How to Handle Exam Stress


Working towards exams can create feelings of worry and being under pressure, especially at a university where you’re aiming for a degree. However, there are a range of things that you can do to help deal with this stress.

“Know what is expected of you.”

Be sure to consult your syllabus or ask your instructor what material you will be responsible for. If you have a concrete sense of what you will be tested on, the future test will feel less vague and more like something you can handle. If there are things you aren’t sure about, ask your teacher. Teachers would much rather answer questions than have their students proceed without understanding what is expected. Make sure you have read your syllabus and any information your teacher has given you before asking the question.

“Study in conditions similar to your test room.”

There is a phenomenon in psychology called context-dependent memory. It refers to the idea that we are best able to remember things in environments similar to where the information was encoded. A related phenomenon is called state-dependent memory, which means that our memory is better when we learn and retrieve information in similar bodily states.

If you will be in a quiet room during your exam, try to simulate those conditions while you prepare. This is using context-dependent memory to your advantage.

As an example of state-dependent memory, if you prepare for your exam using caffeine, your memory on test day may be better if you have a similar amount of caffeine then, too. Use this knowledge and know that you are taking evidence-backed steps to maximize your exam score; keep that in mind if you are feeling stressed about your upcoming exam.

“Manage your time wisely.”

Do not just cram for an exam last minute; this will surely lead to exam stress. Break up your study time into chunks over days, or weeks even. When you “chunk” your study time over the course of a longer period of time, such as a few days or weeks, you will retain more of the information.

If possible, because of state-dependent memory, try to study at around the same time of day as you will be taking the test. This way you will be similarly awake when you study and when you take your test. You will be used to how you feel when dealing with your course material on test day.

“Take frequent breaks.”

According to psychological studies, the average human brain can only focus on one task effectively for about 45 minutes. In addition, research in neuroscience suggests that focusing on the same thing for too long diminishes the brain’s ability to accurately process it.

Lastly, if you’re feeling very worried or anxious, chat with a good friend, family member or tutor. It helps to get it out of your system, and they may be able to help think about practical strategies to deal with exam stress.