Watching my little sister about to take her GCSE exams and feeling all the anxiety and stress that we’ve all experienced before, got me thinking of all the ways I used to try to tackle exam stress and all the anxiety surrounding exams.
I’m currently on my gap year before I start university in September, but I remember taking my GCSEs quite clearly. With 20 or so exams over the course of six weeks, it got to the point that I was almost reciting revision in my sleep; there was so much to do and be ready for.
I had my own kind of ritual whenever I first sat down for each exam during my GCSE’s. I would recite a little phrase over and over in my head- ‘It’s going to be fine, the exam will be fine, in only a few hours it will be over and I will have survived.’ It helped to calm me down a little bit, remembering that it wouldn’t last forever and that it would only be a few hours long. It’s something I remind myself whenever I feel anxious: that the feeling is only temporary.
The thing I always find most anxiety inducing and nerve wracking about exams is the prospect of sitting in a room full of people in absolute silence for 2 hours. I did, of course, also worry about the contents of all the exams and whether I would pass, but the idea of all those people surrounding me was extra daunting to me.
We did our GCSE’s in the school’s sports hall, so there were no windows to sit by, and the only truly ideal place for me to be sat was the back row, which very rarely happened. I ended up sat in the front row for one of my exams, and I remember my heart sinking when I found out. On the day, one of my friends ended up sat in the row next to me, which instantly calmed me down a bit, and then all the other exams after that in which I was at the front were fine, because I knew from that first exam that it would be fine.
During my A Levels, our exams were in a smaller room, which not only meant less people surrounding me, but there were also windows all the way around the room. I found that every time I walked in for an exam and ended up sat by a window, my anxiousness dulled considerably. I think the ability to look outside of the room and see the sky was really helpful because it made me feel so much calmer and less confined into the room and surrounded by people.
This can’t always be helped, however, so I worked on ways to calm my feelings of anxiety no matter where in the room I would end up sitting- on the edge by the window or bang splat in the middle.
What can you do during your exams?
Take a bottle of water.
It seems like such a small thing, but being able to sip on water throughout the exams really does wonders in focusing on something other than feeling anxious.
I know it’s what everyone always says to do but it does really help. I found that breathing in for 5 seconds and then breathing out for 6 helped to regulate my breathing and clear my head of some of the fear and worries.
Always eating something before going in to the exam.
Whenever I feel anxious, the absolute last thing I feel like doing is eating, but feeling hungry and hearing my stomach rumble in the middle of an exam was also the last thing I wanted to happen, so I always made sure to eat something. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a full breakfast/lunch; just a few bites of toast or a sandwich; or even some gulps of a smoothie- it all helps.
Tackling the questions.
It became a bit of a joke that my mum would always tell me to ‘read the questions fully!’ before I went into exams, and whilst it did become repetitive and funny, it’s true. Exams are so anxiety inducing that it’s easy to let our minds drift to thinking about the fear and distract us from the actual content of the paper, and so it’s really important to focus on what it’s asking of you. Another thing is that, when you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always benefit from moving on from it and coming back later, because by going to a question you do know, you gain some confidence in your ability of answering the previously daunting question.
What could help with revision?
Personally, I found that revising was equally as stressful as taking the actual exams. It’s such a huge amount of knowledge to try and cram into your head that it often feels impossible. In the end, it helped when I accepted that, yes, I probably wasn’t going to be able to cram 5 years worth of triple science into my brain. I realised that I was actually getting less work done, spending so much time panicking about how much work I had to do and how little time I had to do it in.
The key to revising is to manage time well and plan things out so that you have enough time to work, but also enough time to relax and not focus on exams and revision for a bit.
Take regular breaks.
After a certain amount of time your brain might feel like it’s turning to mush, and no matter how much you feel like you need to be spending all 24 hours a day trying to remember everything, that won’t work. I used to do 45 minutes of revision at a time, and then take a 15 minutes break, and I found that this ratio of revision to breaks really worked as it gave me some time to let the revision sink in before cramming in more.
Remember to sleep.
I know how tempting it is to stay up to get a bit of extra revision done, but it’s far more important to get a good night’s sleep, especially the night before an exam. Not only will you feel more fresh and awake to get on with revision or exams the next morning, but it’ll help your brain to be more receptive and increase your focus and concentration.
This is slightly open ended, as some distractions, like noises outside, can’t always be avoided. It mainly refers, however, to revising whilst doing other things, for example watching tv or listening to music. You will retain information best when there aren’t other things purposefully happening to focus on. I did find that quietly listening to music without lyrics helped however, so it is often very specific to each individual as to what level of background noise they can remain focused at. However, if you’re unsure, it’s probably best to stick with as little noise as possible to ensure you stay concentrated.
This is similar to taking water into exams, as it can help distract from stressing about having lots to revise, but it also helps simply to stay focused, same as getting a good amount of sleep.
Exams are a daunting thing, but they are manageable. By working on ways to get through them at as low a level of anxiety as I could, I knew by the end that I could get through them all over again if I had to. I hope that these tips will help you to feel that way too.