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Coping with exam stress

Most people experience pressure, stress and anxiety when it comes to exams. Whilst a certain amount of pressure is good for us and helps us to perform well, it is important to keep some balance and perspective.

Read through the Revision & Exams study guide and organise your revision time. Planning ahead will mean you can keep to a sensible schedule; Don't feel you have to spend every waking hour in the library, revising well means revising wisely and balancing work with exercise and relaxation. We've also put together some tips and techniques below to help you to prepare for exams.

Recognise the symptoms of stress

The NHS LiveWell website advises on the temporary effects of stress, which include;

  • lack of concentration
  • inability to sleep
  • difficulty in processing information
  • irritability.

Stress suppresses your immune system so you're more likely to catch a cold or feel under the weather, which doesn't help your performance in exams. In high levels, stress can lead to mental health problems e.g. depression or anxiety. Check out the LiveWell website for more advice on surviving exams or the Anxiety & stress webpage.

Sources of support

Most importantly, if you feel that your exam anxiety is building up to a point where sleep is difficult, your health is suffering or your relationships with your friends and family are affected you need to seek some help. Talk to your personal tutor or doctor. Support available on campus includes Student Support & Engagement TeamStudent WellbeingChaplaincy and SUBU Advice. Further information can be found in the Health & Wellbeing webpages.

You can also read some of our BU student blogs for advice direct from a fellow student:

Further information

If you feel that your individual circumstances could affect your exam results you should talk to your Programme Administrator (PA) or Programme Leader (PL) to see if you may be able to request a coursework extension or have your exam(s) postponed. In fact the sooner we know the sooner we can offer advice and any support that is needed. Find out more on the Exceptional Circumstances page.

Help yourself prepare for exams

Tips for the revision period

  • Devise a daily planner identifying times of work, study and leisure. The more detailed this is the better, so you have a clear idea of revision times
  • Leave plenty of time to revise so that you don't have to do last minute cramming. Preparing well will help to boost your confidence and reduce any pre-exam stress
  • Use past papers where you can, setting yourself targets to complete them in the allocated time
  • Practise planning the questions you may get. Keep focusing on the question in hand – not the “what ifs”
  • Be realistic about what you can fit in and about the time allocated to different projects
  • Stick to your deadlines. If this changes it has a knock on effect on the rest of your planner and work load
  • Plans need to be flexible; this allows you to change your mind
  • If it becomes clear that the plan is not working, you will need to re-prioritise your schedule. Look at what is most important. What will takes less time to get up to speed with
  • Simple techniques like planning for a reward when a piece of work has been achieved may help. Start with some of the topics you find easier to establish a routine
  • If you don't understand some of your course material, take action to address the problem directly by seeing your personal tutor or getting help from your course mates.

Tips for looking after yourself

  • Give yourself a break – you can only absorb information for so long before it becomes confusing. You're much more likely to remember stuff if you have plenty of breaks, even if it's just making a cup of tea
  • Try not to eat too much junk food and don't drink alcohol, but do plan a big night out when the exams have finished
  • Stress messes with peoples' sleep patterns. Take time to relax before going to bed. That way you'll fall asleep, rather than lie awake worrying about all the work you've got to do
  • Make time to do things you enjoy – hobbies etc
  • Regular moderate exercise will boost your energy, clear your mind and reduce any feelings of stress
  • Don't keep things bottled up; Confiding in someone you trust and who will be supportive is a great way of alleviating stress and worry
  • Keep things in perspective; The exams might seem like the most crucial thing right now, but in the grander scheme of your whole life they are only a small part.

Tips for the exam itself

After all your preparation, the day of your exam has finally arrived. Here are our top tips to help the day go as smoothly as possible for you.

The day before
Check you are certain where and what time the exam is, make sure you are prepared, try to avoid learning anything new, find ways to relax – such as seeing friends, going for a walk or using relaxation techniques - and try to get a good night’s sleep.

The day of the exam
Have a substantial breakfast, try to avoid studying for the last hour before the exam. Instead do something simple or mundane, turn up in plenty of time and use relaxation techniques if feeling stressed.

During the exam
Read the instructions and questions carefully before starting, take a few deep breaths, use the rough paper to jot ideas down, pick questions that relate well to your revision, think about planning how much time to allocate to each question, plan your answer and keep an eye on the time.

If you panic or feel your anxiety rising, pause for a moment, put the pen down, sit back, take a few deep breaths and use positive self-talk (something motivating and encouraging to yourself). If you feel unwell, ask the invigilator if you need to leave the room for a moment - having some fresh air or getting a drink could help.

After the exam
Plan to reward yourself after your hard work, try to avoid discussing your answers with others and let go of “what if…” worries by using anxiety management techniques.  

Coping with results
Try to be mindful and focus on the present whilst you are waiting for the results.

If you have passed and are happy with your results, allow yourself to be pleased, relax and celebrate, reflect back on what helped you to achieve your mark and what you could do again in future.

If you haven’t achieved the results you wanted, be kind to yourself. Think about what you would you say to a friend in this position. Find out the consequences and options if you have failed, seek advice if needed, reflect back on what could have been different and use this information for future studying or exams.

Remember: Failing an examination or assessment need not mean the end of your studies - try not to think the worst.

Don’t forget, all BU students can sign up, for free, to the Big White Wall, an online mental health and wellbeing service offering self-help programmes, resources and peer support. Clinically-trained ‘wall guides’ are also available 24/7 and it’s all completely anonymous. This can be a good resource if you're not sure about contacting us, or perhaps while we're processing your registration or between appointments.

There is also a range of other websites, which you might find useful, such as:

There are a range of support services on campus, including the Student Wellbeing serviceChaplaincySportBU and AskBU.