It is perfectly normal to get nervous before an exam but if it negatively impacts your performance, it may be anxiety.
It sucks. I know.
Throughout high school I struggled with exam anxiety but I only really addressed it in year 11 and, more seriously, in year 12.
Initially, I was shy about it but through growing up and talking to people more openly, I realised anxiety is insanely common.
Specifically, almost 1 in 7 of Australians aged 4 to 17 were assessed as having mental health disorders in the previous 12 months. In terms of the HSC, over 7000 students apply for special provisions each year.
Given the prevalence of anxiety and anxiety disorders, it makes sense that there are systems in place to help you through these feelings of anxiety and strategies to minimise them.
Pre-Exam Anxiety Management Strategies
Tip 1: Try not to put too much pressure on yourself.
This can sound like an impossible task but all you really need to do is realise that you are more than your mark and your performance in an exam does not define you.
Tip 2: Reframe the exam.
Instead of thinking about the exam as an exam, think about it as a tool you can use to improve. If you encounter a question you don’t understand; instead of panicking, think about how you will have learnt from the exam.
Tip 3: Whatever you do, DO NOT CRAM!
Cramming might work for some, but typically it just makes you more anxious. In addition, it does not improve exam performance. A 2009 study showed that, for 90% of students, spaced out learning was more effective than cramming. Instead, the best thing you can do is have faith in the hard work you’ve put in throughout the year.
If you really feel the need to do something before the exam, just look through and check off the syllabus dot points. Do not read your notes right before the exam as it is unlikely you’ll be able to get through all of them and you might end up feeling unprepared for the section you didn’t manage to get through.
Tip 4: 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 immediately before the exam. You may go to them for comfort but end up making each other more anxious.
Tip 5: Arrive early.
Exam anxiety can make your heart race and will not be helped if you have just run to the exam hall because you were running late. Make sure you know where your exam is being held and try to get there early.
In-Exam Anxiety Management Strategies
Most in-exam anxiety is related to having disordered or chaotic thoughts, or just blanking out completely. Below are a bunch of strategies designed to help you organise your thoughts and effectively answer questions.
Tip 1: Plan your responses
To avoid getting overwhelmed by short answer questions, plan out the 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.
Tip 2: Bring a highlighter
Highlight the key words and pieces of information given to you in the question. After you have finished your response, read over the question again to make sure you have fully engaged with each of the highlighted parts.
Tip 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.
Post-Exam Anxiety Management Strategies
Tip 1: Don’t talk about the exam
After the exam, students usually flock to their friends and discuss everything that did or didn’t go wrong. Instead of doing this, avoid the possibility of finding out you made a mistake and instead talk about literally anything else.
Tip 2: Try to learn from it
Reflect on what you did or didn’t do, identify the strategies that helped you, and make sure you thoroughly read over your exam paper and correct every mistake you made. Doing this is the only way you will learn from your exam papers. If you don’t look at and re-attempt the questions you got wrong, you won’t know how to get them right.
Special Provisions: Potential Support for Anxiety Sufferers
For high grade or long term anxiety, consider special provisions. Typically to do so, you’ll need to confide in 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.
Sitting an exam in a big hall of people can be anxiety inducing. Separate supervision allows students to take their exams in smaller groups (size varies depending on how many people in the given subject apply for special provisions). This comes with an added bonus: the tables used for separately supervised exams and usually a bit bigger than those used in exam halls.
Rest breaks give you time to clear your mind and calm down a bit if you get anxious in the exam. 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 want 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.
Personally, I seldom used my rest breaks but I enjoyed having the option of having them if I felt I needed it.
As the name suggests, this provision grants you extra time to complete your exam. However, the department of education very rarely approves this, even with supporting documents from an external medical 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.
Feel free to reach out to me directly if you have questions about my personal experiences with exam anxiety, applying for and using special provisions, or anything else.