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Managing Exam Stress

Test Anxiety

Cramming! Sound Familiar?

For many students the thought of studying for an exam brings to mind last-minute cramming and pulling all-nighters. Finally sitting down to study sometimes only happens when reality hits and you realize if you don't get started right away and use what little time remains, you might end up failing the exam. Then for the next few days - or hours if you are really in trouble! - you frantically gather together your notes and try to study intensely until you feel you have at least a grasp on the information, only to feel frustrated with your results later on. Sound familiar? We all know last-minute cramming isn't the most effective way to get ready for an exam. It's always best to start early and build ongoing review into your study time regularly, to avoid last-minute panic at exam time.

However, sometimes even with the best plans and the most perfectly crafted study schedule, there will be times where you discover you have to cram too much studying into too little time.  Here are some helpful hints on how to make the most out of this less than perfect situation.

  • Make Choices - Pick the most important points and learn them well.
  • Make a Plan - Chose what you want to study and how much time to devote to each section.
  • Use Mindmaps or Condensed Study Notes/Flash Card - Condense the material you’ve chosen to learn into mind maps.  Practice by redrawing the mind maps.  Put each separate key point from your mind map onto cue cards or simple study notes and drill yourself using these.
  • Recite, Recite, Recite - No time to move info into long-term memory so repetitive recitation is your new best friend.  Reciting will ‘burn’ the material into your short-term memory. 
  • Relax - Cramming stores information into short-term memory.  If you experience anxiety during the exam you may forget what you have learned since distractions can easily disrupt recall.  Use relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety.  Put the exam into perspective.  If you don’t do really well will it be the end of your academic career?  Will this be an irreversible mistake that completely throws your life off track leaving you with no hope for the future and ‘homeless person’ as your only career option?  NO!  You have to work a lot harder than just cramming for 1 exam to mess up your life that much (so don’t flatter yourself!).  Visualize your life 1 month, 1 year or 1 decade after the exam.  You’ll realize how rather miniscule this event is in the grand scheme of your existence.
  • Don’t ‘Should’ Yourself - If you start your cramming session beating yourself up with statements like, “I should have started studying earlier”, by the time you get to studying you might feel too guilty and depressed to continue or effectively absorb the material.  Instead, accept the truth and focus on the task at hand.  Try to stay in the moment and not worry about ‘what might have been’.  Remind yourself that you are HUMAN and that you will learn from this experience and avoid cramming in the future.

Working with Test Anxiety

After calculating their existing grade, some students actually find out that they are doing better than they thought they would. Some find a concrete goal in terms of a grade to shoot for on the exam and this helps them focus and begin study with better concentration. Remember that exams measure what you can demonstrate about your learning thus far in a course of study, not your worth as a person.

  • Know that you know what you know. Much of exam anxiety comes from a fear of poor performance. If you can test yourself adequately prior to an exam and go in with the knowledge that you do know your stuff, you might find your anxiety diminished.
  • Some anxiety is normal in an exam situation. In fact, some would say that to a degree, anxiety is facilitative of sharp concentration and alertness. When anxiety begins to impede your ability to perform to your ability, then it may be time to seek further help with it. If you find your anxiety to be extreme and accompanied by headaches, nausea, feelings of despair, shaking and trembling, or blanking out, then it might be worth looking into services for reducing stress and anxiety at your campus Counselling Centre. The relaxation strategies and exercises provided take time to develop and will probably be most productive for exams a few months down the road, given a few months of diligent practice.
  • Symptoms of stress or anxiety can be worsened by drastic changes in sleep and eating routines, but they can be diminished with some physical activity like walking, swimming, or skating.
  • Breaking the study into smaller, one hour, or half hour, time units and inserting a break in between the sessions of study can be helpful in maintaining productive activity and providing a much needed rest or time-out. The few minutes break offers you a chance to stretch, it allows you to focus and concentrate on a reasonably sized package of information, and allows for some sense of progress on a regular basis.
  • If you're very short of time, you might try focusing the bulk of your time on areas that need work rather than on those which you already know and can remember well. This way you can cover more of the course material. Though some people experience a little anxiety from working through the hard stuff, many feel that this strategy offers a chance for greater effectiveness and course material coverage.
  • Beware the frantic student! It is hard sometimes to establish a controlled outlook for an exam, but it is easy to lose this outlook when you come into contact with somebody who is very highly anxious. The natural habitat of this kind of highly stressed individual is the main entrance to the exam room, just before an exam begins, trying to learn those last bits of information before the exam. If this is you or if this scenario seems familiar to you, then you might want to be aware that this may raise your anxiety at the worst possible time. Beware of picking up on the concerns and stress of other students. Probably we pick up more stray anxiety than we need to. If you review minutes before the exam and this helps you, then you might want to do so just out of range of the exam room.
  • Try to eliminate negative self statements such as "I'm going to fail this exam for sure because I'm such a big dummy." Whether negative statements are accurate or not, they work to convince us that they are accurate and this has an impact on our behaviours and self concept. This negative thinking may limit our ability to perform to standard on an exam. Replacing negative statements with genuine positive statements like "I'm studying hard and I did passably well during the term, I should do similarly well on this exam." may help curb anxiety and bolster your sense of confidence.
  • Try to focus on the task at hand. That is, focus on the activities of studying for and responding to questions on the exam rather than on potential negative consequences. Catastrophizing - ie., focusing on grim forecasts of future jobs, lifestyle and so on, are more likely to raise anxiety than to help you control it.

Reducing Anxiety in the Exam Room

Some students feel anxious only during the exam or test. Some ways of reducing anxiety during the test follow:

  • Scan through the whole exam to discover which questions you are able to do with relative ease and plan to do these first. The result is likely to be a little more confidence and the comfort of knowing that there are no easy marks that you missed on the exam.
  • Examine the marking scheme of the test or exam and plan to divide your time evenly among the available marks of the exam; e.g., spend ten percent of your time on ten percent of the marks for the test. While you may not stay strictly with this limit, it is worthwhile to know how many minutes you should spend per percentage point in the exam. Following this guideline gives you a sense of progress and feedback about how you are doing. It is important to keep track of your time so that you have an opportunity to answer all questions: after all, it is better to give a 75% answer on all questions than perfect answers on 50% of the exam.
  • Some students even find it helpful to set mini-breaks at specified points during the exam during which they close their eyes, relax their hands and do deep breathing exercises. Even thirty seconds can help bring down your symptoms of stress if you use one of the various relaxation strategies.
  • At all times try to focus on the process of answering the question rather than on the end result.

Additional Resources

Study Task Breakdown for Exams (pdf)A useful tool to help you create a plan for exam studying.
Talk Back to Academic Anxiety! (pdf)Learn about academic anxiety and the practices to reduce anxiety.
15-Second Breathing Exercise (pdf)A quick activity to help regulate your breathing, reduce anxiety and bring back calmness.
Stress Relief Exercise (video, 16 minutes)Progressive relaxation training with a mindfulness counselor.
Mental Health Resource SheetStudent Counselling, Health & Well-being
Exam PrepLearning Skills Workshop
Managing Academic Stress Learning Skills Workshop