Exam stress

Exam stress is a feeling of pressure that many young people feel coming up to exam time. It usually occurs during the revision period before exams and immediately before the exams.

Stress is defined as an individual's response to pressure. A small amount of pressure can be useful to keep you focused during exam time. However, for some students, when they experience too much pressure for a long period of time, it becomes stressful and exam preparation and study seems impossible.

Why do people experience exam stress?

Exam stress is normal and very common. You might experience it because:

  • you often need to learn and recall a large amount of information for an exam
  • exams always have an element of uncertainty about them
  • you may need a particular exam result to gain entry into another course or career path.

What does it feel like?

Some people feel stress more than others, regardless of how confident they are about the topic they’re studying.

Symptoms of exam stress include:

  • losing touch with friends and the activities you enjoy
  • feeling extra cranky and low
  • loss of appetite, over eating or comfort eating
  • sleeping poorly and struggling to get out of bed
  • difficulty getting motivated to start work
  • having clammy hands or feeling butterflies in your stomach
  • having a racing heartbeat or feeling sick
  • feeling confused or having your mind going blank during the tests.

These symptoms can interfere with how much you enjoy life, especially around exam times.

Managing exam stress

If you're experiencing exam stress, it's important to try to remind yourself that this is only a small part of your life (even though it might not feel like it at the time). It won't last forever.

Study ideas

It's never too late to set up good study and revision habits.

  • Have an uncluttered space to work with ready access to any materials you need.
  • Find out exactly what the exam involves, are there past exam papers you can look at to help you understand what to expect?
  • Ask your teacher if you’re unsure of what to expect or what will be tested.
  • Learn to make ‘mind maps’. Use them to collect ideas and summarise thoughts, and use bright colours to help remember important links.
  • Make a clear plan of what you want to cover in each study period. Break it down into small tasks and work on one task at a time.
  • Take regular short breaks of about 5 minutes to have a drink or something to eat.
  • Ask for help sometimes. It may be useful to have someone hear you summarise points or to practise an oral presentation.

Practical ideas to help with study

  • Stick to a routine of going to bed at a reasonable time, eating regularly and still making time to have fun and exercise
  • Cut back on coffee or any other stimulants as these can make you feel agitated. Drink lots of water instead
  • When you eat, relax and allow yourself time rather than carrying on with work
  • Fresh fruit, vegies, cereals, grains, nuts and protein are all good for the brain and blood sugar levels. Eat you feel hungry because this keeps blood sugar and hydration levels steady. Avoid junk food if possible because it will bring a sudden sugar high and then fall away quickly leaving you feeling tired
  • Give yourself mini rewards once you achieve your study goals, such as watching an episode of your favourite TV show or going for a run

Kids Helpline has some great relaxation ideas to help you with study.

Ideas for exam day

  • Work out what you need to take with you into your exam the night before and have everything ready
  • If you feel yourself getting anxious just before your exam then spend some time focusing on your breathing. Breathe in to a count of 3 and then breathe out to a count of 3. Repeat this steadily for a few minutes
  • On exam day, keep away from other people who may be feeling anxious or who may say unhelpful comments that make you feel more anxious
  • When you first sit down to do your exam, take time to slow your breathing and relax
  • Read through the exam paper carefully. Underline key words and instructions. Work out how long you have for each question or section
  • Watch out for the wording of questions and make sure that you answer what is being asked
  • Work on the questions that you find easiest first
  • Aim to have time to re-read answers through and make any necessary changes

Remember when you finish your exam, take time out to relax a bit before you start preparing for the next exam. Go for a run or have a chat with a friend!

Where to get support

More information