Exam anxiety before an exam

It is natural to feel nervous before an exam. A moderate amount of anxiety probably aids performance as it produces a rush of adrenaline which can help with focus and concentration. However, too much anxiety can have the opposite effect and lead to panic, inability to concentrate and potentially poor exam performance.

Exam nerves may seem much worse if you are doing exams for the first time or after a long gap. Equally, if English is not your first language, or if you have a specific learning difficulty or mental health condition, exams may seem particularly daunting. There may also be other things in your life that are causing you stress. We are all individuals with different stress levels, personalities and past experiences which can all contribute to our ability to cope with stress and pressure.

Top tips to beat exam anxiety

  1. Be mindful. Allow your exams/revision into your mind ONLY when planning your revision, or when actually revising. The rest of the time, absorb yourself 100% in whatever else you are doing - and don't forget relaxation time!
  2. Anxiety is contagious! Keep tactfully away from others who may increase your exam anxiety.
  3. Keep a record of how much time you spend planning for exams and how much time you spend just worrying about them. Revision is good, but don't let exams invade your headspace.

Be prepared – minimise stress

  • Start revision early. Trying to grasp a whole year’s work in the final days or hours before an exam is likely to lead to more anxiety.
  • Plan a structured revision timetable. Set yourself achievable goals and include breaks and pleasurable activities.
  • Think about the kind of questions that will be asked and practise with past exam papers.
  • Seek help and advice from your department if there is anything you are not sure about, they may run pre-exam workshops.
  • Make sure you look after your general wellbeing:
    • eat regularly and well
    • take regular breaks and get some exercise
    • keep to a regular sleep routine, don’t study late and nap in the day.
  • Find out more about answering exam papers
  • Find out how to manage anxiety in exams

Change how you think about exams

Although exams are important, they are not usually life or death situations. There are usually opportunities to re-sit exams and you will hopefully have had other opportunities to show your knowledge and skills through coursework, lab reports, projects etc.

If you can get away from thinking that exams are of the utmost importance and everything is doomed if you fail, this can take some of the pressure off and enable more effective performance.

It is also important to be realistic. Set your goals and targets at a realistic level in order to better manage your stress and anxiety.

Learn some relaxation techniques

Relaxation and stress management techniques can be learned and acquired with practice. Alternatively, most large bookshops and libraries sell books and tapes which can help teach relaxation techniques. Knowing how to relax can be invaluable in the lead-up to exams and during the exam itself.

Be organised

Make sure you know your exam timetable and where to go. Set off in good time! Have everything you need ready in advance, with any spares. Remember you need your registration card and exam entry form. Do have something to eat before the exam, however queasy you are feeling. It doesn't need to be a huge amount, but you will function better with fuel inside.

Further help

If you have tried the suggested techniques and still feel very anxious or stressed it is worth talking to someone about how you feel and seeking some extra help. Come and talk to an adviser at your Student Services Hub during opening hours.

You can also look at our online mental health programme, SilverCloud, which offers resources to help with anxiety. You can also access the university counselling service or call the Student Wellbeing Support Line (0800 970 5020) to discuss how you can better manage your exam anxiety.

External resources

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Need help?

If you need any further help and advice, please contact or visit the Student Services Hub who will be happy to assist you.