I can think of few things that are more stressful than preparing for an exam. The level of stress that presents with an exam has a direct correlation to the significance of the exam. Sure, a mid-term in your Radiation Physics course is super stressful, but how does that compare to studying for your boards? The good news is that there are some tips that can easily be adapted to help to ease the stress and test anxiety that comes with each exam. How helpful these tips are really come down to you as the individual. Certain aspects of test anxiety wont be overcome through breathing techniques and a full 8 hours of sleep. But much of it can be avoided or reduced through following a few easy to implement steps.
First and foremost, you have to establish a routine for studying. Each of us has periods of time when we are most productive. Some people are night owls, and others are early birds. You have to find the time when you are feeling most productive and receptive to information. I realize that it may not always be possible to study when you are in this ideal zone because of work and life, but when possible, this is the time when you should most of your studying. The rest of the routine is up to you and where you feel the most comfortable and capable of focusing. For some, this might be on your couch with your notes, and for others it may be a coffee shop listening to a lecture. Find what works for you and stick to it. Routines are extremely beneficial for many things, and studying is among them.
The cycle of perfectionism is a dangerous one. One more practice test, one more hour, one more day can send even the most prepared student into a downward spiral of pessimism, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed. When studying, I find it extremely effective to set a limit on how much time I spend in one session. If I have an entire Saturday open with the intent to prepare for an exam, I design the day with breaks and a set goal in mind. I know that from 8a-10a I will be reviewing my notes from chapters 4 and 5, then will take a break for an hour to get some lunch and fresh air. After the break I will take a practice exam and review the questions that I got wrong for an hour or so. Next comes another break for more fresh air and food, followed by an evening of more review. Breaking the day into chunks with clear goals set for what I want to accomplish relieves the sense of overwhelm that can happen when you have a semester’s worth of information to study. This of course, requires planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time to study (Which what we all do every time right? Cramming nevvver happens!). I highly recommend utilizing the Pomodoro technique when you are studying to improve your productivity, or doing anything for a matter of fact! You can learn more about it here!
To help to relieve some of the anxiety for the exam, remind yourself that although it is an important test, there is more to life than the test. Yes, it is very important, but is it the most important thing in your life? I would bet that it isn’t. As hard as it is for me to write this as a person who usually has enough caffeine in my body to kill a horse, you should limit the amount of caffeine you consume on test day. The typical pre-test jitters are exaggerated with excess amounts of caffeine. Make sure that leading up to the exam you get plenty of sleep. I spent many nights with my face down in the book, sleeping. I eventually learned that it was better for me to call it quits and get some sleep instead of fighting to stay awake and read through a couple extra pages. I would wake up refreshed and be able to retain the information much more efficiently. Finally, on the day of the exam, make sure you eat some food to give your brain the energy it needs to conquer the exam, and expect a few curve balls! A teacher wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t word a question differently than how you have seen it in the past. When you are studying, focus on the main concepts and really develop a deep understanding of those. If you are unable to recall or do not have time to study all the nuanced details of a topic, knowing the first principles of it will help to inform you on how to answer the question.
So you planned ahead and gave yourself enough time to study, got a good night sleep, had a well-rounded breakfast, and avoided lethal doses of caffeine for the day of the exam…you’re good to go! If only that’s all it took to avoid test day anxiety and stress. Stay tuned for Dealing With Test Anxiety Part 2: Test Day.