Exam-taking season can be a stressful time: anxiety in the build-up, nerves and jitters on the day of the big tests.
It’s a lot to handle for any student.
So I’m here to help:
… with six of my favourite practical strategies that can help you cope with the pressure, and bring your A Game when it matters most, even if you’re feeling anxious on test day.
An important word
Sometimes exam anxiety can get really bad.
One of my coaching clients once told me that they suffered such bad test-taking anxiety that they had to sit by the bin in her exams. There was a strict limit on when students could visit the bathroom, but she knew she’d need somewhere to throw up, hence the bin.
The word “anxiety” gets thrown around a lot these days, but anxiety disorder is a mental health issue worth taking seriously if you’re concerned you or your son / daughter may have a more serious form of anxiety.
The strategies I offer below tend to be helpful, and many are evidence-based, but this article is not medical advice! Please consult a health professional if you’re in any doubt about your test anxiety.
Six strategies for overcoming test-taking anxiety and exam stress
These six strategies all aim to relieve your exam stress from different angles.
My first two suggestions are all about state of mind, the next two are about stress-relieving coping strategies. And finally we have two suggestions for upgrading your exam study techniques to boost your confidence!
So let’s get started!
1. Have a plan B
If you’re ambitious, you may have a firm idea of where you’re going next beyond this next set of exams. Your dream college or university offer, the ideal internship, postgraduate study, a high-flying career.
Ambition – and in particular, having specific goals regarding “what’s next” – can be a powerful motivator.
So what’s the problem?
Well, ambtion can go too far.
It’s easy to become so utterly obsessed with the vision, so weighed down by the pressure put on our shoulders by ourselves (and / or others?) that ambition starts to impact our day-to-day productivity, not to mention wellbeing and sense of self-worth.
In short, too much rigid ambition can increase your test-taking anxiety, big time!
If it ever gets that far – in fact, before it ever can! – take some time out to stop and consider your Plan B.
What’s the back-up plan? What would it look like – specifically? Research your options, consider how that version of your life could play out.
Chances are Plan B might not be such a bad thing, once you stop to think it through.
I always recommend that when goal-setting for the academic year, or thinking through the reasons “why” you’re studying you take some time to set up a Plan B that you can be proud of.
What’s more, by taking a little pressure off our shoulders, we make it more likely, not less, that we actually achieve Plan A anyway, because we are free to perform at your best again.
Shoot for the moon, for sure, but remember that if you miss, you can still land among the stars 😊
2. For parents: non-contingent approval
This one’s specially for parents.
(Tip: If you’re a student reading this, you could leave this article lying around for your parents to read…!)
We love our sons and daughters.
And we often have an important role to play in motivating our children to study hard, and inspiring then to be the best version of themselves they can be.
But sometimes this puts additional pressure on our kids (that we may not even realise). The fear of disappointing a parent can add hefty dose of test anxiety to their plate during exam.
So it’s also important to remind your children that they have your non-contingent approval (and love!).
That is to say, your love is not gated behind (dependent on) certain criteria, such as exam grades.
It may be obvious to you that that’s the case! But it is definitely worth being extra-sure that that’s also obvious to your son / daughter as they go through exam season.
I’ve written at length about the benefits of mindfulness for students. It’s a study tool that I really believe in.
Among the various benefits, though, one of the most important is in managing stress and anxiety levels. Mindfulness and meditation can help to reduce your stress levels and give you the tools to cope better with test anxiety (Napoli et al, 2015).
If you’re not sure how to get started, then I wholeheartedly recommend Headspace.*
I’ve been using Headspace personally for years: typically most days. So I know how well it works! I also recommend it to many of my coaching clients and at talks in school.
Headspace has some fantastic stuff on their specifically for students, including on exam stress and test taking anxiety. They’ve also got some wonderful sections on content (stories / soundscapes) to help you sleep, and even curated focus music playlists. In fact, you can learn all about the Headspace app in my thorough, honest review!
So I’m thrilled that Exam Study Expert and Headspace now have a partnership. You can click here to get started with Headspace for free.*
4. Get moving
There’s not much to explain here because this is such a simple strategy for relieving your (exam season) anxiety.
Whether you’re a top school athlete or couch potato, getting moving is perfect for shaking off the stress of your day.
Even if it’s just getting out for a 20-minute walk around the block!
Getting a little exercise regularly – i.e. most if not every day – is a fantastic habit for all aspects of your physical and mental wellbeing.
(Plus, exercise can be a great activity for mindfulness – so that’s two strategies ticked off in one!)
5. Prepared = confident
When it comes to combating test anxiety, it’s really important to be prepared – it’s a surefire way to build up your confidence in your ability to get the grade you want!
All of the strategies I teach on how to study effectively will help you to be better prepared for exams. So I definitely recommend you pop over to that article and see which strategies you could use to upgrade your memory and study techniques!
Being well prepared for your exams has three benefits:
- The obvious benefit is that if you know your stuff thoroughly, then you’re better able to answer any questions the examiner throws your way!
- It can also really help to prepare your exam “kit” in advance and check it the day before – think all the tools that you’re allowed to take in and will need, from calculator to water bottle. It’s one less thing to be anxious about forgetting!
- And finally, there’s also the subtler mindset benefit that with preparedness, brings confidence. Confidence that helps keep exam nerves in check. Win!
6. “Pressure vaccine”: realistic mock tests
One of my favourite tips for dealing with test-taking anxiety is to take realistic mock (practice) exams.
Professional athletes talk about “choking” under pressure: the stresses of the big game or race negatively affecting their ability to perform at their best.
They use specific training techniques to counteract the risk of choking, usually involving creating artificially “high-pressure” training situations, mimicking the conditions of the real game or race as closely as possible while still in training. That allows them to get used to match-day conditions, and gives them practice at performing well even when they feel nervous.
It’s a bit like inoculating yourself against the effects of high stress while still in training – a “pressure vaccine” if you will.
As students, we can use a very similar idea by mimicking the conditions of the real exam while practising.
Your school or college might give you mock exams – that’s fantastic practice, take it seriously. But you might need to create your own opportunities to practice combating your test anxiety. (Doing your own mock exams is also a great technique for pinpointing which aspects worry you most!)
To set up a practice test effectively, consider:
- What’s available to you: exam stationary, water bottle.
- What’s not available to you: in particular, no notes! No looking things up!
- How much time will you have in the exam: Limit yourself to the same time.
- Where you take the exam: can you recreate an exam-hall like atmosphere, surrounded by lots of other people working studiously, ideally in silence? A study room at school or college, perhaps, or maybe the reading room of a library near you.
Wondering how others will judge us can be a major sources of nerves on exam day, so simulate that in practice too. Tell your family or friends or tutors that you’re going to sit that practice paper, and commit to telling them how you scored afterwards. A great way to raise the stakes!
And remember: the more uncomfortable this all sounds, the more this is likely to be helpful practice for you.
Overcoming test anxiety – the summary
So there we have it! Six strategies to overcome test anxiety:
- Setting up a Plan B that you can be proud of working towards
- Relieving your anxiety with regular mindfulness and meditiation
- Getting some exercise (and endorphins!) to shake off stress
- Preparing thoroughly by studying effectively and boosting your memory skills
- Practicing for a high-pressure environment with practice tests
- And for parents: reminding your kids that they have your non-contingent love and support!
Let me know in the comments which one you’re going to try first.
Wishing you every success in your exams 😊
*I may get compensated if you use Headspace, but this has no bearing on my decision to recommend it to you. In fact, I had been personally using and enthusiastically recommending Headspace for 3-4 years before we started our commercial partnership.