6 sure-fire strategies to manage exam stress

6 sure-fire strategies for exam stress


Exams are nearly upon the students amongst us, and it can definitely be a stressful time. So, to help with this period we’ve put together six sure-fire tips to help you manage exam stress.


1.      Take care of the building blocks

Diet, exercise, sleep – we’re talking about the foundations of good health which will be important in buffering the stress that tends to heighten during the exam period.[1] At the same time, having worked with many students over the years, we’re also realistic that these tend to be the first things to go out the window when life gets stressful, which is exactly why it’s the first thing that we want to highlight.

Diet is important because of the impact on your energy levels which will allow you to study for sustained periods rather than feeling fatigued after a sugar- or caffeine-hit.[2] Instead, look at clever ways to sneak convenient yet healthy foods into your day that will keep your energy going. This can be as simple as:

  • Buying easy-to-prepare fruit and vegetables such as mandarins, apples, pears, bananas, or cherry tomatoes.
  • Cooking in bulk and portioning everything to freeze so it’s a no-brainer when you’re knee deep in revisions.
  • Keep healthy snacks on hand and limit the amount of junk food that you have at home.

Exercise-wise, aim for aerobic exercise as it is useful in burning up stress hormones in our bodies.[3] If it’s hard to find time to go to the gym when you’re studying, incorporate it into your routine, for example if you’re studying at the library consider hiring a locker for your things then going for a brief jog in your study break. Dress in your exercise gear before you sit down to study so that it’s one less barrier to you starting exercising.

Sleep is important because the body needs to rest and recharge. Research shows that after 17-19 hours without sleep, performance on tasks involving response speed and accuracy was as poor as, or even worse than, having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%.[4] When you consider that every moment counts during the exam, it’s easy to see why getting proper sleep is critical.

 2.     Study smarter, not longer

Come exam time it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that every waking moment should be spent studying. In reality, preparing well for exams isn’t about cramming absolutely everything in, nor is it about studying for every single moment of the day.

Instead, consider the following strategies to help you: 

  • Learn to understand the times of day that you’re better able to cope with more mentally-taxing tasks like digesting topics that you don’t like or don't understand.
  • Spend some time revising what you've have studied – repetition is how you consolidate things which means that they’ll be easier to recall when you’re in the exam hall.
  • Learn what you have to learn. That is, pay close attention to which topics are regularly assessed in past exam papers, what lecturers emphasise when talking about exams, and what the core objectives of the subject are. By focusing on learning these, you are giving yourself an excellent head start.

It may also be a good time to sharpen your study skills. Learn how to learn better by focusing on improving your reading and comprehension, improving your memory, and understanding your preferred learning style (visual versus verbal). 

3.    Practise, practise, practise

You'd train your little hearts our for a marathon, so why wouldn’t you do the same for exams? To help get you fit for exams you can practise:

  • Waking up at a time that leaves us alert for morning exams. That means keeping a steady waking time throughout the entire week, rather than late nights and late mornings on weekends.
  • Simulating exam conditions by sitting a practice exam at a desk, and writing complete answers as you would in a real exam. Given that we rarely write continuously for 2 or 3 hours nowadays, it’s a good opportunity to get exam-fit. 
  • Testing your recollection of what you have learnt by setting yourself sample questions.

4.    Limit cramming/all-nighters/performance-enhancers

Right, we hear you scoff, as if cramming and doing all-nighters is something students avoid. Well, we can’t emphasise enough (and yes we did mention this in the very first point of this post!) the importance of keeping your energy levels up and minimising fatigue due to its impact on performance (both on speed and accuracy). Remember that exam periods go for over a week and you want to be able to last the distance.

So, limit caffeine and other stimulants (including nicotine), and get regular sleep - after all, what goes up must come down at some point in time…and hopefully not on the morning of an exam. 

5.    Relax…

Exams can get pretty stressful, so apart from taking care of the building blocks of diet, sleep, and exercise, it’s also important to get some rest and relaxation.

Plan for some down-time, and schedule it at the end of a study period so that it can motivate you to get through a particularly tricky topic that you have to plough through.

Also consider breathing as a simple and easily accessible way of decreasing your stress and anxiety. It’s as simple as breathing in and out through your nose over eight seconds, and from your diaphragm rather than your chest. This is a technique that you can use right in the middle of your exams too, when you feel ‘thrown’ by a question.

6.    Check your thoughts

Our thoughts can really impact on our stress levels. Say you believe that you will fail your exam, that you will therefore fail all of your exams, that you will fail all of your subjects, and that will be the end of your future. Your thoughts ramp up your anxiety, and we know that excessive levels of anxiety have a negative impact on performance.

If you find that your thoughts are creating a lot of stress and anxiety for you, it may help to ask yourself if catastrophising is getting in the way. What is the likelihood of failing? What are the likely consequences of failing? Is it likely that people that you believe to be successful have never failed an exam? Has anyone ever failed a subject but ended up finishing their studies? Has anyone ever not completed their studies but went on to be successful? By getting a reality-check we can turn down the noise on the thoughts and help us to contain our anxiety. 


Hopefully these tips will help you in the lead up to your exams. If you find that you want to learn more about preparing for exams, or about managing exam anxiety, contact us to make an appointment.



[1] Andrews, A., & Chong, J. (2011). Exploring the wellbeing of students studying at an Australian university. Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association, 37, 9-38.

[2] http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Fatigue_fighting_tips?open

[3] Chong, J., Elliott, J., & Murray, S. (2005). Avoiding the black hole of despair: A guide to managing exam anxiety. Perth: Curtin University.

[4] Williamson, A.M., & Feyer, A.M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57, 649-655.