Taking control: managing exam stress

Taking control: managing exam stress

The academic year is coming to an end and your exams are looming – it’s time for the final hurdle! At this time of year, it can feel like it’s all becoming a bit too much, but don’t panic - it’s completely normal to feel stressed or worried about exams.

‘Stressed’ is a common feeling, but it's tricky to define. It affects everyone differently – it can cause physical and mental symptoms and affects how we behave.

Stress might feel different for you than for your friends, and you might experience it during different times too. We should check in with our feelings and thoughts often and explore the cause. You can learn more about stress in our Exploring and Eliminating Stress blog.

Our 5 top tips for coping with Exam Stress

Whether you’re panicking about revision, sitting the exam itself, or about your upcoming results - we’re here to help! We’ve worked with Mind and gathered our top tips to help you manage those feelings before you start to feel overwhelmed:

1. Stay positive

A little less self-criticism and more self-acceptance, please! Believe in yourself and have confidence in your abilities. Instead of fixating on your weaknesses or focusing on what you haven't revised, try thinking about all the topics you’ve already covered and how you’re one step closer to your goal.

Try to have a positive mindset before you go into the exam hall (“I can do this!”). It’ll help you feel at ease and confident when tackling questions. Think of the exam as your opportunity to shine - you’ve put in all that hard work and now’s the time to show off just how much you know. Try not to fear the outcome, just be in the moment and concentrate on doing your absolute best. Just think - each exam is a step closer to the summer holidays!

2. Make a plan and stick to it

Sometimes the toughest challenge is knowing where to start. We suggest creating a revision timetable - our Revision Toolkit can help you with this.

Prioritising your time and sticking to a manageable revision schedule is a sure way to reduce anxiety levels. Remember to be realistic - set sensible goals and acknowledge the daily limits of what can be achieved.

Create a timetable that works for you. Include the dates of each exam and what topics need to cover. This will give you a clear vision of when you need to begin revising and how much time you need to dedicate to each subject.

Be mindful that short 20–30-minute revision bursts with regular breaks are more effective than long-lasting periods or 'cramming' sessions. It is also a good idea to tick off topics as you complete them – seeing your progress can be a real boost.

3. Don’t forget to breathe…

If you start to panic or lose your cool, breathing techniques can help you to relax and focus. They can help reduce your heart rate, calm your nerves, and give your mind a much-needed break.

Try this simple technique – it can be done wherever you are, even in the exam hall:

  • Breathe in through your nose for two seconds
  • Hold your breath in for one second
  • Breathe out through your mouth slowly for four seconds
  • Repeat for one minute (or longer if necessary)

4. Embrace healthy habits

During the chaos of exam season, self-care is often overlooked, but you won’t become a revision machine by guzzling caffeinated drinks, munching your way through sugary snacks, and pulling all-nighters.

Non-stop revising and intensive brain activity require a healthy balanced diet, exercise, and sleep. For the best performance, make sure you're getting:

  • 8 hours of sleep –a good night’s sleep helps improve memory, concentration levels, and brainpower the next day. Struggling to sleep? Find out more about improving your sleep
  • Lots of water (at least 8 glasses) - staying hydrated raises concentration levels.
  • Vitamins and nutrients – balanced meals can boost your memory, concentration, and alertness. Find out more about healthy eating
  • Exercise (for at least 30 minutes) – physical activity gets your blood flowing and heart pumping. It's a proven way to beat stress, filling your brain with endorphins (or as we like to call them, ‘the happy hormones’).
  • Downtime - we all need a break sometimes. Take some ‘me time’ each day to do the things you enjoy. This will help avoid burnout and boost your motivation when revising.

5. Talk it out

Perhaps you’re trying all these steps but still feel like you can’t cope. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. Remind yourself that you aren’t alone, support is available.

Talk to friends, family, or your teachers – they will be able to relate to what you’re going through. Bottling up stress and trying to deal with it on your own can make things appear worse, so, talk about what’s happening. It can help get things into perspective, and help you feel more in control.

If your stress symptoms continue or worsen, it’s really important to speak a health professional, such as your GP, who can help you find the source(s) of your stress and learn new coping tools.

These are just a few suggestions – we have lots of other tools on our student support pages, and you can listen to our Beating Exam Anxiety podcast for more ideas. You can also find lots of useful advice from mental health charities like Mind, who have a great in-depth guide to exam stress.

With these strategies in your toolkit, all that’s left is to work hard, look after yourself, and give your exams everything you’ve got! And most importantly of all, regardless of how your exams go this summer, remember that your results don’t define you as an individual. Even if things don’t go according to plan, you still have lots of options – there are lots of different routes to reaching your goals.

Good luck!