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Exam stress

Most people experience stress when they have upcoming exams or assignments. Discover strategies that can help put you on the path to success.

A student presents her identification to an exam invigilator

Exam stress is the feeling of tension and worry that comes from test-taking situations. It is normal to feel some stress about upcoming tests, exams, papers or presentations. Indeed, a small amount of stress can challenge you and stimulate you to work harder. Exam stress becomes problematic when it interferes with your ability to perform and achieve your academic and learning goals.

Signs and symptoms of exam stress

Below are some signs that indicate you may be experiencing exam stress:

  • Physical signs include a fast heartbeat, tense muscles, headache, sweating, upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, dry mouth and difficulty sleeping.
  • Behavioural signs include fidgeting, nail biting, and increased smoking, drinking or eating.
  • Mental and emotional signs include difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, "going blank," worry, and uncontrolled feelings of fear, dread or helplessness.

Causes of exam stress

Exam stress can develop for many different reasons. Knowing the reason(s) for your stress helps you identify strategies to manage it. Causes can be placed into four main categories:

1. Lifestyle issues

  • Inadequate sleep
  • Poor nutrition
  • Stimulant use (e.g., caffeine, energy drinks)
  • Insufficient exercise
  • Not scheduling available time
  • Not prioritizing commitments

2. Information needs

  • Lack of exam-taking strategies
  • Lack of academic information (e.g., course requirements, lecturers' expectations, exam dates and exam location)
  • Lack of knowledge of how to apply stress reduction techniques while studying, before an exam and during an exam

3. Poor studying styles

  • Inefficient studying (e.g., inconsistent content coverage, trying to memorize the textbook, binge studying, all-night studying)
  • Ineffective studying (e.g., reading without understanding, cannot recall the material, not making study/review notes, not studying/reviewing)

4. Psychological Factors

  • Feeling little or no control over the exam situation
  • Negative thinking and self-criticism; for example:
    • "I am not smart enough."
    • "I’ll get a terrible grade."
    • "I won’t pass this exam."
    • "I can't do this."
  • Irrational thinking about exams and outcomes
  • Irrational beliefs; for example:
    • "If I don’t pass, my family/boyfriend/girlfriend/friends will lose respect for me."
    • "I will never get a degree."
  • Irrational demands; for example:
    • "I have to get at least an A or I am worthless."
  • Catastrophic predictions; for example:
    • "I’ll fail no matter what I do — there’s no point."

Strategies that can help

The most effective way to reduce exam stress combines skill-focused approaches (e.g., building your study skills) with behaviour or cognitive approaches (e.g., learning stress management strategies).

When you have identified the cause of your exam stress, you need to ask additional questions to help you decide what intervention will be most helpful. For example, if you recognize that you were not sufficiently prepared, ask yourself:

  • Why was I not prepared? Was it because I did not have enough time to study? Did I not understand the material?
  • If I did not have sufficient time, why not? Because of other course work, family responsibilities, a job, watching television?

You can see how critical it is to thoroughly examine the causes of your experience! How you address your experience of exam stress will be very different, depending upon what you discover. Some ways to reduce exam stress include:

Improve your study and exam-taking skills

Effective preparation for an exam requires going beyond reading the material several times and making notes. There are numerous study and exam-taking skills you can develop and use to help you succeed. Concordia's Student Learning Services offers a great deal of support that includes:

Change negative thinking patterns

Some people see exams as a threat and thoughts about them are predominantly negative ones. These include thoughts like:

  • "I don't understand this stuff."
  • "I'm sure to fail this stupid exam."
  • "What was I thinking when I took this course?"

These negative thoughts can lead to stress. Switching to a positive frame of mind can help to reduce stress. Pay close attention to your thoughts. When you hear yourself thinking negatively before or during an exam, stop and actively take a new perspective.

A technique called cognitive restructuring can be helpful in changing ineffective thinking. Learn more about cognitive restructuring here.

Learn to relax

Stress can affect you physically by creating tension in your body. Many people find that applying relaxation techniques is beneficial. The simplest of these techniques is deep breathing. One technique is to slowly and deeply inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven and then exhale slowly though pursed lips for a count of eight. Do this four times in a row. With each exhalation, imagine your worries leaving your body. Do this a couple of times while studying, as well as before and during your exam to release tension.

Other relaxation techniques include progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga and Tai-chi. Learn more about relaxation techniques here.

Talk things out with a professional

Some people find it difficult to identify the root of their stress and could benefit by speaking with a mental health professional. At Concordia, Counselling and Psychological Services offers appointments with professionals where students can explore the factors related to their exam stress and find ways to overcome them.

Engage in healthy behaviours

Eating healthfully, engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding tobacco and other positive health behaviours contribute to better health, which helps to buffer against the effects of stress.

For more information, explore the variety of health topics on the Health Services website or speak to a Health Promotion Specialist.

Additional resources

  • Information from Concordia University to help with exam stress:
    • The Exams page has "all the information you need to ace your exams". Set yourself up for success by getting familiar with scheduling, rules and study tools.
    • Exceptional measures for undergraduate and graduate students have been implemented that are "intended to ease pandemic-related stress in these extraordinary times."
    • Preparing for online exams (December 2020) highlights important reminders to "help minimize stress and ensure that your exams go smoothly."
  • Exam Anxiety Workshop is a video that provides a comprehensive look at exam stress and strategies to manage it
  • Crash Course Study Skills is a YouTube playlist with 11 videos about study skills such as note taking, studying for exams and test anxiety
  • Mastering Exam Anxiety resources from Athabasca University




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