Many students find exams stressful. This is understandable, as your performance in exams can determine important things including: what pathways or modules are open to you in the next academic year, whether you will have to repeat some or all of an academic year, and, depending on the structure of your course and your year of study, your final degree result. Your exam results can also affect how you feel about yourself and your capabilities, and you may worry about letting your parents or other loved ones down, especially if they have made sacrifices in order for you to go to university. In other words, the stakes are high, and this can cause a certain amount of stress and anxiety.  

Understanding the stress response

Stress tends to occur when you feel that the demands placed upon you exceed your capacity to meet them. The stress response is a physiological response to an event that your ‘primitive’ self perceives as a threat. Your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for emergency action: heart rate speeds up, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, you sweat more, and your senses become sharper. Your body goes into a state of high alert, in which your strength and stamina is increased, your reaction time speeded up, and your focus enhanced. This prepares you for ‘fight or flight’ – whereby you either face the threat directly, or run.

A certain amount of stress can be helpful: it can help you to cope in real emergencies or difficult situations, to meet and overcome challenges, and to achieve your goals. However, if stress becomes prolonged or too intense, it can have very negative effects on your health and well-being. Intense stress can interfere with your exam performance, as your ‘thinking’ brain is effectively hijacked by the more primitive ‘reptilian’ brain, making it difficult for you to recall and express what you need to.

Coping with exam stress

While some exam stress is probably inevitable, and can be harnessed to ensure that you give your best performance, for some students exam stress can become all-consuming and can impact negatively on performance. Here are some positive steps that you can take to manage exam stress.

  • Probably the best thing that you can do to alleviate exam stress is to develop your academic skills so that you are able to cope with the demands of your course and make steady progress throughout the semester. Staying on top of your classes, notes, readings and assignments, and revision will greatly reduce the pressure that you face at exam time.
  • Brush up on your exam preparation skills as well. If you can feel confident that you have done all that you reasonably could to prepare for an exam, it will help you to stay positive. Remember that your lecturers want you to do well – exams are not about trying to catch you out, but about giving you a chance to showcase what you have learned. Try to see exams as an opportunity rather than a trial.
  • Use breathing, relaxation and visualisation techniques to alleviate stress. There are lots of free resources available online. Take a look at NUI Galway's Mindful Way initiative as well.
  • Try to keep things in perspective: exam performance is not a matter of life and death. If you are unsuccessful in the first sitting of an exam, there will be an opportunity to repeat the exam in August, or to repeat the module(s) in the next academic year. Nobody is perfect so try not to beat yourself up if things don’t go according to plan.
  • Mind your health: sometimes people try to cope with stress by indulging in unhealthy behaviours such as using cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol, eating fatty or sugary foods and/or drinking caffeinated drinks. Some students aim to stay up all or most of the night before an exam to cram. Others try to avoid or ignore the issue that is causing them stress. It is human nature to try to avoid pain and seek pleasure instead, but unfortunately doing so often results in even greater stress levels.

You are much more likely to reduce your stress levels by getting adequate sleep and a minimum of thirty minutes of vigorous exercise a day (check out this video), eating a nutritious well-balanced diet, and staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Your brain needs all of these things for maximum performance. It’s also important to take a good look at your stress management strategies and be honest about whether they are doing you more harm than good.

Seeking help

If you feel that your stress is unmanageable, or if you feel anxious or worried all or most of the time, seek support. On campus, you can attend Student Counselling, the chaplains, or the Student Health Unit. If you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, including depression or anxiety, you should register with the Disability Support Service – they may be able to organise certain exam supports and accommodations that could help to reduce your stress at exam time. Off campus, it might be a good idea to chat with your GP or to reach out to a voluntary organisation working in the area of mental health (here is a list of some local organisations offering support). If you have concerns about a friend, see here for some advice about what you can do.