This article was updated in 2019 to ensure the information included remains current.
Exams can be terrifying. It can feel as if in a mere matter of minutes, you could make or break your whole term, year, or academic future.
However, we should try to manage the stress and pressure associated with exams. After all, they are just a set of questions designed to enable you to implement what you have been learning throughout the course. They are not there to trick you or designed to make you fail, rather, they are an opportunity to show how much you know!
An examination hall is a unique place in which your usual mental capacities can be affected, for better or for worse. You may develop an almost superhuman ability to think, create and solve in a way you did not imagine possible. Or you may find that your usually quick-firing brain has decided to take a leave of absence, as you stare at the invigilators and try to remember your own name. The pressure to do well from teachers, institutions, family and yourself can act as a catalyst in these scenarios, either supporting you to achieve your best, or potentially hindering your ability to get the job done. Both reactions, and any others besides, are perfectly acceptable and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you do find yourself feeling like a rabbit in the headlights in the exam room.* The difficulty with exams is that they are uniform, standardised, rigid. You, a human, are anything but. Embrace your individuality and take steps to make the process work for you.
*take a few deep breaths and remind yourself of something really basic that you do know about the subject. Your brain will grind into action and you’ll be firing on all cylinders before you know it.
Revise for you
Before you even enter the exam hall though, an effective revision schedule must be completed – that’s effective for you, not what your friend tells you to do. Your teachers will be able to suggest different methods for revising for your exams. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Some people can look over their notes for half an hour and know everything, others need to copy it out meticulously, taking several hours to colour-code and highlight as they go. Others still prefer to have flash cards and test themselves, and others, using teaching as a means of consolidating their knowledge. Try out these different methods, find what works for you, and then plan your time accordingly. If you need to write notes on the Civil Rights movement in America between 1865 and 1992, you’re going to need to leave yourself plenty of time! Likewise, everyone has a time of the day during which they are at their most efficient. This may be first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The key is to abolish guilt or self-pity: don’t begrudge yourself the odd lie-in if you make up for it with a good session in the evening; don’t feel sorry for yourself at the amount of work you have to do, everyone is in the same position and there is always enough time to get it done if you plan your revision in advance.
The nervous anticipation as you wait outside the exam is possibly the worst moment of the entire exam experience. Some people will be frantically reciting the periodic table, desperate for affirmation that they know enough ‘stuff’. Others, upon hearing how much their classmate knows, will begin a tailspin of self-doubt in which they berate themselves for not working hard enough, not being clever enough, not being psychic enough. Mixed in, you also have those who are silent and pale, irritable and extremely tense, and the blasés who are determined to play it cool, even though they were up until 3am revising the night before.
It is important to figure out what you need before an exam. If standing in this crowd of contradictions and worry makes it harder for you to perform to your best in the exam, then remove yourself. Take yourself to a nearby, quieter area. Listen to music, chat to a friend who feels the same way as you. Don’t be a sheep who copies what everyone else does. At the end of the day, only you can sit your exam. Give yourself your best chance by looking after yourself.
The difficulty with exams is that they are uniform, standardised, rigid. You, a human, are anything but.
Take the plunge
If you’ve made it this far, then it’s time to actually sit the exam. You have invested a huge amount of time and energy to get to this point. This was an investment in yourself. Yes, you would have got detention if you hadn’t done any of the work your teachers set, but in reality, all the time and effort has been for your benefit. Try to take comfort in this fact and trust that you have done enough, probably more than enough. It’s tempting to try and strategise (or catastrophise) about which questions will come up in the paper. This won’t do you any good now. There’s no point in worrying that you can’t remember what Planck’s constant is, and you won’t gain anything from wishing you’d remembered an extra quote from Wuthering Heights. You can’t change the past, so focus on the task at hand. You’ll be great.