Stress and Exams

08 June 2021
Antonia Svensson, PhD Head, Department of Psychology Head, Student Counselling Service New York College
Stress and Exams

Stress and anxiety about exams can be very overwhelming. Everyone reacts slightly differently to stressful situations. Our reaction to stress depends upon our background, personality and upbringing, our previous relevant experiences and our culture. Psychological research indicates that examinations in particular are usually perceived as stressful for four main reasons (Denscombe, 2000):

  1. Because of their educational and/or employment consequences;
  2. Students judge themselves on the basis of their grades, they may be taken as markers of self-esteem in an achievement-oriented culture;
  3. The perceived impact of judgements from others, such as parents;
  4. Repeated communication from teachers as to the importance of good exam grades, for getting into University for example, which may be used as a motivational strategy by teachers… that does not always work as intended.

So, what can we do to maximise our physical and mental health during examination periods?

  • Create a designated study space at home. Decorate your workspace with photographs, plants or other objects that make you feel positive and which help you feel motivated.
  • Schedule your exam revision sessions. Set yourself realistic, achievable and time limited goals for each day. Adjust your goals for the following day after reviewing what worked well and what didn’t!
  • Improve your study skills, and test-taking skills, through familiarising yourself with not only the possible exam content but with the exam procedures, and practice taking mock exams under similar conditions.
  • Eat well and take regular short breaks from studying. This will enhance your concentration, memory and energy levels.
  • Prioritise getting enough sleep. Most people need at least 7 hours of sleep in order to function well.
  • Remain connected with friends but limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Perhaps just a couple of short ‘sessions’ per day is enough? Consider staying offline until evening, when your studying is complete for the day, especially if you find that you feel more anxious or stressed after using social media.
  • Last, but most importantly, try to keep things in perspective and do not catastrophise. if one question cannot be answered, this does not mean you will fail the whole exam and that your whole life will become a failure! Education and careers are just one part of a whole and fulfilling life.

Cultivating good relationships is an important antidote to stress. So, whilst you remain focused on your immediate educational goal, also be mindful of your other personal and social goals. Meet up regularly with friends and classmates for a study break - perhaps take a brief walk together or a have video chat. Talk with friends or family members about how you are feeling and share ideas for keeping positive and remaining focused. Talk about your dreams and imagine the many different paths that exist before you, each one leading to new opportunities. Knowing you are not alone in your struggles can go a long way towards helping you keep calm and well on your path to success! Let us remember that it is through difficulties and challenges that we discover our strengths.


Denscombe, M. (2000). Social conditions for stress. British Educational Research Journal, 26 (3), 259–374.



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