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Reducing Exam Anxiety and Nerves

November 30, 2016

Exam anxiety is something that affects many students, and not necessarily in the same way. Anxiety can stem from the panic in the lead up to the exam to panic when actually sitting the exam. A little stress is normal when it comes to Midsems or finals (usually because they have a high weighting on your grade), but if it gets out of hand it can be damaging to your grades and your health.

Since everyone has their own reasons for exam anxiety, it’s important to think about why you are nervous. Once you know and understand this you can address the issue. I’ve looked at some of the most common reasons I’ve heard (and felt) regarding exam anxiety, with some tips on how to reduce the effect of the stress.

Exam anxiety is something that affects many students and stems from different things. Here are some of the reasons for exam nerves and how to tackle them.

“I don’t know enough about the subject/I am not well prepared”

This is a pretty standard reason to be stressed about an exam. Luckily, it’s a pretty easy one to fix. If you feel like you aren’t well prepared for exams, then you need to do more study and revision. Make sure you leave enough time for productive studying in the lead up to your exam. Cramming the night before will only exacerbate the stress. Consistent study each night will help keep everything fresh in your memory.

It’s also a good idea to stay on top of your work throughout the semester. Falling behind and thinking “Well, I’ll just leave these all until the end of semester and then catch up” is not a good study habit. All it does is eat into your revision time. Make your notes throughout the semester, and read through your notes after you finish them. Every little bit makes you more prepared.

“The exam conditions and time constraints stress me out”

Exam conditions used to stress me out big time. I always found it rather intimidating, sitting in a big room in complete silence, turning over a paper which could have anything written on it. The whole thing was just plain scary!

Finding yourself with exam anxiety when you are in the exam is a little more difficult, because it’s not like you can just excuse yourself to take a break. The best way to tackle stress about exam conditions is practicing under exam conditions.

How long is your exam? Set a timer (or get someone to time you) to take a practice or past exam. Make sure you have no interruptions and complete it somewhere silent, just like in a real exam. It’s also a good idea at this point to use no notes and see what you can do by memory (if this worries you, check the next section). Once you finish, think about how it went. Did you feel as stressed? Where you worried about time or about how to do the questions?

Always remember that if you are feeling stressed when you are sitting an exam, take a breath. Put down you pen, stretch your arms, and take a moment to collect your thoughts. Think about the calmness with which you tackled the practice exams under exam conditions. You’re doing the same thing, but with a different exam. Many students feel like as soon as they get into an exam it’s just “go, go, go!”, write as much as you can in the time limit. But teacher’s and lecturers who write exams need to make the exams achievable in the time frame. It’s okay to stop for a moment to collect your thoughts.

“I don’t have my notes!”

The other part of exam conditions that stressed me out was that I didn’t have my notes (which is rather stupid, I know, because that’s the idea of an exam, right?). The problem was I spent a lot of time doing past and practice papers and answering questions using my notes, that when it came time to do the exam, I was always thrown off by not having them there.

A good way around this is to use your practice exam run under exam conditions to learn what you don’t know. If you go to answer a question, but can’t think of the formula to use, mark that question with a highlighter or an asterisk instead of referring to your notes straight away. Once you finish the exam, you know what you need to spend more time revising.

“I need to get X % to pass this course”

I know it’s really tempting to figure out how much you need to get in the exam to pass the course (and a great procrastination technique), but please, please, please avoid doing it! Calculating that you only need 40% in the exam to pass will decrease your motivation. “I don’t really need to study because I only need 40%” is all well and good, but if you get 39% because you haven’t studied you’ll be kicking yourself.

It also goes the other way. “I need 65% to pass this course, I’m never going to get that!” is just as demotivating. Thinking that you can’t reach a target mark (so what’s the point?) is the fastest way to build up exam anxiety. Instead of thinking in exact marks and percentages, tell yourself “I need to do well”. If you know you need to do well, this gives you the motivation you need, whether you are aiming for 100% or 50%. You know you need to study regardless.

READ MORE: 4 Ways to Find Your Study Motivation

“If I don’t get X%, I’ll be disappointed”

And so we come to the bane of perfectionist students. This is still something I have trouble with in certain subjects, but I feel like I’ve been constantly improving with this. If you feel like anything less than 100% is a bad mark, this puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself to get there. Going into an exam thinking “I don’t want to make any mistakes AT ALL” is a very high bar to set.

Of course, there’s no problem setting a goal for yourself, just make sure it is an achievable goal that reflects your level. I like to aim for ranges sometimes, like between 80% and 90% or above 90%. If it’s a really hard subject that maybe you haven’t been doing so well in, be realistic about your goals. Getting above 60% is a reasonable goal if that’s what you’ve been averaging in the unit. Nothing is more demotivating than setting yourself an unachievable goal, getting nowhere near it, and then thinking you’re a failure.

Also, don’t be too hard on yourself! Not achieving your goal isn’t the worst thing in the world, you can learn from it! If you don’t get the mark you want in your midsem, look at what you can improve on, and study these areas to nail them in the final. If a friend got a a better mark than you, don’t try to compare yourself to them. In fact, asking them to explain a question that you got wrong can help both of you to revise.

“I have exam anxiety because I’ve failed before/I never do well in exams”

Okay, stop right there! One exam is not every exam. I’ve heard this countless times. Many people say that they don’t do well in exams because they get exam anxiety and they tend to freeze up when it comes to sitting them. The thing is, the more you think like this, the more you increase stress about exams. Stop thinking about exams as something that you don’t do well in. Shift your thinking to making each exam an independent thing. Didn’t do well on the last physics exam? That’s okay! This next physics exam will be different because you have learnt from the last one/studied harder/prepared earlier.

Feel confident in yourself! You know how hard you worked, how much effort you put in. That doesn’t change because it’s an exam. Exams are based off of course content, so you have everything you need to do well. Avoid thinking about exams as something that you always fail, think of them as an opportunity to show how much you know and how hard you have worked.

Got more tips on reducing exam anxiety? Let me know in the comments!

Exam anxiety is something that affects many students and stems from different things. Here are some of the reasons for exam nerves and how to tackle them.

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  • Those are such great tips, Alana! I personally really like the idea of practicing under exam conditions. I did this for a few exams when I was just really nervous because I thought I would never be able to finish on time, and it definitely helped!