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Coping With Exam Stress

stressed face

As the examination period approaches, you may feel the pressure of the exams getting to you. This is not surprising — in fact it is quite normal to feel some anxiety about exams. Most people find that a bit of pressure spurs us on and enables us to get down and do some serious work.

Read through the revision strategies section of this website and organise your revision time. Planning ahead will mean you can keep to a sensible schedule. (Don't feel you have to spend every waking hour in the library. Revising well means revisingly wisely, and balancing work with exercise and relaxation).

If you are feeling anxious, you may find it helpful to talk to your personal tutor or course tutors. Talking to your friends and family will also help you keep things in perspective.

As Roger Mead, Stress Management Consultant and General Secretary of the International Stress Management Association states: "Stress is not about the exam, but about what you think about the exam. People shouldn't see them as monsters they can't escape. With the right preparation they're not too scary."

If you want to find out more about what the professional 'stressbusters' have to say about dealing with the pressure of exams, read this article in The Guardian (Oliver Duff, March 2003).

The Institute for Stress Management website (see the link on the right) also offers advice and further suggestions which may help you deal with the pressure of exams. An extract from their website is provided below:

General Exam Stress-Busting Tips:

  • Believe in yourself
    You wouldn't have been given a place on the course if you didn't have the ability to do it. Therefore, if you prepare for the exams properly you should do fine, meaning that there is no need to worry excessively.
  • Don't try to be perfect
    It's great to succeed and reach for the stars. But keep things in balance. If you think that "anything less than A+ means I've failed" then you are creating mountains of unnecessary stress for yourself. Aim to do your best but recognise that none of us can be perfect all of the time.
  • Take steps to overcome problems
    If you find you don't understand some of your course material, getting stressed out won't help. Instead, take action to address the problem directly by seeing your course tutor or getting help from your class mates.
  • Don't keep things bottled up
    Confiding in someone you trust and who will be supportive is a great way of alleviating stress and worry.
  • Keep things in perspective
    The exams might seem like the most crucial thing right now, but in the grander scheme of your whole life they are only a small part.

Tips for the revision period:

  • Leave plenty of time to revise so that you don't get into a situation of having to do last minute cramming. This approach will help to boost your confidence and reduce any pre-exam stress as you know you have prepared well.
  • Develop a timetable so that you can track and monitor your progress. Make sure you allow time for fun and relaxation so that you avoid burning out.
  • As soon as you notice your mind is losing concentration, take a short break. You will then come back to your revision refreshed.
  • Experiment with several alternative revision techniques so that revision is more fun and your motivation to study is high.
  • Don't drink too much coffee, tea and fizzy drinks; the caffeine will 'hype' you and make your thinking less clear. Eat healthily and regularly; your brain will benefit from the nutrients.
  • Regular moderate exercise will boost your energy, clear your mind and reduce any feelings of stress.
  • Try out some yoga, tai chi or relaxation techniques. They will help to keep you feeling calm and balanced, improve your concentration levels and help you to sleep better.

Tips for the exam itself:

  • Avoid panic. It's natural to feel some exam nerves prior to starting the exam, but getting excessively nervous is counterproductive as you will not be able to think as clearly.
  • The quickest and most effective way of eliminating feelings of stress and panic is to close your eyes and take several long, slow deep breaths. Breathing in this way calms your whole nervous system. Simultaneously you could give yourself some mental pep-talk by mentally repeating "I am calm and relaxed" or "I know I will do fine".
  • If your mind goes blank, don't panic! Panicking will just make it harder to recall information. Instead, focus on slow, deep breathing for about one minute. If you still can't remember the information then move on to another question and return to this question later.
  • After the exam don't spend endless time criticising yourself for where you think you went wrong. Often our own self assessment is far too harsh. Congratulate yourself for the things you did right, learn from the bits where you know you could have done better, and then move on.

These tips were produced for ISMA by Dr Dawn Hamilton. If you wish to go into the subject in more detail then you should read her excellent book Passing Exams - A Guide for Maximum Success and Minimum Stress, published by Cassell, ISBN 0-304-70489-X.

Sources of support

Most importantly, if you feel that your exam anxiety is building up to a point where sleep is difficult, your health is suffering or your relationships with your friends and family are starting to be affected you need to seek some help.

Talk to your personal tutor or doctor or make an appointment with the University counselling service. The counselling service is a free service available to all University of Manchester students. Further information can be found on the Counselling Service's website.