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Exam Preparation: The Mental Preparation

What most exam guides miss, and what most students cannot observe, is the hidden mental preparation high performers go through to fully prepare for an exam.

Anna Pahlman

Anna Pahlman



What most exam guides miss, and what most students cannot observe, is the hidden mental preparation high performers go through to fully prepare for an exam. Time and time again, the HSC has been compared to a marathon, and yet if you ask any elite marathoner, an undeniably important part of the race happens in the mental. Written by Anna Pahlman (Physics tutor, 99.25 ATAR) and revised by Alice Zhang (Project Academy Editor), this guide introduces the mental preparation framework high performers used for preparing and sitting HSC exams.

1. Dealing with Pre-exam Nerves

There are about a million different emotions you can feel before entering an exam. Anxiety, fear, stressed, perhaps excited as well. Whether or not you think you are prepared for an exam, these feelings still creep up outside the examination hall, as you walk to your seat, and the 10 minute wait for the timer to begin.

The cause of these nerves is the pressure you feel and are putting on yourself. The key to alleviating this then is not to put so much pressure on yourself. Sounds simple right? It’s much easier said than done, and I’ve used ‘pressure’ as an umbrella term, so let’s break it down:

1.1 Reframe the exam

The largest source of pressure for most students is due to three main things: (a) they see success in this exam as a make it or break it event to achieve a certain goal, (b) having committed so much time into prep, they have tied their self worth into their performance in the exam, or (c) they feel the expectation of other people weighing on them.

The key to all three, is actually to remove yourself from the result and focus on the process.

The result in the exam is not what will get you the uni degree, the approval of others, nor your self worth. Really, it isn’t. The HSC is simply a very structured set of content for you to learn in a very set number of days in a year, taught in a very set way in a classroom, and examined in a very set way. Yet everyone’s learning style is different, every teacher’s teaching style is different, everyone has a different amount of time they can dedicate to studying, and what everyone actually finds passion in is different.

The HSC is a standardisation when everyone is unique, and actually, everyone in the real world knows that. That is why in society, there are so many pathways to achieve your goal, instead of just one set. For example:

  • To get into your dream uni degree, universities facilitate you in as many ways possible even after the HSC (eg. through transfers, or bridging courses)
  • To realise the ATAR does not define your self worth, I can assure you, literally no one asks about your ATAR. What’s more important is the personal growth you’ve gone through in Year 12 and how that builds your character, which translates into success into adulthood
  • To realise the HSC exam is not the be all and end all, realise that I personally took away so many learnings from my Year 12. I learn how I liked to study, how to perform under pressure, how to do public speaking - and these are all things I’m still refining today.

Understanding what’s giving you the pressure and reframing the HSC by thinking about the bigger picture will help you deal all the stress. After all “it’s a marathon not a sprint”, and no matter how badly an athlete has run a marathon, they’ll pick themselves up, and run another one again.

1.2 Do. Not. Cram.

I’m not going to lie. I am a huge procrastinator. I will leave things to the last minute if I am able to. And whilst I’ve come to terms with enjoying the stress associated with cramming, I do not recommend it.

Cramming might work for some, but typically makes you more anxious. In addition, it does not improve exam performance. Instead, the best thing you can do is have faith in the hard work you’ve put in throughout the year.

If you’re feeling the pre-exam jitters and really feel the need to do something, consider a strategic approach to reviewing, such as meticulously going through the syllabus dot points. These dot points serve as a roadmap of the key concepts and topics that will be assessed and by methodically checking them off, you can effectively target your study efforts and alleviate anxiety stemming from uncertainty about the examined content.

Just make sure to do revision well ahead of your exam day. Reading through notes right before an exam might seem like a good way to get that bit of extra work in, but it likely won’t get you through much and you may end up feeling even more unprepared for any section you didn’t manage to skim through.

1.3 Don’t talk to other anxious people

If your friends are also prone to getting anxious, it might be best to steer clear of them before the exam. Especially if they are cramming content, you might feel like you have missed something if they mention a point you don’t remember. But you know your studies better than anybody else, and you shouldn’t let others rob that from you.

1.4 Arrive early

Exam anxiety can make your heart race and will not be helped if you rushed to the exam hall because you’re late. Make sure you know where your exam is being held and try to get there early. For me, I always arrived at my exams at least half an hour early to help me calm down and take in all the pre-exam feelings before entering.

