Top Tips to Manage Exam Stress

22 February 2022

Aaron Eckhoff

How to manage exam stress? Whether it’s SATs, GCSEs or A levels and beyond, sitting exams can be stressful. The good news is that this stress can be managed and overcome.

With exam season now upon us, the Compass For Life team thought it would be a good time to put together some specific strategies and coping mechanisms to help students manage any stress and anxiety linked to the upcoming exam season.

We hope that you find the strategies useful and easy to embed over the coming weeks as you all prepare for your upcoming exams.

“It’s not about how bad you want it, it’s about how hard you work for it.”

Although this quote might help motivate some people to succeed, at Compass For Life we know the importance of the relationship between performance and your Super North Star. We believe that it is about how bad you want something, as well as how hard you’re willing to work for it. If your Super North Star is strong enough, then both will follow.

Tip 1: Focus on your Super North Star

Research shows that people who can consider and focus on long term goals make better progress on short term goals and milestones in those journeys than those who lack a longer-term vision. This concept can also be applied to managing exam stress.

Think past the exams. What is it you want to do in life? To achieve in life? What is the BIG goal that you are working towards? This is what we call your Super North Star.

Super North Star

Now, as with any goal or vision for the future, there will be milestones and hurdles to overcome. Some of those hurdles will be less enjoyable than others. However, by accepting the hurdles as necessary to achieving a goal helps us to reframe the negative connotations associated with the hurdle or milestone.

Exams are simply one of the many milestones that you will face in life to get to the next stage of your journey. Recognising this and embracing the challenge for the wider good will mean that your stress levels are naturally diminished. However, feeling nervous before an exam is good as it reminds you that this is important to you and the journey you’re on.

If you don’t have a small amount of anxiety, then perhaps your ‘why’ isn’t strong enough. To avoid this, be sure to spend some time reconnecting to your Super North Star and your wider ambitions and dreams. 

It will help.

Tip 2: Engage With Your Inner Strategist

In most cases, stress can be managed effectively by creating a strategy that is achievable. This is no different when it comes to exams and exam preparation. Spending time strategizing for success means that many of the decisions you need to make have already been taken, leading you to have more time and energy to focus on the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘worrying’.  

Strategist- exam stress

How to develop a good exam preparation strategy

The first stage of developing a good strategy to prepare for exams is understanding which topics you need to revise. Utilising your teachers and school reports will help you to create a detailed picture of what you need to study. 

Once you have this in hand, you can then create a medium-term plan as to how you will ensure you revise each of the areas that are required. 

There are several ways to develop a good revision strategy, but the key elements of a good revision strategy include: 

• A combination of revision activities – this will ensure your brain does not get bored during the process. By planning a range of activities, you will remain engaged for longer periods of time. 

• A balance of work and down time – this is essential as your brain will not take in or retain information if it is always tired. Keep study sessions to a 45 – 70-minute window with 20–30-minute breaks in between. This will allow your sessions to be more productive and more focused. 

You should also ensure that you have at least 1 whole day of complete rest from your work. This will help the brain to consolidate the hard work you’ve done, committing more of the information to your long-term memory. 

• Focusing on your weakest areas – the danger for us all when preparing for exams is that we tend to focus on the areas or subjects that we enjoy. However, if we don’t make deliberate attempts to address our weakest areas, then little learning will take place. So, ensure that you tackle the most difficult and least enjoyable areas of your revision earlier in the process when you have the most energy to give. 

• Studying with someone else – being able to speak about ideas or concepts with others is an effective tactic to check your understanding as well as develop deeper understanding. Be sure to choose someone that you can rely on to push you further and challenge your thinking. 

• Practising under pressure – the most effective way to manage the anxiety and stress surrounding a pressurised situation is to practise putting yourself under pressure incrementally before the big event. 

For example, if you have spent a few days digging deep into the Civil Rights movement in preparation for an essay style exam, then it would be a good idea to practise writing an essay without notes and in timed conditions to see what you can or can’t remember.

This exercise will teach you quickly where your weaknesses are and will also identify how you react to the stress of pressure. As with any good strategy, this will in turn help you to identify coping mechanisms to practise during the real event. 

Pressure applied without preparation leads to disastrous outcomes. Whereas pressure applied following preparation and practice often leads to excellent outcomes.

Tip 3: Engage Your Warrior Spirit

Grit and determination are going to be key in your exam journey. To get you started, it will be important to remind yourself regularly why you will be sitting these exams, linking back to your Super North Star. Once that initial kick of motivation starts, it requires grit and determination to ensure that you stay disciplined to your strategy, never losing sight of your Super North Star. 

Warrior Spirit- exam stress

In addition, it is vital that you remain physically and mentally resilient throughout the process. As part of your strategy, a balance of work and relaxation is key.

However, it is not the only way that you can ensure you stay strong in your resolve to do well. 

The following list are other areas that can help you maintain mental stamina to achieve your Super North Star 

• Eat a healthy and balanced diet (eat the rainbow…) 

• Regularly and consistently get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep 

• Exercise for 30 – 60 minutes per day 

• Be sure to go outside at least once per day. This will help keep you calm and focused 

• Spend time with people that give you positive energy… not stressful energy 

• Practice box-breathing or other mindfulness techniques at least once per day 

• Share your strategy for revision with someone that you can count on to hold you accountable. This will help get you back on track if you find yourself getting distracted. 

• Try to inject a bit of fun into your revision tasks. This will help keep you motivated.

Remember, exams are a necessary milestone in your life and will ultimately help you to achieve your Super North Star. Some stress is necessary for us to achieve in this journey, but too much stress can be detrimental. 

Do your best to put in place some of the above suggestions and reap the rewards of your efforts come August.

Good luck to everyone taking exams this year and please share the tactics you’re using others as you never know who might benefit!

Also, tag us in your Twitter posts to show us how you’re planning for the upcoming exams, we’d love to hear from you all! Good luck from the Compass For Life Team!

Explore our Compass For Life leadership and vision programmes for schools and education settings.