‘Tis the (Exam) Season!

by: Dr. Marisa Murray, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice)

You’ve prepared for weeks. Or maybe you haven’t? Your social life–at this point, is non-existent! Whether you’ve studied to the brink of reciting the material in your sleep or if your total exam prep has consisted of overnight cramming, when exam day arrives, the same thing often happens. Thoughts of uncertainty begin to kick in, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

It’s natural to feel some butterflies in your stomach before an exam. It’s similar to the way you might feel before playing in the big game, performing on stage, or engaging in public speaking. Pre-exam jitters can be channeled to help motivate us to perform at our best. This is known as a helpful kind of anxiety. It helps us view the exam as an exciting challenge!

It’s the unhelpful kind of anxiety–the one that causes us to fear the exam, to have difficulty concentrating, to second guess ourselves or to have physical symptoms, like a headache or a racing heart–that interferes with our performance.

With exam season fast approaching, here are some helpful tips for managing your pre-exam anxiety: 

  1. Use your time effectively: No matter how hard you try, it can feel like there is ‘never enough time’ around exam season. Fine-tuning your time-management skills can include: using a calendar or a checklist to set goals, avoiding potential distractions (e.g., phone, your guilty pleasure on television) during study time, and keeping a consistent yet flexible study routine while rewarding yourself for meeting your study goals.
  2. Engage in self-care: Take care of yourself to manage your stress levels. Getting a good night’s sleep, taking breaks (typically ones that allow for stretching, moving around, replenishing food and water intake), engaging in social interactions, and/or practicing a relaxation activity are examples of how you can release some of the pre-exam stress. Just as you schedule your study time, schedule time for yourself!
  3. Develop a study plan: Consider putting together a realistic study plan that allows for flexibility. In developing your study plan, figure out which exams require more prep time. Also, try to factor in some wiggle room for potential obstacles that might interfere with the study plan (e.g., coming down with the flu!). Most importantly, figure out what helps you reach your optimal studying – do you study better alone? Or do you better achieve your studying goals in a group setting? Do you like to study in the comfort of your own home? Or do you prefer the silence of the library? Do you learn better visually? Auditorily? What time of day do you retain information best? Try to answer these questions and incorporate the answers into your study plan.
  4. Monitor your negative thoughts: Telling yourself, “I’m going to fail this exam,” can be very convincing to the powerful mind and, yes, exacerbate anxiety! Keep in mind that there will be questions you know and others you don’t. You cannot learn everything! Try to view your upcoming exam as a new experience. Perhaps the midterm didn’t go as well as you wanted – this is a new exam. Work on convincing your mind that you will “try your best.”
  5. Make use of available resources: Many schools offer workshops and presentations related to stress management, test-taking strategies, and time-management. Look into what’s available on campus. Also, make use of your professors’ and teaching assistants’ office hours to get a better grasp on challenging course material. Finally, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for assistance in managing unhelpful exam anxiety.

Dr. Marisa Murray, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice) is a psychologist in supervised practice at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto, Canada, under the supervision of Dr. Cassandra Pasiak, C.Psych. Dr. Murray supports children, adolescents, and adults with psychological treatment and assessment services, including psychoeducational assessments and treatment for eating disorders and body image-related issues.