Exam preparation tips and strategies

We all know that it is exam time and exams come with a lot of anxiety: Am I prepared enough? What will be in the exam? Will I do well in my exam? We at Student Health and Wellness are aware of the stress and anxiety that comes with preparing for and writing your exams. We have, therefore, prepared some tips and strategies to help you cope better during the exam period. The aim and purpose of this communique is to provide some practical advice on examination preparation.

First let’s get to understand what we mean by stress and anxiety?

Stress is one of the body's natural responses to something that is threatening or frightening. It is something that we all experience from time to time. Many aspects of university life have the potential to cause stress, including adjusting to a new living environment, fulfilling academic requirements, developing friendships, and preparing for and writing exams (Wagner, 2016).

Stress is not necessarily harmful: mild forms of stress can motivate you. Slightly increased stress levels may make you more alert and motivated to do your work. However, if your stress level is too high, it can cause difficulties, including impairing your ability to prepare for and perform during exams (Wagner, 2016).

Symptoms of exam stress

Exam stress can manifest itself in different ways depending on the individual and the type of exam they are preparing for. The most common symptoms include the following:

  • A feeling of despair, anxiety or worry
  • A feeling that you will never be able to get through enough work or preparation before the exam
  • An inability to concentrate or to think clearly
  • An inability to sleep because your mind is racing
  • An inability to relax because you feel guilty that you are not working
  • Migraines or headaches
  • Prolonged tiredness
  • Increased heart rate or a feeling of panic, perhaps even leading to a panic attack (Strydom et al., 2012)

Exam anxiety

Exam anxiety is a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure and catastrophizing, that occur before or during test situations (Malloy, 2016).

Everyone feels anxious now and then. It’s a normal emotion. Many people feel nervous when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders are different, though. They can cause such distress that it interferes with your ability to lead a normal life (Malloy, 2016).

Exam anxiety is

  • unnecessary worry about upcoming exams
  • fear of being evaluated, and
  • uneasiness about the consequences

Types of anxiety disorders

  • Panic disorder that involves sweating and chest pains.
  • Social anxiety, which involves fear of being judged by people or surroundings. It is like living the life of others because you are always looking for their approval.
  • Specific phobias is an intense fear of situations and specific objects like heights.


Symptoms of anxiety

  • Sleepless nights
  • Sweating and panicking
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dry mouth
  • Unable to be calm and still

Anxiety is not a sign of weakness or poor upbringing; it is a combination of factors. There is no cure for it but it can be controlled by staying away from caffeine as caffeine can cause sleepless nights and heart palpitations (Malloy, 2016).

Eight main areas, which can contribute to overcoming stress and anxiety during the exam period

1. Make time for sleep

The most important thing is to remember to plan time for sleep. When you have to get up at a certain time, count back the number of hours you want to sleep and then add half an hour. This time becomes the scheduled time to switch the lights out. The extra half an hour is important - we often forget about the time it takes to brush teeth, set the alarm clock, and so on.

2. Watch what you eat and when

Eating late meals because you have been studying all day will alter your internal clock and impair sleep. Although you should try not to go to bed hungry, try to have a big dinner before 19:00 and then a smaller snack in the evening if you are still hungry. It’s thought that certain foods help sleep: turkey, milk, bananas and walnuts all contain tryptophan, which the body uses to make melatonin (which serves as the immune system strengthener).

3. Limit caffeinated drinks

Although the impact of caffeine varies from person to person, try avoiding all sources of caffeine from 15:00 and adjust if needed. Remember caffeine isn’t just in coffee – it’s also in things like tea, chocolate and fizzy drinks.

4. Make your bedroom a place of rest

Checking e-mails or doing some last-minute revision in bed may stop your brain associating the bedroom as a place of quiet rest; rather, the bed becomes associated with a place of cognitive arousal. This can make it hard to initiate sleep, so remove all distracting items from the bedroom area.

5. Don’t use your smartphone in bed

Electronic devices produce noise and light; both will stop you sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets produce light that is blue enriched. This light influences the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the "sleep hormone" melatonin. Without melatonin, although you can sleep, the sleep you achieve will be light and non-refreshing. Light can also make you feel more alert, again training the brain to perceive the bed as a place of cognitive arousal.

6. Have a bedtime routine

Doing exercise is a great way to relax during the exam period, as it causes the release of endorphins and improves your mood. However, the endorphins released from exercise can also impair sleep. As such, try to avoid exercising within two hours of bedtime. Instead, use those few hours to create a relaxing bedtime routine – perhaps by having a bath with lavender oil, or sitting and reading a book.

7. Clear your head before bed

There’s some truth in the old saying that taking a problem to bed means you wake up with the solution - but don’t let the problem keep you awake.

Sitting and ruminating over thoughts of the day will keep the brain active, so try keeping a notebook by your bed to write thoughts down before sleep instead. Meditation and breathing exercises can also help.

If you can’t drop off, don’t stay in bed trying to force yourself to sleep. Instead, employ the 15-minute rule: if you can’t sleep after what feels like 15 minutes, get up, leave the bedroom, and read or relax somewhere else. Only return to the room when you feel sleepy again.

8. Remember - one night of bad sleep won’t hurt

Your day may be more difficult and you might need more coffee to function, but you will make it through the day after one night of poor sleep. Sleep is an autonomic function – you can’t force yourself to sleep, so worrying about not sleeping or the effect of not sleeping on the following day will impair sleep.

Try not to nap, but if you need to, keep any naps to less than 30 minutes in length and don’t take them after 15:00. Remember, after a night of poor sleep, you are more likely to sleep the following night (South African Depression and Anxiety Group, 2016) .

All the best as you continue with your exams.
Student Health & Wellness


Anxiety and Panic Disorders Guide, 2017. Accessed at

Malloy, J., (2016) The influence of test anxiety on memory. Theses and Dissertations. 636. Rowan University. Retrieved from:

South African Depression and Anxiety Group. 2016. Copying with Exam Stress. Retrieved from

Strydom, M.A.A., Pretorius, P.J., & Joubert, G. (2012).  Depression and anxiety among Grade 11 and 12 learners attending schools in central Bloemfontein. South African Journal of Psychiatry, 18(3).

Wagner, K (2016). Learning to Cope with Exam Stress. Retrieved from ( Date: 2017/05/17