I don't think I have ever come across anyone who loves exams. Let's face it, they can be stressful. This is part one of my three-part series on how to cope with exam stress, so let's start at the beginning.
How to cope with exam stress BEFORE the exam
I am sure your teachers, lecturers, parents or guardians have given you more than your fair share of instilling the importance of revision into you. Of course, you need to revise!
I often hear from students that they are struggling with the volume of revision. “My teacher says I have to revise for 6 hours per day” is a general statement. Now, I am not one to go against the advice of teachers – they are the experts, after all, but are the hours of revision crucial to your success or are there more effective methods to ensure you are fully prepared and lower your levels of exam stress?
The quality NOT quantity of your revision is the most important factor in helping you to cope with exam stress.
Preparation is key to you managing your revision activities and will ensure you avoid the panic of last minute cramming. The earlier you start, the better. Why wait until your exams are upon you? The earlier you start, the more time you will have to identify gaps in your knowledge and ask for help, or devote more time to one particular topic or subject.
Structure with Flexibility
Creating a revision timetable will keep you on track and reduce exam stress. In the big-bad-business world, this is termed as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), in other words, the small steps it takes you to reach your ultimate goal.
By setting yourself a timetable, you will be able to identify quickly how on track you are and what you still need to do. Start with each subject and break this down into topics. If you have 20 topics to cover and it's 40 days until the exam, you could timetable 1 topic to revise every second day to ensure you have everything covered. Alternatively, you could schedule 1 topic every day for 20 days then use the final 20 days to go back over them. Only you know what will be the most effective method but by creating a timetable, you will avoid being distracted or spending too much time on one subject or topic.
Start with each subject and break this down into topics. If you have 20 topics to cover and it's 40 days until the exam, you could timetable 1 topic to revise every second day to ensure you have everything covered. Alternatively, you could schedule 1 topic every day for 20 days then use the final 20 days to go back over them. Only you know what will be the most effective method but by creating a timetable, you will avoid being distracted or spending too much time on one subject or topic.
One thing that is vital, is to allow flexibility. Avoid over scheduling! There will inevitably be times when you aren't in the mood to revise. That's ok! If you really can't be bothered and nothing in the world will motivate you, forget trying to force yourself to revise (controversial, I know.) You may be feeling under the weather or there's an event/ circumstance that takes you away from your study books. That's life. In times like these, just go with it and accept that your schedule has been interrupted for that day. So, when you plan your study schedule, allow time for the unexpected. If you are working to 5 hours of study time per day, plot your time over 5 1/2 or 6 hours so that you have the flexibility to catch up on whatever you didn't achieve the day/ week before. There is no such thing as the perfect timetable, so don't get hung up
There is no such thing as the perfect timetable, so don't get hung up on it. If you aren't focussed, the information won't sink in as effectively as it would have had if you gave it your full attention.
Allow flexibility to boost your overall effectiveness.
Don't Compare Yourself With Others
It is so easy to compare yourself with your classmates. So what if Jane has studied for 18 hours that week? So what if James has finished his Math's revision? Jane and James aren't YOU. You are unique. If you become intimidated by the activity of others, it will eat you up and spit you out as a stress head. If there was a magic formula to revision, everyone would be doing it and everyone would be A* students. Even if you want to get straight A*s, I bet you want to be an individual. No one was ever successful in the business world by being a carbon copy of someone else. You do what YOU need to do to absorb the information you need to pass the exam.
Ask for Help
It's never too late to ask for help. Your teachers are there to support you to succeed so use them! Many will facilitate study groups or be available to students on a drop-in basis. Take advantage of anything that is on offer. Don't worry about emailing your teachers for support. They won't think you are stupid, underprepared or bothersome (or whatever else is stopping you from contacting them.) Teaching is a tough job and most choose this career path as they genuinely want to share their knowledge and educate. Teachers, schools, colleges and universities also have targets to meet, so the better you perform, the more they are rewarded. It's in their best interest for you to succeed, so go for it in asking for help.
