How to Thrive On Exam Stress

Published in The Times Online April 6
th 2006
I am a second year university student at Manchester Metropolitan University. My
question is what strategies are there for me to enhance my application and handling of
knowledge when writing coursework. My lecturers tell me that that they do not dispute
that I know the law but I have a bit of difficulty when applying it. Leslie Faulkner,
You need to pre-plan more. Your teachers confirm that you know your subject, Leslie.
Therefore, the only problem is reproducing your knowledge in a better organised format.
In my time at school we called this ‘essay-planning’. Before you start an answer, reduce
your argument to a simple sequence. Say it over in your head several times, or turn it
into a diagram. Assign a fresh paragraph to each new stage in your thinking. Write
short, crisp sentences. Use basic verbs and keep your nouns precise – never use words
like ‘things’ or ‘phenomena’ or ‘etc’. Use the spell-check programme on your computer
frequently, which should be set to ‘UK English’. Muddled thinking can best be avoided
by getting your thoughts in sequence before you write a word.
What is the best way of preparing for university exams? For an exam covering a year’s
work and asking for answers to three questions, should you revise for a small number of
topics (say five per exam) in great detail or is it better to revise for a larger number of
topics in less depth? Eleanor Barham, London
Your question begs another: “What is the purpose of revision?” Revision, Eleanor, is not
about memorising facts but trying to understand your subject well enough to
demonstrate familiarity with its big themes regardless of a specific question. If you only
mug up three to five answers, you will be stumped (as I was once) if not enough of them
turn up. You also probably know a lot more than you imagine. My suggestion is to do a
couple of practice exams by yourself under real conditions and then direct your revision
to your weaker topics.
This is the first time I have planned for revision so that I have one month’s revision as
opposed to one week. How should I motivate myself and how can I maintain my
concentration? Mauran Uthayakumar, Harrow
The laws of human nature are not suspended just because you are doing revision.
Mauran. Treat it like an office job – clock on, and clock off. We all have a limited
number of ‘clever’ hours in the day. Pick your best time to function (some of us are not
larks). Write a timetable – have 40 minute periods of labour punctuated by regular five
minute breaks. Stop work after a reasonable number of hours (five, six, seven) and then
go and do something utterly different in the evenings to restore your equilibrium,
including taking exercise and eating proper food in good company where you have the
opportunity to laugh. You will only demotivate yourself if you turn the experience of
revising into non-stop hell.
I’m sitting my finals next month and I’m dreading them. I always get good marks in my
course work but I get in such a panic in exams that my mind goes blank even though I’ve
always done loads of revision. How can I calm myself down? Ali Planer, York
1A little cognitive effort can pay huge dividends. First, Ali, stop thinking of the exams as
the day of your execution. See them instead as part of a chain of events that includes
the reasonably happy life you are enjoying now and the very happy life you WILL have
after they are finished, particularly if you plan a good post-exam holiday. Secondly,
practice a 60-second relaxation exercise to use on the day of your exam. You can try it
now. Close your eyes, drop your shoulders and listen to the sound of your own
breathing. Do nothing for one full minute but count your breaths in and out, screening off
the noise around you and breathing slowly into your belly. Say to yourself ‘1001, 1002,
1003’ (to count the in-breaths) and ‘1004, 1005, 1006’ (for the out). Then pause for
‘1007’ before you start to in-breathe again. Regularising your breathing stops you from
dumping Co2 from your system, which otherwise triggers panic in the brain.
I live at home and my parents keep nagging me about my revision and telling me to
make a plan but if I do I never stick to it, which makes me even more stressed. This year
I haven’t even started and I freeze up in panic every time I think of all the work I have to
do. How can I sort myself out? Sam Nevinson, Maidstone, Kent
I cannot make you work, Sam. Only you can do that and not because your parents nag
you but because you would like to have the sort of life that passing exams might bring.
Maybe the problem is that your parents are too overbearing and by never doing any
work you feel you are defeating them. But – hey – you are the main victim of this
strategy! I think it would be a far more interesting tactic to revise in secret and pass
these exams anyway (which I am sure you can do) if only to see the look on your
parent’s faces when – to their astonishment – you tell them it was a bit of a doddle and
ask why they were making such a fuss…
I’ve been offered a job with an accountancy firm when I graduate but I have to get at
least a 2:1. This is really panicking me and when I sit down to revise I spend hours just
writing out all my lecture notes again without taking anything in. I can’t sleep because I’m
worrying so much. I really want this job. Help! Lauren McIntosh, Edinburgh
A famous stress doctor once wrote: ‘to live for your work may seem admirable; to die for
it seems both unnecessary and uneconomic’. Lauren, aiming for a 2:1 is preventing you
from getting any meaningful work done so this goal is totally pointless. Drop it. Instead,
tell yourself that your sole aim is to do your very best’. Take a two-day break now to
catch up your sleep. And then get down to regular work with this new approach. I think
that would be the cost-effective strategy of an intelligent accountant!
How long should I be working without taking a break? I’m planning to spend the Easter
holidays revising but the timetable I’ve planned is so crammed that I’ll hardly have any
time off. But if I don’t follow the timetable I won’t be able to fit everything in. Jo Musson,
Whitehaven, Cumbria
Pressure often produces catastrophic circular thinking. I could just as easily reply: ‘If Jo
doesn’t take any time off, there won’t be much of her left to examine…” The best
solution is to take a short Easter break then make up as much of the time afterwards as
you can. You will probably find the extra energy from the holiday lets you get back on
top of things – life is rarely all or nothing.
2I’m in my second year at university and my exams count as part of my degree. Last year
I had to resit two of my first year exams and I’m convinced I’m going to fail again. How
can I motivate myself to feel more positive? Tom Rose, London
Superstition has no place in a university, Tom. Research (in the form of a conversation
with your teacher) will tell you why you failed your exams, and what you need to do
differently this time to pass. I agree that the fear of failure is a horrible feeling (and I
remember it well from my very first term) but it doesn’t have the privilege of marking the
exam papers. You were clever enough to get into a university in the first place, so if you
do enough work, and are systematic in answering the exam questions – for what reason
would you be likely to fail?
Broadcaster, author and psychotherapist Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British
Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy /

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