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How to cope with exam anxiety

Setting realistic goals and being organized can help relieve exam anxiety

Dr Garima Srivastava

Most of us feel stressed out and anxious during exams. Normal levels of stress can help you work, think faster and more effectively, and improve your performance. Empirical research has linked some (optimum) level of stress to the likelihood of enhancement in productivity and improvement in performance. However if you find your anxiety overwhelming, your performance could be adversely affected. Many of us experience exam related anxiety and therefore it is extremely important to recognize its signs and manage it effectively. Becoming aware of what causes your anxiety will help reduce the stress. Then you can manage it better and do yourself justice.can cause:

  • Patchy sleep and sleepless nights.

  • Irritability or short temper.

  • Physical symptoms like headaches, body aches, feeling uneasy in the stomach

  • Sudden increase in appetite/overeating, or loss of appetite

If you recognize these signs of anxiety before exams and tests, it may be advisable to develop a routine before and during your exams. 

Before the exam:

  1. Develop a weekly revision timetable and follow it diligently. This is key to avoiding last minute exam anxiety. Better recall can be achieved by efficient time management of study periods. Draw up a realistic revision timetable – this should include some time to socialize and relax.

  2. Prepare your own summary notes rather than using ready-made notes. This helps you actively engage with the material and also helps you make better connections between different concepts in the subject.

  3. Organise information and make association using mind maps, diagrams and flow charts. Summary table is also a good tool for organising information.

  4. Organise your notes by topic, pick topics to revise and use past exam papers to guide your revision. Consistent practice using past exam papers helps identify gaps in your understanding.

  5. Ask teachers for help if necessary. You could also buddy up with a friend to study certain topics. This will facilitate the sharing of ideas and perspectives.

  6. Take regular short breaks. After each break spend 10 to 15 minutes reviewing work covered in the previous study period and review again after 24 hours. Be aware of your concentration span – it may be shorter than 40 minutes.

  7. Find a distraction-free quiet place to work to during revision periods.

  8. Make sure you eat healthy and drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated.

  9. Use multi-sensory methods – write it, say it, see it, hear it. For example, if you are a visual learner, summarise key information onto one page and make an anchor chart that can be stuck on to your wall. Use coloured pens to highlight important facts, to link ideas or to separate arguments. If you are an auditory learner, record your revision notes on a voice recorder. Listening to it at regular intervals may help you to recall the information better.

  10. Use the Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review strategy when reading through text.

During the exam :

Most examiners allow 10 minutes of reading time before the exam begins. Use this time constructively by:

  1. Reading the instructions on the question paper carefully. This will help you identify mandatory questions and also find out how many questions you must answer in each section. Although this seems like an obvious point, stress and anxiety can lead even the best prepared student to skim over instructions without fully comprehending them.
  2. Reading through all of the sections of the exam paper and ticking all the questions you plan to answer. Always know what is expected. Underline key words and phrases as you read through.
  3. Calculating the time needed to answer each question and the order you wish to attempt them.

Once you begin writing, ensure that there is no digression. Keep your answers relevant and precise.

All the best!

Dr Garima Srivastava is a Delhi-based clinical psychologist with a PhD from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.