6 sure-fire strategies to manage exam stress

Looking for ways to manage exam stress and anxiety? Speak to one of our counsellors psychologists in Subiaco Perth.


by Joyce Chong (updated 28 September 2018)

Exams can be a stressful time - it’s the culmination of months of hard work, and the stakes can be high. Thoughts about your future career ‘hanging in the balance’ can heighten stress levels and ramp up anxiety. The problem is that too much stress and anxiety actually harms your cognitive performance, yet it’s at this point in time where we see students doing things such as cramming, staying up late to study, and cutting back on exercise and adequate nutrition - behaviours that have negative outcomes for performance. With this in mind, we’ve put together six sure-fire tips to help you manage exam stress.



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, try the following strategies: 

  • Understand the times of day that you’re better able to cope with more mentally-taxing tasks like digesting topics that you don’t enjoy or don't understand well. Structure your studies accordingly.

  • Spend time revising what you've have studied – repetition is how you consolidate things which means that they’ll be easier to recall during the exam.

  • Learn what you have to learn. That is, pay close attention to what types of questions typically come up in past exam papers, what lecturers emphasise, and what the core objectives of the subject are. By focusing on learning these, you’re giving yourself an excellent head start.

It may also be a good time to sharpen your study skills. Learn how to learn better by improving your reading and comprehension, improving your memory, and understanding your preferred learning style (visual versus verbal). Not sure how to? Check out this article on How to Choose the Right Study Techniques.

2.    Practise, practise, practise

You'd train your little heart out 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 early in the morning so you’re 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 and pop quizzes.

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

Before you scoff at our suggestion to avoid cramming or using performance-enhancers, hear us out. Keeping your energy levels up and reducing fatigue so that they don’t affect your performance (both speed and accuracy) are important. Exam periods last for over a week, and you want to be able to last the distance.

Critically, get adequate rest - research has shown that 17-19 hours without sleep leads to poorer accuracy and slower reaction times on cognitive tasks, equivalent to performing with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%! So if you wouldn’t drink alchol and sit an exam, consider if it’s time to go to bed just a bit earlier. [1] 

It’s also a good idea to limit caffeine and other stimulants (including nicotine) - after all, what goes up must come down at some point in time… and hopefully not on the morning of your exam. 

4.      Take care of the building blocks

Diet, exercise, sleep – we’re talking about the foundations of good health to facilitate studying and minimise stress that increases during the exam period.[2] 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 we’re highlighting this as an important way of managing stress.

  • Diet matters because you need energy so you can study for sustained periods rather than feel fatigued after a sugar- or caffeine-hit. [3] 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 doing food prep over the weekend and stocking up on healthy snacks.

  • Exercise helps burn up the stress that builds up during exam time. [4] If it’s hard to find time to go to the gym when you’re studying, incorporate it into your routine and multitask it with revisions if you must!

  • Sleep helps the body to rest and recharge, consolidate what you have learned during the day, and maintain peak cognitive abilities (see Point 3 on why sleep matters), so don’t scrimp on it.

5.    LEARN TO 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

Your thoughts can really impact on our stress levels. Say you believe that you will:

  • Fail this exam;

  • Therefore fail all of your exams;

  • Fail all of your subjects; and

  • And that will be the end of your future.

Your thoughts increase your anxiety, and unfortunately excessive levels of anxiety have a negative impact on performance.

If you find that your thoughts create 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? 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 you can turn down the noise on the thoughts and help you to contain your 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.


Want more? You can connect with The Skill Collective in the following ways:

  • Contact us to make an individual appointment to get started on making changes.

  • Get access to our FREE resource library filled with exclusive tip-sheets on Wellbeing, Mental Health, and Performance that you won't find here on the blog

  • Join our FREE 14-day Wellbeing Challenge. Tailored for busy lives we're talking wellbeing tips for better body, mind, and heart in just 15 minutes a day, delivered straight to your inbox.


[1] 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 Environmental Medicine, 649-655.

[2] 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

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