Also ask your family and friends if they can help you. It doesn't have to just be about studying – you may wish to ask for support in other areas such as regular commitments you have with them being reduced, support with chores at home or asking for some quiet time within a usually noisy household. If you don't ask, you don't get!
Asking for help is a strength, not a sign of weakness.
Take Time Out
I know, I know, if you take time out, you will reduce your revision time BUT think on this – your body & brain are like a car engine. If you keep driving continuously, the car will overheat, run out of fuel and eventually conk out. Every successful athlete has rest days. Body builders schedule their training so that they rotate muscles used eg. they may choose to work their upper body on one day, then lower on the next to allow muscle repair. The same should apply to your brain. You must give it a rest.
Plan time out into your revision schedule. If you continually study for hours on end, I guarantee you that all the information you are hoping to sink in, won't. You MUST take time out to recharge your batteries, so to speak.
Try to identify your best times of day to absorb information. Personally, I am much better at concentrating and retaining information in the mornings. I definitely get an after-lunch slump in energy, so for me, learning anything between 2-4pm ish isn't as effective as 7-9am. I also know from years of learning and working that my mind starts to wander after 20-30 minutes of reading, so I need to break up my learning either with a different activity or by taking a break altogether. This might mean making a drink, going to the loo or walking my dog around the block, but by taking 5-10 minutes away from hard concentration, I am fully focussed for the next stint.
What works best for you? Maybe studying for 1 hour then having a 15-minute break gets you fired back up? Perhaps you can focus for 2 hours at a time before your mind starts to wander or you get so absorbed, you don't look up from your textbook for much, much longer? Only you know, but what I know is that you need to STOP.
It's ok to take a full day off from studying. If you do this, make sure you take the time to do something you love so that your mind is fully transported away from exam preparation and your mind, eyes, and body have a chance to repair and recharge.
Taking time out = more information in.
I just used an analogy of a car – your body and brain also need fuel. A symptom of exam stress is a reduction in appetite, however, this is the time when you need to eat and drink healthily. Yawn! Yes, I know it's probably boring but junk food and energy drinks won't do you any favours in the long run.
Your brain and body need water to function properly so make sure you are hydrated and not relying on anything that will cause a spike in energy in the short term followed by a slump.
Choose fresh fruit and vegetables, and a balance of slow releasing carbohydrates and proteins in your daily diet. I am not a dietician or nutritionist so here's a great article on foods to boost your focus and memory and another that details foods to help your concentration.
Don't worry, I am not going to insist you become a Gym Bunny overnight, however, exercise is a great way to get the blood and oxygen flowing around your body & brain and can actually relax you. Slumping over textbooks and computers can create tension and increase your stress receptors. Shake it off! Your body is designed to move.
Schedule in time for some exercise. It doesn't have to be a traditional workout; walking is fine. Borrow a dog if you need to but make time to walk each day for at least 20-30 minutes and you will feel the benefits.
Try stretching in between study periods. It doesn't have to be full on Yoga – your body and tense muscles will appreciate even lying on the floor or stretching your arms up to the ceiling. Doing a tiny bit is better than doing nothing at all.
Yes, you do it every night, but now is the time to ensure you get between 7-9 hours of good quality sleep per night. I'm not going to nag you here, so check out this short article from the Mental Health Foundation on the importance of sleep.
Look after your body and your brain will look after itself.
Hey! You are studying hard and looking after your body, so take the time to treat yourself. I'm not talking about going on a huge spending spree or doing anything extravagant, just something that you can look forward to which recognises the effort you have put in.
What do you enjoy? Maybe it's going out with your friends, spending time with your family or watching TV? Whatever makes you feel good and makes you feel rewarded, choose it during your pre-exam period.
You deserve it. You're amazing!
Read part 2 for how to cope with exam stress DURING the exams.
If you need a boost and some coaching to cope with exam stress, please contact me.
Do you have any top tips to cope with exam stress? Please share your comments below.