Examination Anxiety

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

I very frequently come across students who worry about examinations. Perhaps more accurately, they worry that they haven't prepared sufficiently, or that they will be asked 'impossible to answer' questions. As exams approach they lose sleep, become edgy, irritable and emotional. And so, like countless other academics and teachers, I provide my own tips for students as a way of attempting to reduce the tension. Some of the things I say are less palatable than others, but if taken on board, they will most certainly take the edge off examination anxiety.

A little anxiety is actually quite a good thing and, in moderation, can actually have a good effect on performance. So being anxious before an exam is really very normal. The build up to exams is usually the worst time for some students. To reduce this, preparation needs to start early and it is helpful to remind yourself about some of the basics.

Examination Basics

  • You really do get out what you put in. If you don't read, immerse yourself in the topic or make any attempt to revise except at the 11th hour, your preparation is clearly problematic.

  • Whether or not the content is brilliant, bad writing can't be understood - and is therefore impossible to mark,.

  • Focus is better than flannel. A full page of writing may contain lots of points that can be marked or it may be full of padding - avoid the latter.

  • Grammar, spelling and style all influence the examiner's ability to understand and therefore mark.

  • Assessment terminology is used for a reason (defend, evaluate, assess, summarise). Do what the question asks, don't impose a pre-prepared answer.

What Makes Examinations so Anxiety Provoking?

  • The most anxious people tend to be the one's who are least prepared, but occasionally they are the high achievers for whom only the top grades will do.

  • Examinations vary in their intentions, and the fact that they are often only revealed at the time of the exam, makes them unpredictable. Lack of predictability and control are sure to make most people feel anxious - and this is a fact of life not simply examinations. You can improve your odds if you have a broad understand of the topic. You will find this helps your ability to answer the question(s) in the form the examiner has set.

  • Preparation for other kinds of assignment, often require different skills. An essay, for example, relies more on your ability to locate information and rephrase it in your own words. An examination is more a test of memory and problem solving. If you can obtain old copies of exam questions, do so, and try answering them properly rather than just looking at them.

  • Other people can be influential and if you know you are prone to being caught up in the whirl of tension that your friends generate, it would be better to find a way of avoiding these moments or coping with them in a very different way. Some of the best coping strategies I've seen come from students who apply this energy to a focused task. For example, if an issue is universally agreed to be difficult, they get together, work through it, test one another and try to get some mastery over it. This problem-solving approach is an excellent way for dealing with and reducing exam anxiety.

Before, During & After Examinations

If your preparation is sound you have much less reason to be anxious, but this does not necessarily reduce all anxiety. Some simple anxiety reducing techniques can help.

  1. Before the exam: Try to think positively about the exam and what it is you want to achieve. Imagine yourself in the exam room, feeling calm but with energy to work on the answers. Give yourself a break before the exam. Don't work immediately prior to the paper and don't work late into the night. Try to avoid alcohol the day before and definitely before the exam. Have breakfast, check you have a pen and a spare and give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam.

  2. During the exam: In my experience a lot of people who were previously anxious find that they quickly lose this once they have the exam to focus their attention. A few people take a while to settle in and whether or not you are anxious it is good practice not to rush once the clock starts ticking. If you are anxious at the point of the examination, don't start writing. Sit up straight, take a slow deep breath and slowly release it, feeling your muscles relax as you do so. Do this a couple of times. Choose the answer you feel most confident about, allocate time to it and stick to this time limit. Take a short break between finishing one question and starting the next.

  3. After the exam: Whether this is the first of several exams, or the only one you have to take, anxiety may still be an issue. Once the exam is finished, try to put it behind you and focus positively on the next one. Try to avoid the post-exam discussions. You know the sort of thing where people say how they interpreted the question and what they've written, and you realise you didn't This only serves to increase anxiety about fear of failure, which may be needless.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.