2. Nerves during exams

During an exam, you might begin feeling as if all your thoughts are defaulting into entropy and nothing is making sense. Here are some strategies to tackle them:

2.1 Plan your responses

To avoid getting overwhelmed by short answer questions, plan out key points you need to touch on to get full marks. Not only does this provide your response with structure, it also gives your thoughts a bit of structure, making them less overwhelming.

One of the best advice I got from my Chemistry tutor at Project Academy, was to write yourself a marking guideline for your responses, especially those more difficult and longer. Constructing your own marking rubric helps you gather information from the specific syllabus dot point you want to discuss in your response and when done well, it will help shape your actual response to exactly what is required to get full marks.

2.2 Bring a highlighter

When stressed, questions can be dizzying to look at and comprehend. I recommend bringing a highlighter to highlight the key words and pieces of information given to you in the question. This will help you understand what is asked of you. After you have finished your response, read over the question again to make sure you have fully engaged with each of the highlighted parts.

2.3 Take a water break

If you can feel yourself getting shaky or anxious, take 2-3 minutes to just sit, drink water, and breathe. You’ll be tempted to think about the remaining questions but don’t. Instead, take the time to remove yourself from the situation and de-stress.

Exams are also quite long - between 2-3 hours. What helped a lot was taking a bathroom break in between to break out of that sitting position. This helps a lot to break you out of a rut and get you thinking in the right way again.

3. Post-exam

3.1 Don’t talk about the exam

After the exam, students will usually gather with their friends and start to discuss everything that did or didn’t go wrong. ‘What did you get for Question 4? I put down A’. And you might end up internally freaking out because you chose C for Question 4.

Instead of doing this, talk about literally anything else, and focus on your next exam. There is nothing you can do to change what you wrote in the exam, so why involve headspace into it.

You might not able to avoid it if you have friends that love to discuss the exam, but you can always go on your own way such as getting yourself a Yochi, patting yourself on the back for getting through the exam, and going home to get some rest.

3.2 Learn from it

Reflecting on what you did or didn’t do, and identifying the strategies that helped you can be tremendously useful for the next exam. You know what the best strategies are for yourself and knowing your weaknesses will make you a better exam-taker.

Once you get your exam paper back, yes, the mark is the first thing you look at. Yes, you might think about whether you scored above the average. But those are both things you can’t change. Instead, take a good hard look at each question you lost marks in. Where did you miss a concept? Which part of your working out didn’t follow through? Which questions did you completely flaunt? Doing this is the only real way that you will learn from your exam papers. If you don’t look and re-attempt the questions you got wrong, you don’t know how to get them right.

4. Special Provisions: Potential Support for Anxiety Sufferers

4.1 Consider special provisions

If you do experience long term anxiety, consider special provisions. Usually to do so, you will need to chat with a teacher you trust and/ or have a meeting with the school counsellor. If you have a counsellor outside of school, it helps if they write a letter on your behalf explaining the situation.

4.2 Separate supervision

Sitting in an examination hall with so many people can be really anxiety inducing. Especially when it’s completely silent with a few coughs here and there and the sounds of pens clicking. Separate supervision allows students to take their exams in smaller groups (number varies depending on how many people in the given subject apply for special provisions). An added bonus is that the tables used for supervised exams are usually bigger than those used in exam halls, so you don’t have to worry about having to fit all your pens and pencils and the several exam pages on the tiny exam table.

4.3 Rest Breaks

Rest breaks give you time to clear your mind and calm down if you get anxiety during exams. However, there are a few conditions regarding what you can do on a break and their duration:

  • A break can be taken at any time during the exam
  • You do not have to take any breaks if you don’t need to
  • The minimum length of a break is 5 minutes
  • There is no maximum but the cumulative break time cannot exceed 5 minutes for each half hour of exam
  • e.g. if you have a three hour exam, the sum of your rest breaks cannot exceed 30 minutes

4.4 Extra Time

As the name suggests, this provision grants you extra time to complete your exam. However, the department of education rarely approves of this, even with supporting documents from an external practitioner. Unless your anxiety is extremely severe or you have another serious medical condition that impairs your exam performance, it is unlikely you will be granted extra time.

Take Home Messages (tldr)

  • Try to minimise stress and pressure.
  • Don’t cram!
  • Apply exam strategies to avoid getting overwhelmed.
  • Consider applying for special provisions if you think they would help you.

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Guides / Year 12 Guides

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Maximise Your Chances Of Coming First At School

Trial any Project Academy course for 3 weeks.

NSW's Top 1% Tutors

Unlimited Tutorials

NSW's Most Effective Courses

Access to Project's iPad

Access to Exclusive Resources

Access to Project's Study Space