How to deal with exam stress

last minute preparation

How to deal with exam stress

In my Class X History Board exam, I inadvertently omitted a 10-mark question. Later in the day, when my friends were discussing the paper, I realised my goof-up. And, I was devastated! I remember crying the entire evening.

In retrospect, while I still recall the incident, mainly because of the intense emotions it aroused in me, did those 10 marks really mar my life? Not at all. In fact, I don’t even remember what marks I ended up getting.  However, on the day of the test, I felt that my mistake would have far-reaching consequences.

We live in a culture that exalts examination results, especially at the Class 10 and 12 levels, when children are exposed to public exams. Yes, your marks may determine what course you pick next or what college you get into, but they do not chart the rest of your life. Even if your parents and teachers insist that marks are the be-all and end-all of life, you should try and keep your head afloat and tell yourself that there are umpteen paths to success. If one college shuts its doors to you, another one may open. Besides, contrary to what many people believe, life does offer us many second chances. It is up to us to take them.

That said, I hope I have alleviated some of your exam anxiety. While it’s normal, natural and even beneficial to be slightly anxious about an exam, being overly worried can sabotage your performance. To do well in exams, you need a clear mind so that your working memory works optimally. Working memory is akin to mental notepad and refers to the number of items you can hold at any given moment. So, as you draft your answer or solve complex equations, you need a mental sketchpad that is not clouded by worries.

Study timetable

Thus, taming your anxiety can be just as important as revising your notes. Exercising regularly can definitely help in keeping your anxiety down. Unfortunately, many students cut down on their extracurricular activities in the time of examination, and thereby end up not getting the requisite amount of exercise. Besides calming your nerves, exercise also promotes brain function. So, it is in your best interests to continue your tennis or swimming lessons, even though your exams are coming up in a month’s time.

Another problem that hits students during exam prep time is sleep deprivation. You may burn the proverbial midnight oil by cramming in the last minute, but this strategy is unlikely to work over the long haul. Even if you manage to do well by staying up before one or two exams, being sleep-deprived right through your exam month is likely to hurt your performance, and more importantly, your mental and physical health. So, plan ahead and study beforehand as much as you can.

Creating a study timetable can help you tackle your portions in a more organised manner. First, create broad goals for a longer period, like a month. Let’s suppose you plan to finish one revision of all your portions in a month’s time. Then, chalk out how many chapters of each subject you will do per week.

Finally, you may make a more detailed day by day plan for a week, but only for the chapters that you need to cover. This way you don’t waste time making an elaborate plan for a month, which most students don’t stick to anyway. Another advantage of making only weekly detailed plans is that you can make changes based on what you have covered in the previous week.

As I am a big fan of checklists, I also advocate that you make one every single day. Start off the day by listing all that you plan to get done. As you finish a task, checking it off can give you a sense of accomplishment. You will also find that your stress levels will abate as you see a growing number of tick marks on your list. If you find that you are unable to tick off most items on your list day after day, then you have to make more realistic plans. You are either spending too much time on a subject or you are trying to cover too many chapters at once.

In his book How We Learn, author Benedict Carey provides some useful pointers for students. A vital component of exam prep is self-testing. Instead of multiple revisions where you simply reread material, it is better if you actually test yourself.

You may either create your own exam paper (which is a learning exercise in and of itself) or use past papers or a review sheet given by the teacher. Test yourself under exam conditions if possible. Time yourself and do not refer to your books while answering. After doing the test, you can correct your own work. In addition to knowing how well you have studied the material, the act of taking the test will actually promote your recall of the material.

Taking breaks

Final exams are also daunting because of the sheer volume of the portions. In order to optimise your studying, Benedict advocates that you space out your sessions. Instead of revising only one subject over two days and then switching to another, you are probably better off if you intersperse your study of different subjects. Thus, instead of doing a marathon three-hour session of Biology, you may break it up into three one-hour sessions that are spaced out.

Benedict also suggests varying the location of your studying. While you may think that it is best to study in a quiet room with the door closed, Benedict says that changing your location of studying may improve your recall later on. A change of scene may also enhance your attention. However, if you feel that you are too distracted in other locales, go back to studying in your own room. 

Finally, try to enjoy yourself a little.  De-stressing may involve watching TV for some time, talking to friends or just spending time with family. While it is important to study well, taking breaks is also essential.

Here’s wishing all students the very best in their exams. And, if for some reason, your exams don’t go well this time, remember you can always prove your mettle on another occasion.


Make sure you don’t get too anxious. Doing badly in an exam is not the end of the world.  You can always prove yourself later on.
Exercise regularly to keep fit and reduce your stress levels.
Get adequate sleep.
Identify broad goals for a month and create
detailed study plans for not more than a week.
Create a To Do list everyday.
Test yourself instead of doing repeated revisions.
Space out your studies so that you revisit a subject or topic at increasing intervals.
Change your location of studying if that helps.
Include some down time in your schedule every day.
Tell yourself that there are umpteen paths to success. 



(The author is director, Prayatna, Bengaluru)


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