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The University of Southampton
Enabling ServicesPart of Student Services

Exams

Examinations are an unchanging feature of University life, and almost everyone finds them stressful.

For some students, exam stress can become so powerful that it affects their lives in negative ways, making the stress get worse and worse.

Understanding exam stress

Stress has a physical aspect. If we perceive a threat, our bodies get a surge of adrenaline that prepares us for "fight, flight or freeze". This response short-circuits thinking and memory parts of the brain, the very parts you need in an exam situation. This in turn may make you want to run away from the situation, both during and, importantly, before an exam. When you recognise that an exam is looming, your stress level may rise so much that preparation and revision seem impossible.

Some students may get stuck in a pattern of negative thoughts that prevents them from achieving as well as they could. You may be highly sensitive to any criticism of your work. You may feel that you don't deserve to succeed.

Reducing exam stress

There are ways to minimise exam stress. Don't expect to eliminate it completely - a bit of stress will keep you focused and motivated. Recognising this may help you see that a certain amount of stress is normal, and can even be your friend.

Preparation is the key. There is no single way for everyone. Understand yourself and how you react, and make a plan that allows you to make the most of your personal strengths.

If you are anxious about exam stress or beginning to experience it, visit our web pages on stress and wellbeing to see what you can do to help yourself. You may want to sign up for a workshop on beating exam stress.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and panicky, see our web pages on anxiety and panic to see if you can learn some techniques to counter exam stress.

If you have tried these options and you are still struggling with extreme exam anxiety, please contact us, or you may wish to come to a drop-in session for a chat with an advisor, who will help you decide on the best course of action.

Preparation 

First, visit our web page on wellbeing, or consider attending a workshop on beating exam stress.

Many of the ways to counter exam stress are kinds of advice you may have heard before. The advice remains good, even if you have heard it many times:

  • Eat well and drink plenty of water.
  • Cut down on sugary food and drink.
  • Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Take a break before you go to bed.
  • Surround yourself with positive friends, and avoid reinforcing exam stress in yourself and others through negative conversations.
  • Recall how well you have done in the past. Previous success will give you confidence in the present.
  • Take exercise, even if it's only going for a walk each day. More intense exercise is better for countering stress.
  • Plan ahead. Make a revision timetable (with breaks built in) and list your tasks. Organise your notes and books before you begin. Obtain past papers in good time. You can access past papers from the Student tab of SUSSED.
  • Allow yourself time off. This includes frequent breaks while revising as well as proper going out or watching that favourite film.
  • Give yourself a good treat from time to time as a reward for sticking to your revision.

In the exam

If you feel panicky or blank, remember it's your body's fight or flight reflex making you feel that way. Take some time out to breathe really slowly and calmly until you can focus again.

If you start running out of time, keep going and do what you can. Writing short notes is better than nothing.

Remember that in some circumstances exams may be retaken. Contact your Faculty office for more information.

You as a person

An exam is just an academic test, not a judgement on your personal worth. You may wish to search the internet for famous people who did not do too well academically. The list includes Einstein, Darwin and Winston Churchill. You are a student who has already succeeded in coming to the University of Southampton, so take heart!

If you have tried these options and you are still struggling with extreme exam anxiety, contact us for help. You may wish to come to a drop-in session for a chat with an advisor who will help you decide on the best course of action.

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