress response. This is sometimes called the fight, flight, or freeze response. This is the response your body has in an emergency to help you manage stress. During a stress response, your nervous system tries to protect your body by releasing chemicals like adrenaline that make:

  • your heart pound
  • your muscles tighten
  • your blood pressure rise
  • you breathe faster
  • you feel alert

These changes may help you manage a stressful situation like preparing for an exam by:

  • increasing your strength and stamina (the ability to keep up a physical or mental effort)
  • speeding up your reaction time
  • improving your focus

If your stress is so high or your body’s stress response is always on, it makes it harder for you to focus on the exam and remember what you’ve studied.

If you feel stressed about an exam, talk to someone you trust such as a friend, family member, or school counsellor.

Tips to help you manage your exam stress

You can help manage your exam stress by preparing for the exam and following tips before, during, and after the exam.

What’s your learning style?

Everyone has their own style of learning. Use a learning style that work best for you.

Do you learn by hearing? (called auditory learning)

  • Try reading your notes out loud.
  • Record key points and play them back to yourself.
  • Study with others and talk about what you’re studying.

Do you learn by seeing? (called visual learning)

  • Make flash cards.
  • Use colours or sticky notes for key points.
  • Break down harder sections on a white board or large piece of paper.

Do you learn by doing? (called kinaesthetic learning)

  • Try working with a partner or in a group.
  • Practice teaching what you’re studying to your study partner.
  • Make models or diagrams to highlight key points.

Do you learn by reading? (called reading-based or writing-preferred learning)

  • Read your notes again, rewrite your notes, and reword key points.
  • Put information from diagrams, charts, and graphs into words or sentences.

Have a plan

A study plan helps you make the most of your study time. It can help you feel more in control and may lessen some of your exam stress.

  • Use a calendar, white board, or wall planner to make a study schedule.
  • Add notes to remind you what sections to study.
  • Plan study time when it works best for you (such as morning, afternoon, or evening).
  • Set reminder alarms on your phone or watch to help you manage your time and stay on track.
  • Find out what type of exam it is such as multiple choice, short answer, or essay.
  • Ask your teacher about where to get a practice exam to help you prepare for the exam and lower your stress.
  • Gather your notes, handouts, quizzes, and other materials you need to study.
  • Break sections down into smaller pieces of information you can manage.
  • Think about which sections you may need to spend more time studying.
  • Study your hardest subjects or sections first.
  • Use a timer for each section. If you haven’t finished studying the section when the timer is done, decide if you should keep studying it, move on, or go back and study it later.
  • Limit anything that could distract you while you study, such as your phone, social media, TV, or video games. If you find it hard to turn off your phone when you study, use a free app that reminds you to stop using your phone or puts it to silent mode at set times.
  • Find a study space that works for you, such as a quiet room at home, the library, or a coffee shop.

Remember that your bed is for sleeping. It isn’t a good place to study. If you have exam stress, studying in your bed can affect your sleep. There is also a chance you may fall asleep in your bed while studying.

Don’t forget to take breaks and make time for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Physical activity can help clear your head and boost your mood so it’s easier for you to study.

Ask for help

  • Find out if your school has tutors.
  • Ask your teacher about getting help during lunch, before school, or after class.
  • Find someone to study with you.

Before your exam

  • Gather everything you need, such as pens, scrap paper, or a calculator, the night before the exam.
  • Give yourself enough time to get to the exam. Plan to be at least 20 minutes early in case something unexpected comes up.
  • Eat regularly. You may be nervous before an exam and not feel like eating. But it’s important to eat so your brain has enough energy to stay focused. If your last meal was more than 2 hours before the start of the exam, think about having a small snack such as yogurt with fruit, half a sandwich, or a fruit and nut bar.
  • Drink water. Be sure to drink enough water to help you stay alert. Avoid caffeine from drinks such as pop, tea, coffee, or energy drinks. Too much caffeine can make you feel anxious and give you an upset your stomach.

During your exam

  • Pace yourself. Begin by having a quick look at the whole exam. Make note of questions that are worth more marks or may take longer to answer.
  • Start with what you know. You don’t always have to start at the beginning of the exam. Answer the questions you know then move on to other parts of the exam.
  • Slow down. Take time to read each question carefully.
  • Breathe. If you can’t remember the answer to a question, take a few deep, slow breaths to relax. Breathe in for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds. If you still can’t remember the answer, move on to the next question. Some questions on the exam may help you remember answers to other questions.

After your exam

Celebrate. Once you’re done your exam, it’s important to let go of any stress you had. Spend time with friends or do something you enjoy.

Current as of: August 26, 2019

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services