Navigating exams can be difficult, but the University is committed to supporting you as you engage with the process.
Your particular exam-related issues and challenges may be the same as those of your peers or they may be different. But whatever it is that makes the exam experience difficult for you, we would like to support you to address the challenges of exams as effectively as you can, so that you can feel proud of yourself and positive about how you approached the process.
This advice has been developed together with the Counselling Service, and in line with Wellbeing at Oxford - the University’s campaign focused on student mental health and wellbeing.
Effective revision requires planning and discipline, which can prove difficult for some. These steps will help you make the most out of revision preparation.
Undertake a review
Reviewing the syllabus for each module and identifying topics you hope to revise will help to put your mind at ease. Also try to take stock of your current position on each topic. Is your knowledge strong, weak or in between? This will help you to assess the scale of the revision required for each topic and to identify potential areas of vulnerability.
Audit time available for revision
Some people need to ‘see’ time on paper to get an accurate sense of what is available to them. Take a look at your calendar during the exam period and make a timetable for each week, marking in lectures, sports practices, time to relax and other important commitments, then consider how much time is realistically available for revision. Be honest with yourself about the amount of high-quality work you can realistically do each day. It is better to plan on revising early on in small chunks, rather than last minute for long periods of time.
Further advice and guidance can be found in a series of podcasts from the Counselling Service:
- A three part podcast on exam preparation: Part 1; Part 2 and Part 3.
- Facing finals: some psychological tips
Preparation and practice
For some people, the biggest source of exam anxiety is not knowing what questions will come up. But in addition to this, many students are unsettled by the examination process itself. Fortunately, there are many ways in which to build familiarity with the examination process.
Learn about the examination process and conditions
Reviewing the official University guidance on examinations may help to put your mind at ease.
Prepare actively for anything you’re worry about
Start by reflecting on what is causing you anxiety, then be creative in finding ways to mitigate this. For example, if you find the Examination Schools intimidating, try to spend casual time there to feel more at home. Attend examination-related events at the Examination Schools (e.g. exam orientation and exam preparation sessions or mock exam sessions), find and use the toilets, or maybe take a casual look around.
If you’re worried about your ability to concentrate when you can hear small noises around you, make a point of doing some revision sessions where you can practice concentrating in these conditions, rather than in a silent location.
If you feel anxious about having a seat in the middle of the exam hall, make a point of doing some revision in a large space and sit in the middle of the room.
If you worry about the legibility of your handwriting, or your ability to write for three hours without getting cramp, do some handwriting practice each day.
Worried about managing your time during exams? Some students avoid collections and other practice opportunities on the grounds that they are not yet well-enough prepared. In fact, collections are extremely useful even when under-prepared. Get the full exam experience by participating in the Mock Exams held at the Examination Schools throughout Hilary Term and Trinity.
Experiencing anxiety during exams is perfectly normal and can even enhance performance. However, if you feel too much anxiety your performance can begin to suffer. Below are some practices to help you reduce your anxiety during the exam period.
Breathing is perhaps the most powerful tool we have to regulate our anxiety level, and to restore calm and composure. Taking control of your breathing gives you a crucial element of control over your body’s physiological response to stress. Try doing 5 - 10 minutes of breathing exercises twice a day, and also whenever you are conscious of rising anxiety levels.
Apps like BreathingZone can help you to slow your breathing rate gradually over a specified time interval. The University Counselling Service also has a “5 Minute Mindful Breathing Space” podcast which you may find helpful.
Mindfulness meditation or yoga
Many students find Mindfulness Meditation extremely helpful to manage stress. You may not have time to pursue a formal Mindfulness course ahead of Finals, but you can still benefit from a meditation app like Headspace, Waking Up, or Buddhify. You can also use a very simple meditation like ‘Feet, Seat or Hands’.
Use your attention as a tool
As anxiety levels rise, we have a tendency to become pre-occupied with our own thoughts, and much less aware of what is going on outside in the physical world. By consciously directing our attention to the world outside us, we can bring about a significant reduction in anxiety levels. For example, absorb yourself for 10 minutes in a jigsaw puzzle or some colouring in.
What if I have a panic attack?
A panic attack is an extreme episode of anxiety, during which you feel like something really awful is about to happen, or is already happening. Physical symptoms may include breathlessness, palpitations, chest pain, sweating, trembling, a feeling of choking, nausea, and chills or hot flushes. Some people also experience ‘derealisation’ (feeling unreal), numbness, and tingling feelings.
If you experience a panic attack, remain where you are and keep steady, as the feelings are likely to decrease after five or ten minutes.
