The exams are around the corner, and you are feeling stressed out. You can’t seem to concentrate enough to study, or sleep properly, or think of anything else. What if you mess up? What if you fail? And is it just you getting stressed out by the thought of exams, or does everyone feel this way?


“I would say 40% to 50% of all students experience a certain level of exam stress,” says Roné Gerber, Therapeutic Services Manager at the University of the Western Cape’s Student Development and Support Centre. “Stress can sometimes be a good motivator, but too much of it can make us feel unable to do anything at all.”


“Stress affects the mind, the body and the emotions. Exam stress can lead to sleepless nights, constant worrying, an inability to focus, and avoidance of sitting down and preparing for the exam. And, of course, that just makes the situation worse,” she says.


Sometimes the stress comes before the exams, and other times you could panic while you are actually writing the exam. You could feel sweaty, unable to focus on answering the questions, lightheaded, and unable to remember anything. Your self-confidence drops, and you feel sure you are going to fail.


Or something could happen to trip up even a well-prepared student.


“My worst examination experience was when I found out that I had studied the wrong chapter for the exam, and I had no idea how on earth I was going to answer the questions. It was horrible,” says first-year UWC BSc student Sihle Nobokwana. “But usually I am reasonably calm, because I take care to do proper preparation and revision, and have learned to talk positively to myself in an exam situation.”


So what general advice do Roné and Sihle have for managing exam stress?


Prepare well in advance. This means not cramming the day – or the night –  before. If you have kept up with your work, and understand the subject matter, you can fall back on that, even in a stressful exam situation. It will boost your confidence.


Beat stress by doing some exercise. This is the best way of getting your stress levels down, and making it easier to concentrate. Exercise reduces the levels of the stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.


Learn some breathing and relaxation techniques. You can get these off the internet, and this will help to make you feel less panicky. You can do them anywhere, you don’t need any special equipment or skills – you can even do your breathing exercises in the exam room.


Don’t be tripped up by other issues. Missing the bus, getting the date wrong, going to the incorrect venue – these are all things that can cause you to fail. They are guaranteed to send your stress levels through the roof.


Make sure you have the right equipment. Do this in advance and double-check the day before that you have everything you need. Exams are stressful enough without your having to try and borrow a calculator ten minutes before it starts.


Eat properly and regularly, and stay hydrated. Healthy foods, such as bananas or oranges, will boost your system. Your brain will struggle to function properly on a constant diet of junk food, coffee, or other caffeinated drinks.


Practical tips on studying for an exam


Roné suggests the following method to help you overcome the stress of studying for the exam:


  • Always sit at a desk or preferred working area – never mix your relaxation space with your workspace.

  • Set an alarm for yourself for 50 minutes. Focus and study for the entire 50 minutes.

  • As soon as your alarm goes off, set it for 10 minutes.

  • Immediately get up from your desk and do the following 3 important things in those 10 minutes:
    • Have a bite of a banana or a few peanuts (or any healthy snack that will keep your blood sugar levels where they should be.)
    • Have a few sips of water (no coffee, no energy drinks, no sugary drinks)
    • Move your body (jump up and down to your favourite song; dance, run outside around the house – anything that you enjoy, and involves movement).


  • After 10 minutes, sit back and set the alarm for another 50 minutes. Then do the 10-minute break again. 


  • Repeat 3 times and then take a 30-minute break. Start again with 50 minutes/10 minutes and so on, until you are done studying for the day.


Tell us: What study tip did you learn today? Do you have a study tip that works for you that you would like to share?


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