Exam Stress


Exam stress

Exam anxiety is experienced by many students and may include:

  • excessive worry about upcoming exams
  • fear of being evaluated
  • apprehension about the consequences
  • manageable by following a plan of helpful suggestions

Four main areas which can contribute to your exam anxiety are:


  • inadequate rest
  • poor nutrition
  • too many stimulants
  • insufficient exercise
  • time management problems


  • strategies for exam-taking
  • academic information such as course requirements, lecturers' expectations, exam dates and exam location
  • knowledge of how to apply anxiety reduction techniques

Poor studying styles

  • Inefficient: inconsistent content coverage; trying to memorize the textbook; binge studying; all-night studying before exams
  • Ineffective: reading without understanding; cannot recall the material; not making revision notes; not revising

Psychological factors

  • feeling little or no control over the exam situation 
  • negative thinking and self-criticism 
  • irrational thinking about exams and outcomes
  • irrational beliefs "If I don't pass, my (family/boyfriend/girlfriend/friends) will lose respect for me"; "I will never get a Degree."
  • irrational demands "I have to get at least a 2.1 or I am worthless."
  • catastrophic predictions "I'll fail no matter what I do—there’s no point."

General exam stress-busting tips

  • Believe in yourself and don't worry excessively.
  • Don't try to be perfect. Aim to do your best but do recognise that none of us can be perfect all of the time.
  • Take steps to overcome problems. Talk to your Tutor or ask your classmates if you have a question about the exam.
  • Don't keep things bottled up. Confiding in someone is a great way to alleviate stress and worry. Make an appointment to speak with a Life and Wellbeing Adviser at Student Services:
  • Keep things in perspective. Interrupt negative thoughts with positive ones and actively challenge your irrational thoughts.
  • Plan your study time with study sessions about 50 minutes long separated by 5 – 10 minute breaks. You may want to try using a Revision planner (PDF, 431 KB)
  • Try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Tiredness increases anxiety. Resilience is helped by:
    • exercise
    • positive thoughts
    • healthy diet
    • regular and adequate sleep 
  • Get accurate information from your School about the exam date, time and location as well as what you can/should take into the exam.
  • Get yourself into exam mode. Practise on sample tests and look at past exams. Ask your Lecturer for advice.
  • Plan. Rest well the night before. Arrive at the exam location early. If you can pick your seat, choose one away from the doors, windows or other distractions. Plan to monitor the time during the exam so wear a watch or sit where you can see the clock. Plan to wear layers of clothing so you can adjust your need for more warmth or coolness. 
  • Avoid bad things. Give coffee and other stimulants a miss. Avoid other people or things that may disturb your self-confidence, focus and level of relaxation.

Tips for the revision period

  • Leave plenty of time to revise so that you don't have to do last minute cramming. 
  • Develop a timetable so that you can track and monitor your progress. Allow time for fun and relaxation, but avoid drugs and alcohol. 
  • Take a short break as soon as you notice your mind is losing concentration, but don't get distracted.
  • Experiment with alternative revision techniques
  • Don't drink too much coffee, tea or fizzy drinks; the caffeine will make your thinking less clear. 
  • Regular moderate exercise will boost your energy, clear your mind, reduce feelings of stress and help you sleep better.

Tips for the exam itself

  • It's natural to feel some exam nerves but don't panic
  • The quickest and most effective way to eliminate feelings of stress and panic is to close your eyes and take several long, slow deep breaths.  Give yourself a mental pep-talk by repeating "I am calm" or "I know I will do fine".
  • If your mind goes blank focus on slow, deep breathing for about one minute. If you still can't remember the information, then move on to another question and return to this question later.
  • Take a small bottle of water into the exam with you and some sweets (if allowed—find out ahead of time). Have a drink of water. If you are really stuck, you might consider getting up and taking a short walk outside the room to compose yourself or going to the toilet. When you are able, get back to work - remember that it is better to put something down rather than nothing.
  • Remember that the invigilator is there to assist you (for instance with distracting noises, if the sun is shining on your exam paper, if you need a drink of water, etc.).
  • Survey what’s in front of you
    • Read the instructions carefully
    • Quickly survey every page of the exam paper
    • See what will be expected of you
    • Re-read the instructions a second time (are you really being asked to answer either one or three of the questions?)
  • Prioritise what needs to be done
    • When surveying the exam paper, place a mark beside all questions you know you can answer
    • Divide up your time according to the importance of the questions
    • Answer the easiest questions first to guarantee marks in the least amount of time
  • Pace yourself
    • Do not rush through the exam
    • Regularly check time left for the rest of the questions
    • Give yourself time to proofread; you should not still be writing at the invigilator’s “5 minutes remaining” announcement

After the exam

  • Whatever you do, don't spend endless time criticising yourself for where you think you went wrong. Often our own self-assessment is far too harsh. Congratulate yourself for the things you did right, learn from the bits where you know you could have done better, and then move on.
  • Plan to reward yourself for your hard work.  After the exam, do something you enjoy. If you are going to meet up with someone, you could agree with them that you will only talk about the exam for 5 minutes - or even not at all. It’s important that you let the stress of the exam go, especially if you have more exams to sit.

Some anxiety reduction techniques

Take a deep breath:

  • hold it for three seconds
  • exhale audibly all at once and let your head, jaw and shoulders drop
  • breathe easy ‘into’ your neck, jaw and shoulders and breathe again into the relaxed state
  • repeat cycle once or twice
  • if you try this in an exam, you will likely want to exhale more quietly so that you don’t disturb the other students

Total tension release (can be done lying down or sitting):

  • tense your whole body one part at a time
  • tightly close your eyes
  • take a deep breath and hold it for five seconds
  • let your breath and the tension in your body go all at once
  • feel the tension leave your body

Relaxation sanctuary (useful in the exam):

  • focus on the inner screen of your mind’s eye
  • imagine your ideal, safe, relaxing place
  • close your eyes
  • in your mind, send yourself there for 15 to 30 seconds
  • breathe easily and enjoy the relaxation
  • go there whenever you need a quick relaxing break 


  • really feel that smile spread throughout your body
  • take a deep breath and exhale through your mouth

Online Resources

Our SilverCloud service offers a CBT based module, Space from Stress, on managing stress which you can access at any time.


If you or someone you know is going through a difficult time or coping with a condition or stressor, sometimes reading about these situations can help. Shelf Help provides a guide to self-help resources held by the library.

Library books

  • Passing exams without anxiety: How to get organised, be prepared and feel confident of success, Acres, D. (1998) How To Books.
  • Passing Exams: A guide for maximum success and minimum stress, Hamilton, D (2003) Thomson Publishing.

Student Services has invested in this online package with E-Books, videos and worksheets. If you would like to talk about the material or have questions, then please contact the Life and Wellbeing Team (support.advice@st-andrews.ac.uk) at Student Services.