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. No matter how much time you spend preparing for an exam, the actual day of the exam is always a nerve-wracking experience. Whether it is something that I know like the back of my hand or radiation physics, the nerves will be there. It almost goes without saying, but the first tip for dealing with stress on test day is to learn how to relax!
Relaxing is always easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. Even in a stressful situation, the ability to reduce the level of stress or anxiety you are feeling by even a fraction will have a tremendous impact. Find whatever it is that helps you to relax in stressful moments, and use that during the exam. For me it is taking deep breaths. For you, it may be visualizing yourself kicking ass on the exam, or going to your happy place. Different strokes for different folks, so if it works for you then do it! It’s important to be positive walking into the exam. Talk yourself up as you walk into the exam room. “I’ve spent 12 hours studying for this test, plus all the coursework, and homework. I will never be more ready than I am now for this exam and I am going to knock it out of the park”. Remember you have worked your butt off in preparing for the exam and earned the A you are about to get.
Of course, in order to be able to say that, you have to had actually put the time in studying. Be realistic about the effort your put into preparing for the exam. If it was a super stressful week and you were only able to study for half of the time that you normally would, acknowledge it and find a way to study more the next time you have a bad week that coincides with an exam. Knowing what you know, and knowing what you don’t know, can help immensely with anxiety that you are facing during the exam. When taking exams, if I come across a question or topic that I am unfamiliar with or struggle with, I don’t focus on it for long periods of time. I either know the concept or I don’t. I give it my best guess and move on. If I have time at the end, I come back to it, but if I don’t that’s o.k. too. Don’t get hung up on a handful of questions that can throw you off for the rest of the exam. You always remember the questions that were hard and got wrong, but you never remember the questions that you knew the answers without even thinking about it. I want to be clear here, I am not saying to rush through your test and answer only the questions you know without thinking and come back to the ones you don’t. What I am saying is, that I have had success when I take my time to read the question and determine if it is a topic that I know or do not know. If I know the topic, I will work through the question until I think I select the correct answer. If I don’t know the topic, I work through it to the best of my ability and then move on. Most often exams are timed and I don’t want to waste precious minutes debating options within a question that I am unsure of.
Who among us has never missed the word “not” in a question, and selected the wrong answer? I most certainly have and it is a very easy and silly mistake to make. Take your time to read the question to ensure that you understand what is really being asked. There is not much worse than going back over an exam and seeing you missed a couple questions because you simply misread or misunderstood what was being asked. Being able to focus on the questions and not pay attention to the people around is challenging. There is something panic inducing when all of a sudden, a rush of people turns their exam in at once and doubt begins to creep into your head. “AM I NOT TAKING THE SAME EXAM AS THEM? WHAT DO THEY KNOW THAT I DON’T? OBVIOUSLY, THEY ARE GENIUSES AND I AM A DUNCE.” Take a step back and practice those relaxation techniques we just talked about, because that certainly is not the case. As difficult as it is to not pay attention that rush of cattle to the feeder, you mustn’t. Everyone works at their own pace and the only thing that matters is the outcome. If I need 2 hours to get a 95% and you only need 1 hour, enjoy the free hour! Speed does not always mean skills or smarts. Everyone taking the exam has their own level of fear and self-doubt, tune that out and remind yourself of all the work you put in to be there.
Remember, a little bit of stress can be beneficial to you if you have prepared for it. This article provides some insights around how some athletes can prevent from succumbing to the pressure, while others crumble. Dealing with stress during an exam requires a lot of preparation, the ability to relax and tune out others, and being able to pull from your knowledge and experience to answer the questions that may catch you off guard. There is no one recipe to guarantee exam success, you have to find what works for you.