There’s no two ways about it – exams are not a pleasant experience, regardless of how well-prepared for them you are or how confident you feel about your subject knowledge. Their very purpose – to test you – means that you are under pressure to do your best and succeed and that is enough to make anyone nervous.
You might be the kind of student who will be anxious about the exam from the very start of your preparation period, or maybe the butterflies only begin in the hours before an exam day. Either way, feeling nervous is not a nice experience but a perfectly normal one. Worrying unnecessarily about the exam won’t do you any good, though. It won’t make you perform any better on the day, and in fact, getting yourself worked up could affect your ability to concentrate and think things through.
There are lots of different ways in which people can cope with exam anxiety and calm their nerves and every person is different. However, when my students ask me for my advice, these are the three things I consider most important.
- Go to bed early the night before
- Eat well in the morning
- Arrive early for the exam
At first, these may sound easier said than done.
A good night’s sleep is crucial to having a fresh mind in the morning, but going to bed early does not guarantee that you will sleep well, especially if you are nervous. However, there are routines you can do before you go to bed to help calm your mind, like taking a long walk in fresh air, having a relaxing bath, doing some meditative or mindfulness practices, etc.
Things to avoid around bedtime: caffeine, computer screens, scrolling through apps on your Smartphone or any last minute late-night exam revision! If you don’t know enough by now, it is too late for now and you are better off focussing on getting to sleep than trying to cram information into your head at this late stage.
If you are like me, you are not a ‘breakfast kind of person’ – I don’t normally get hungry until around 10.30am each day and not at all if I am nervous about something. However, as much as good sleep, the brain needs good food to function. Blood sugar levels dip as hunger pangs increase and this affects your ability to concentrate and pay attention. This is definitely something you want to avoid during an important exam. So make sure you have a hearty, healthy breakfast and consider it Brain Food. What about a strong shot of coffee now? Well, I guess it depends on the individual. Some students say a dose of caffeine helps to sharpen and focus their mind, others like me find it makes their heart race even more when nervous.
Arriving early for an exam may sound obvious but you’d be surprised at how many candidates fail to plan ahead to ensure this. Ideally, you should leave yourself enough time to travel to the exam centre without rushing, allowing extra time for possible unexpected delays. Arriving ahead of time will mean that you can relax a little, have a drink, visit the bathroom and get yourself mentally prepared before the exam starts.
The last thing you want to do is to leave yourself too little time so that you have to rush because this is extremely stressful, will send your heart racing and make it very hard to settle into a calm mind once your exam has begun. This is particularly important to avoid before the Speaking exam.
So, to summarise, my top three tips to remember: sleep, eat and arrive early. With a little planning and self-discipline, they should be easy to follow. And a little something else to remember to help keep you calm: if the worst comes to the worst and your exam is a flop, you can always take it again, as many times as you need. Next time, the exam format will be familiar to you and you will know what to expect so you will be even better prepared.