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8 Tips for Exam Success

exams students test anxiety Dec 14, 2017

Exams are upon you!

You have lots of work to do and there is a nagging worry inside your head; “What if I mess up this time?” You might even have trouble switching off and sleeping at night, and your appetite may be a bit off.  Welcome to the pressure filled world of the student.

It’s really normal to feel stressed at exam time.  If you are not at all stressed, then you don’t really care much about the outcome.  A healthy level of pressure let’s you feel motivated, ensures you keep working and helps you maintain focus.  But when your stress goes over the top, it will interfere with your success.  That’s when it’s time to take these steps to maximize your chances of doing well on exams.  

1. Prepare.  Nothing will increase your anxiety more than going into an exam and not knowing your material.  This one seems like a no-brainer, but many of us don’t take the time to adequately prepare.  It would be like going into a competition without having done all the training, and expecting a Personal Best!  Take time to develop a written study plan.  Prioritize your list of subjects to study in advance and give yourself a realistic amount of time to get your work done.  Look back at some of your best exam results and ask yourself how you prepared.  Balance your schedule.  Say “no” to extra time commitments and prioritize your contacts.

2. Know When to Switch Off.  I once worked with someone who was studying a panicked and frenzied, 20 hours per day for their medical school entrance exams. Yes, the other 4 were reserved for sleep.  Knowing when to switch off is key.  Once you have prepared your material, more is not better.  Don’t wait for your hair to fall out before you know you have gone too far!  In fact during sleep we consolidate information and increase our cognitive capacity and focus.  So set a time at night, one hour before bed, to put the books away and stick with it.  Do something relaxing before bed.  Try for 8 hours of sleep minimum, if you can.

3. Banish Worry Thoughts.  Worry thoughts are your own worst enemy.  They sound like a bad song, stuck in your head that keeps looping!   Lyrics from this bad song can include, “What if I fail”, or better yet, “I’m gonna fail”, “I’m not ready”, “I don’t know this”, “I’m gonna be so embarrassed when I get a bad mark”, “If I have to repeat this class, I’m gonna die!” and one of the most common, “What if I go blank”. SHUT UP! (Not you, your worry thoughts). There is an absolute zero tolerance policy for worry thoughts. Shut them down, even when they try to sneak back in.

4. Boost Helpful Thoughts. Instead of worry thoughts, we want helpful, positive thoughts. This song sounds like, “I’ve got this”, “It’s time to show off what I know”, “I can focus all the way through the exam”’ “If there is something I don’t know, I will skip it, then go back”. Even if you are not actually feeling positive like this, or if indeed you are not really ready – it doesn’t matter, you still stick with the helpful thoughts as this will maximize your chances of managing your anxiety, thus being more focused and ultimately doing your best.

5. Keep it in Perspective. I really can’t think of an absolute rule whereby if you do poorly in one exam, that’s it for the rest of your life. There is always another path to take or another way in.  In fact, to be a Registered Psychologist the licensing exam has around a 60% fail rate.  This exam is taken after you have a Masters degree or PhD, and have past all your other courses. That’s a lot of bright people failing!  So what do people do?  They take it again and most pass.  Just think, if all of us who failed our learners or drivers tests were never allowed to drive for the rest of our lives, the car companies would be in big trouble!  So don’t let your anxiety get carried away and make your exams seem like life and death.  

6. Refocus during Exam.  You reach a question or two that you are unsure of and all of a sudden your anxiety starts to spike, perhaps even moving into panic. Time to stop, feel your back against the chair and your legs supported, exhale slowly – then inhale, take a drink, if you are permitted a water bottle, repeat your helpful thoughts, move to the next question you know or take an educated guess, then move on.  Repeat if necessary, all the while knowing that all you can do is give it your best in the moment.  Do not give in to the anxiety and start to second-guess yourself, changing a bunch of answers.  Your first answer is more likely to be correct, unless you have realized an obvious mistake.

7.  Accept your Stress.  It’s okay to have some exam stress. Notice it. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Don’t let it run your show. YOU still manage your time, your thoughts, your eating, your resting, your hydrating, and your life!  Imagine yourself successfully writing your exam to boost your confidence.  Take control and you will take care of your exams, the best way you can!

8.  Let it Go.  Once the exam is over we are often tempted to do a post- mortem of the answers, then focus on all the questions we are convinced we got wrong. Once it’s done, it’s done. You have absolutely no more control; so do not torture yourself while you are waiting for the results. Instead take the time to have a reprieve. Take a break. Then be ready for the next test when it comes around.

Oh, and as for the person sitting their med. school exams?  Well, they created more balance for themselves; dealt with their anxiety and worked on the above strategies and they are now successfully practicing medicine!

If you would like to further train your success to be confidently and calmly in control, check out our Mental Skills Training Programs and sign up for our free mini courses.