One way to help yourself is to slow down your breathing rate (possibly using an app like BreathingZone). Another way is by using a technique called Schulz Autogenic Breathing. To use this technique breathe in normally, but as you exhale imagine yourself warming and illuminating your extremities (hands and feet). Gradually you bring about an increase in the temperature of hands and feet, which is a signal of safety.
The University counselling service also advises a four part strategy to prepare for and respond to panic attacks:
- Educate yourself about panic attacks
The more you understand what is happening to you, the less you will feel you are ‘going crazy’ and the more likely you’ll be able to manage.
- Talk to yourself reassuringly
“You are safe”, “you are not having a heart attack”, “you will be alright”. Keep the focus on the present. Don’t add to your panic by thinking about what might happen.
- Accept the feelings
Don’t try to resist or fight the feelings as this may make them last longer. Accept them and reassure yourself that they will pass.
- Anchor yourself in the present
The most effective way to do this is to focus your attention on something concrete, using each of your senses in turn. Notice colours, sounds, textures and smells around you. Give each one your complete focus and experience it with intensity. Having a clear protocol to follow when you are very anxious will help you to feel more settled and in control.
Further lessons from psychology
Reframe your anxiety
Sports psychology teaches us to frame anxiety as anticipatory excitement. When we recognise and accept that this is our body’s way of helping us to mobilize our resources to perform in a situation that really matters to us, it actually facilitates performance.
In an exam context, visualisation might mean imagining yourself walking into the examination hall looking, feeling and thinking in a particular way. Or settling at your desk in the exam schools, feeling relaxed. The fact you are allowing yourself to engage with these images will help you to feel more confident.
Notice how you talk to yourself
This goes way beyond simply ‘being positive’ and involves close attention to the dialogue that takes place between ‘you’ and ‘you’. All too often, the way we motivate ourselves is with critical and anxiety-inducing self-talk. Changing this is one of the most valuable things you can do. Try thinking of yourself as both a worker and manager. The manager’s role is to specify the task, and then to manage and motivate the worker. Notice how your inner manager interacts with your inner worker, and ask yourself: is this the way to get the most out of my worker? If your worker is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and your manager responds by standing over the worker’s should shouting abuse like “you’re useless”, this is unlikely to result in the worker becoming more productive. An enlightened manager would reflect on questions like: “Is the worker overwhelmed by the scale of the task? Would it help to break it down so that it is more do-able?”
Choose and use some trigger words
‘Trigger words’ can motivate you as you perform. To be effective, trigger words must not only be short and vivid but must also emphasise positive targets (what to aim for) rather than negative ones (what to avoid). In an exam setting, trigger words like ‘slow and steady’, and ‘focus’ may help.
Give yourself specific instructions
Anxiety is often unhelpful because it encourages focus on what might go wrong (possible negative consequences) rather than on what you need to do (the immediate challenge of the situation). For this reason, a good way to counter anxiety is to ask yourself: ‘What exactly do I need to do right now?’ Form a clear intention from within and focus on seeing it through.
Have some well-established pre-exam rituals and routines
Pre-event rituals like listening to certain music, eating certain foods the night before or having a particular breakfast can help give you a sense of control.
It is very common for students to neglect their physical needs, for example to fuel late night study with sugar and caffeine, and to ignore a growing sleep-deficit. This may be survivable short-term, but it comes at a high cost—not only in terms of general health but specifically in terms of anxiety level and cognitive function.
Having a sensible, well thought-through routine which involves sleeping enough, eating regular healthy meals and exercising by getting active at Oxford will help you get the most out of your studying and help you to feel safe and secure.
Get plenty of sleep
Getting too little sleep doesn’t just leave you tired, it also increases anxiety. One major study concluded that reducing average sleep from 7.8 hours to 6 hours/night over a 7-day period caused stress hormones adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol to rise 50-80%. If you spend a significant amount of time in front of screens/digital devices, it would be a good idea to switch on ‘night shift mode’ install blue-light limiting software, as exposure to blue light can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Caffeine can be a valuable support to revision, but be aware that caffeine is disruptive if your base level of anxiety is elevated. Caffeine consumption raises anxiety by blocking the action of the chemical adenosine which slows down neural activity and enables us to relax. If you are feeling very anxious, reducing your caffeine consumptions could help.
Alcohol consumption affects both cognitive function and mood. Be honest with yourself about how alcohol impacts you and make thoughtful decisions about how much, and when, to drink.
You can find out more about examination-related events at the Examination School on the Examinations and Assessments pages of the of this website.
The Counselling Service also has a range of supportive resources, including podcasts and advice sheets.
To find out about the University's wider approach to student mental health and wellbeing, see the Wellbeing at Oxford site.