Preparing for exams – Part 1b – 4 tips to cope with exam/ test stress

The Preparing for Exams series was first posted in 2017. Each year now we update the posts and repost them as exams approach. Let’s face it, the rules for preparing for exams don’t really change that much over time. 

I recently talked at a session for education students who need to complete the LANTITE exam – an Australian Government test that education students in Australia need to complete in order to graduate and work in the teaching profession.

The focus of my talk was on the strategies one can use to deal with exam/test anxiety.

I thought I’d share on here a quick summary of the basic strategies/tips that I shared that day.

I’ve added this post to the Preparing for Exams series, which gives you additional advice on how to get your exam mojo.


A quick note first on the difference between stress and anxiety

We tend to use the terms ‘exam stress’ and ‘exam anxiety’ interchangeably. As a psychologist though I would probably make a distinction.

Exam stress is normal. It is normal to feel stressed before and even during an exam. It is a high-pressure situation and can have significant implications for your study future.

Stress is the response of you weighing up the challenge (the exam) and your ability to cope (knowledge). If you perceive the challenge of the exam to exceed your knowledge, you will feel stressed. However the stress is there to motivate you to study harder and better. Stress is a motivator. Stress invites action. Stress is also a representation of your desire to do well at an exam, hence you want it to be there on the day, as it indicates to you that you are doing something important to you. If you didn’t care about your study or your exam results, you wouldn’t feel stressed about the exam.

Exam anxiety is different. In exam anxiety, a person’s perception of their ability to cope with the stress of an exam becomes distorted. They fear they’ll never know enough, or be able to reproduce it when needed, and that fear becomes overwhelming and causes the person to start avoiding anything related to the exam. They avoid studying for the exam. They avoid thinking about the exam. They sometimes even try avoiding the exam altogether. Unlike stress, which can be a motivating force, anxiety tends to be a disabling force and is associated with avoidance.

The tips below can help with both kinds of situations, although I recommend that if fear of exams is consistently leading you to avoiding study, avoiding revision, and feels uncontrollable in the lead up to, and on exam day, that you book an appointment with one of our GPs to discuss anxiety treatment options.


Tip 1 – academic preparation

It goes without saying, but the most obvious way to reduce exam stress/anxiety is to prepare appropriately for the exam itself. Learn the material.

On the surface this sounds fine, but a lot of people are never actually taught how to prepare for exams. They do a lot of reading, or highlighting of notes. They go back over their own notes, with the hope that repeated exposures to the material will help it stick in their head.

They aren’t taught however, the strategies that cognitive scientists (scientists that study how we think and process information) have discovered actually help people learn material.

These include:

Spaced practice – instead of 8 hours the day before, do 8 x 1 hours in the 8 days before the exam.

Retrieval practice – do practise tests, create and use flash cards, get friends to test you on material. Practising remembering stuff is more powerful than repeated reading.

Elaboration – take concepts that you are learning and try to elaborate on them beyond just the basics. For example, try and relate a concept to something in your life (“an analogy is a comparison between one thing and another AND my grandma uses them all the time”).

Interleaving – if you have two topics to cover (literacy and numeracy), divide your study day to include both, rather than just doing 1 per day.

Concrete Examples – aim to memorise as many examples as you can of different concepts.

Dual Coding –  draw diagrams and pictures to accompany the text descriptions of different concepts or ideas.

To learn more about these methods, visit  or delve into our post on Evidence Based Study Tips.


Tip 2 – psychological preparation

In the same way that you need to prepare academically for exams, you also need to prepare psychologically for exams.

One simple form of psychological preparation that you can do for exams is learning how to reduce your stress/anxiety level. A simple breathing exercise practised daily in the lead-up to, and on the day of the exam can be very helpful. You’ll notice that I bolded ‘practised daily’ in the previous sentence. Breathing techniques like this one tend to only work well in stressful situations, if we have practised them regularly beforehand. I suggest a couple of times daily in the couple of weeks leading up to the exam. These techniques only take a few minutes at a time.

It is worth noting that the goal of using such techniques on the day of an exam is NOT to make you totally relaxed.

The goal is to simply take the edge of the feelings of stress, such that you can focus on the exam better.

Remember, I want you to feel some stress during the exam, so you are motivated to do your best.


Tip 3 – lifestyle

It is quite normal for your usual routine to get upended in the lead-up to, and during exams. You sleep less, you get less physical activity, and your diet probably takes a hammering.

The goal is not to try and get these perfect, but the goal is to try and sustain where possible, good lifestyle habits in the lead-up to exams.

Good (7-9 hours), regular (same time each day) sleep has powerful impact on your learning, mood, motivation and concentration. Physical activity (30 minutes of movement a day) is an excellent stress reducer, and healthy regular meals help stabilise your energy levels.

It is OK to take time out of your study schedule to include mealtimes, 30 minutes of physical activity and a decent night’s sleep.


Tip 4 – remind yourself why you are doing this

When we have a stressful event like an exam coming up, our focus tends to narrow on that singular event, and we forget the bigger picture.

We forget why we went to university in the first place. We forget the goals we have in our lives that need the university degree. We forget that the stressful event is just one part of us moving towards a more rewarding and satisfying life.

As you prepare for the LANTITE exam (or similar), remind yourself why this is important to you. Remind yourself that you are working towards something bigger. Yes, the individual event is stressful, but you may be far more willing to endure it, knowing what it is you are working towards.


You might also find our ‘Preparing for Exams‘ series helpful in increasing your exam mojo.


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