Very few people enjoy examinations and most students experience anxiety while revising for and sitting papers. Here are some suggestions which may help you cope with the anxiety they may cause.
The best way to increase confidence and reduce anxiety is to be well prepared, so start your revision in good time. Many tutors will build it into your course but you will need to make your own plans as well to make sure you have covered all the topics you think you need to know.
Begin by spending a little time organising your work space and your material. It can help to separate out the areas where you work and those where you relax. Think about using libraries to do most of your work. Move things that distract you into the area where you relax. Similarly organise your notes and files so that you can find things easily. Look at past papers. Make sure you know the format of the examination. Take advantage of the opportunities to sit a mock examination.
Select topics you intend to answer questions on – usually this will depend on what you are interested in and feel you understood best and also on what you feel is likely to come up in the examination (use past papers as a guide). As a rule of thumb revise the number of questions that you are required to answer plus two but this is not appropriate for some subjects – consult your tutor if in doubt. How much you decide to revise may also depend on the time you have available.
Your revision plan
Make a revision plan. Allocate more time to subjects you are unsure about or did a long time ago. More recent work will be fresher in your mind and will probably not need as much time spending on it. Your plan needs to be flexible to allow for some things taking longer than you expect. Be realistic about how much time you can work each day and how much you can get through in the time. Revise subjects that make you feel anxious fairly early on so that you reduce the anxiety and feel you have the time to deal with them. It may be best not to do them first, but to begin with something you know well to boost your confidence. Active revision is better than passive revision. Take notes. Make summaries of notes. Review what you have learned regularly. Recite aloud, test yourself and make cards or tapes to use outside the study situation.
Practice. Use the material you have learned to write essay plans, write answers to single questions from past papers, do full collections if these have been avoided. Practice short answers, if these are part of your examinations. Get feedback from tutors if possible.
Look after yourself. Revision is hard work so make sure you eat and sleep well and take time off to relax, see friends and exercise. This will make you more productive. Avoid excessive use of caffeine and alcohol. Don't stay up all night revising. You will perform much better after a good night's sleep.
Coping with anxiety
Anxiety is normal and, for most of us, inevitable at examination time. Anxiety can be experienced as a range of feelings from uneasiness to severe panic. It is usually experienced in three ways:
- emotionally: with feelings of fear and nervousness
- physically: dry mouth, feeling sick or a churning stomach, heart beating faster than usual, sweating, shaking, wanting to go to the lavatory all the time, breathing difficulties
- cognitively: frightening thoughts, such as "I'm going to fail / make a fool of myself / losing control / I'm going mad" and so on.
At worst, anxiety and the fear of panic attacks can affect our life and behaviour in all kinds of ways: we may be unable to work or sleep, find ourselves avoiding people or places, or trying to cope by drinking or smoking too much. Think about if there are any practical solutions you can adopt to reduce your anxiety. These could include prioritising your time, making a realistic plan of action; finding out information or getting feedback if you feel confused or unsure about something; trying to live a "balanced" life, spending time on different aspects of your life, eating well, sleeping, exercise, socialising as well as working.
Put your situation into perspective
Question negative thoughts which make you feel more anxious. The way we think about a stressful situation often makes it seem worse, as our emotional state can distort our thoughts. Try to stand back and evaluate things more realistically and calmly, to put your situation into perspective.
- Don't judge yourself too harshly: try to focus on your strengths and success as much as your failures and weaknesses; accept that no one is perfect, and don't expect too much of yourself.
- Don't "catastrophise": try not to see things in all-or-nothing terms, or assume failing in a situation would be the end of the world.
- Try not to worry excessively about the future: trying to predict what is going to happen in the future, when we have no means of knowing, can make us feel very anxious; concentrate on dealing with present realities.
- Try not to compare yourself to others: it's easy to assume everyone else is doing fine except you; actually, you don't really know how others are feeling or coping.
Reassure yourself and learn to relax. If you become very anxious, try one of the following:
- relaxation – a hot bath, chatting to friends, listening to music, yoga, meditation or a relaxation tape
- distraction – this means anything that you can get involved in and that takes your mind off your anxieties, for example, TV, cinema, a good novel, sport or exercise
- think positively. When we are anxious, we tend to focus on our negative thoughts and this can increase our anxiety.
Many students find their sleep is disturbed around examination time. If you are having difficulty sleeping try some of these simple techniques. Expect improvement to be gradual rather than immediate.
- Do not drink tea, coffee, chocolate drinks or alcohol too close to bedtime. Herbal teas, especially camomile and dill, are thought to help relaxation and sleep.
- Do not take any naps or extra sleep during the day even if you are tired from the night before.
- Develop a regular night time routine. Stop work at least an hour before you intend to go to bed and prepare for bed gradually. Try to do something relaxing before you go to bed. Aim to go to bed at approximately the same time every night and get up at the same time each day.
- Doing some exercise in the day may help you to sleep.
- If something is worrying you, try writing it down and telling yourself you will deal with it the next day.
- If you can't get to sleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, get up and do something else. After 15 minutes, go back to bed and try to go to sleep again. If you still can't fall asleep, get up again and do some other relaxing activity. Repeat this process until you do fall asleep.
- Aromatherapists recommend essential oil of lavender as an aid to relaxation.
- Make sure your bed and bedroom are comfortable.
On the day of the examination:
- arrive on time but not too early
- use any time before you are allowed to look at the paper to take a few deep breaths and relax as much as possible
- take your time to read through the paper and select the questions you will answer
- some people like to plan all their answers before beginning to write but others plan and write each answer in turn
- make sure you answer the question you are asked, not the one you would prefer
- keep a firm eye on the time and answer the required number of questions. Two brilliant answers will not get you as many marks as three average ones
- write legibly.
There is very little point in conducting a detailed post-mortem. Once the examination is over there is nothing you can do to change what you have written and it may only make you more anxious in the next examination if you focus on faults and omissions. A period of rest or relaxation or even exercise should help you to unwind before you begin preparing for the next.
Whilst revising or in examinations students sometimes become very anxious and feel they are having a panic attack. Usually this means that you will be breathing very fast and may feel dizzy, nauseous, sweating, shaky or faint. These feelings can be very unpleasant but they are not dangerous. Try to control them by pausing and slowing down your breathing. Breathe in slowly and smoothly and breathe out slowly too. You should aim for smooth, slow, regular but fairly shallow breathing. Let your body relax and reassure yourself that you are not going to lose control or collapse. As you begin to feel better, try to focus on one question on the examination paper that you feel able to answer and begin to plan and write the answer to this question. Your anxiety should continue to decrease as you write. However bad you feel, do not leave the examination as your anxiety level will fall in a short time and you will begin to feel better.
If you are feeling nervous or anxious about things in your life, talking to a close friend, a family member or a tutor or supervisor may be helpful. Most colleges have chaplains, college nurses, welfare officers or academic advisors willing to listen and provide support. Visit health and welfare for information on the services available.
You may find the resources listed under ‘performing academically’ helpful, particularly: How to Pass Exams without Anxiety by David Acres, How to Books Ltd (1995).