His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy,
there’s vomit on his sweater already: Mom’s spaghetti,
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down…
Short of forgetting the subject content and having vomit on their sweaters, this is close to the feeling of many students before their exams. For the unluckier ones, they may well be a shaking wreck and forgetting their study (and leaving sick on themselves).
Where does this stress come from? One main factor is related to the brain’s affinity for patterns. This evolved trait helps humans to survive their environment. When something unfamiliar occurs, or a recognised threat appears – such as a potentially ego-destroying exam - the pattern of familiarity and safety has been broken and the fight-or-flight response kicks in. If this response, or stress, is too intense, memory retrieval and concentration is impaired. We need to be as calm as possible to be at our test-taking best.
So how can we avoid losing ourselves in the stress of test day and maximise our test performance?
- Preparation: First off, there is absolutely no substitute for preparation before the day. Nothing. Nada. Zip. No amount of test-taking tips will save you if you don’t have the content reliably stored in your head already. Make sure you’ve been looking up study skills as well as test tips.
- Get a good night sleep: instead of cramming into the wee hours, ensure that you have caught enough Z’s the night before the exam. Sleep helps to consolidate memories so all that study from the day before will be useless if you don’t get the sleep that helps to lay it down. Not only that, but it is well established that a lack of sleep leads to poor concentration. Not exactly ideal for an exam.
- Eat well: You want slow-burning, consistent energy to carry you through the mental grunt work. This means avoiding sugary foods and drinks as the short-term high will be followed by a blood sugar level crash. Same goes for caffeinated drinks. Instead, aim for complex carbohydrates (fresh fruit, vegetable, oats) and protein (eggs, whole-grain cereal, nuts, milk, fish). And ensure that you stay hydrated with plenty of water (but not so much that you’ll lose time on bathroom breaks).
- Arrive early: no need for unnecessary stress by cutting it fine.
- Be aware of others: avoid the nervous wrecks as you don’t need to catch that bad energy, and avoid others with negative talk – “I’m so nervous” “I don’t know if I’ve studied enough” “I am going to fail”.
- Avoid last minute study. You want to be focusing on mentally accessing the information and staying calm, which leads to…
- Meditation and self-talk: research repeatedly demonstrates the benefits of meditation and positive self-talk. Just the repetition of a calming mantra – “You have prepared, you will be fine” “Breathe out tension, inhale calm” – is effective at reducing stress levels. Take some deep breaths, let that additional oxygen soak the brain, and feel the calm and focus.
- If possible, sit at your normal seat. Remember, familiarity is your friend.
- Listen very carefully to teacher instructions: no need for anxiety from missing instructions.
- Make sure that you have checked all pages and are aware of every question: I have seen top students miss entire pages of questions in exams and suffer the fallout. Avoid this simple but crushing mistake.
- Do a memory dump: at the start of the exam, if the subject calls for it, write down as many essential facts, dates, equations, etc. on a spare page as possible. This can help you avoid confusion and the fear of forgetting later on.
- Read the question carefully: this cannot be emphasised enough. Ensure that you are only writing down relevant information and check that you have actually addressed what the question wanted. This is all the more relevant in older years. Have you been describing when you should have been analysing, or have you been analysing when you should have been describing?
- Answer every question: teachers want to give marks. Even if you are completely thrown on some questions, just get the information down that you think is relevant. You may be pleasantly surprised.
- Plan effectively: Allow enough time for the difficult questions. Smash the easy and comfortable questions first, then return to the uncertain ones.
- Cues: look for cues from other questions. Some questions may even indirectly provide the answer, or some valuable information, to another one.
- Stay positive and in control: if you’re getting anxious in the exam and having a moment, take a break. Stop. Breathe deeply. Close your eyes. Visualise your favourite place or a serene environment. Bring up that positive talk – “you have prepared, the information is in there, the answers will come, you can do this”. Remember, everyone gets the same emotions, whether it’s fear, stress or sadness. It’s how we respond to these emotions that matters. You are in control of that response.
- Review: for the love of God, if you finish before the clock, go back and review your work. Discovering simple errors on your marked work that you hadn’t reviewed just plain sucks.
Go forth and smash those exams!