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Academic Skills

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Academic Skills

Managing Exam Anxiety

  1. Know What to Expect
  2. Be Well - in mind and body
  3. Anxiety during the Exam

Download a PDF of this guide.

An exam can cause students a great deal of stress; it is a one-time event that is worth a large portion of a final grade, and it  requires the student to retain, report, and interpret a great deal of course material in a two- or three-hour window. Stress can negatively affect your performance on an exam, so it is important for you to learn to manage the anxiety. Here, we offer some strategies for minimizing exam-related stresses in the days leading up to and the day of your exam.

Know What to Expect

Your anxiety may stem from inexperience. If you know what to expect, some of your stress may be alleviated. First, be sure to double-check the date, time, and location of each of your exams one day prior to writing. Second, be sure to attend the last class; the instructor will rarely tell you what exactly the exam will cover, but they often tell loyal students what to expect in the type of questions and structure of the exam.

If this is one of your first university exams, you may find it helpful to know about the environment and process of exam writing. First, different exams may be written in the same room, so you will need to scan the signs which label the rows of seats to find out where students from your course are to be seated. When it is time to begin, someone will come along and give you an exam question paper and, if the answers are not to be written on the question paper, answer booklets. At some point during the exam, an attendance sheet will be circulated. Finish the sentence you’re working on, present your student identification, and sign the sheet.

The supervisors of the exam are called invigilators. They will outline the university policies that govern examinations and announce windows of time. They will also ensure that no one cheats and that the exam is conducted in an orderly way. No communication of any kind is permitted between students once the invigilators start handing out the exams. If you have a problem of any kind, put up your hand and wait for an invigilator to come to you. If you don’t understand the instructions or if you think there’s a mistake in a question, ask. If someone is looking at your paper, humming, muttering, sobbing, or otherwise bothering you, let the invigilator deal with it.

Once you hand your paper in and leave the room unaccompanied, you will not be allowed to return to the examination room. If you need to use the washroom, ask and you will be accompanied by an invigilator; when you return, you can complete your work.

Be Well – in mind and body


Your frame of mind when you feel prepared is often more positive than when you feel unprepared or unsure. Although stress may stall your efforts to study material, the act of studying can often alleviate your anxiety because you are actively working to improve your chances of success on the exam. You can find some helpful strategies for study on the Academic Skills website.


Eating well and avoiding excess alcohol and caffeine are important factors for overall health. Physical wellbeing can have a positive impact on your mental capability. Note that your ability to concentrate on your material may be negatively affected by the crash brought on by consuming energy drinks or sugar-laden snacks. The inability to focus may augment stress, so that seemingly well-advised beer or double espresso will not offer relief for long.


Research by Dr. Carlyle Smith in Trent University’s psychology department indicates that memory is improved by sleep. His work shows that if you spend all night cramming with very little rest, much of what you worked so hard to retain will likely be lost, but if you study and get adequate rest, you are more likely to remember the content that will appear on the exam.  Being well-rested also helps you to maintain good health, which you will need to provide focused and clear responses to questions and to perform well on the exam.


Know where you stand in the course and what requirements you have met for your degree. Look at the exam within the big picture of your academic career; what is the impact of a poor exam mark on your plans? By doing some simple math, you can figure out exactly what mark you need to get in order to obtain the credit or perhaps to make the honour roll.

Sample: Do the Math

You know the value of each assignment and test for the course, so you can determine your pre-exam mark:

If your exam is worth 25%, then your pre-exam mark is out of 75.  If you have a mark of 68% before your exam, your pre-exam mark is 51 (68 x 0.75)

Consider the scenarios:

  • Ace the exam with 90% and your exam mark is 22.5 (90 x 0.25), giving you a final course mark of 74 (51 + 23).
  • Earn a solid 75% on the exam for a final mark of 70.
  • Receive 55% on the exam and the final mark is 65.
  • Failing the exam with 35% leads to a final mark of 60.

Be Prepared

Gather all of your supplies; you will want to have extra pens or pencils, a calculator (if necessary), your student card, and a water bottle. Be sure to know about any changes in public transportation that may cause you to arrive late.  Aim to arrive about ten minutes before the exam; you will then avoid any conversations about exam material that may cause undue stress.

Anxiety during the Exam

Positive Ritual

Start with the same positive ritual for every exam. Write your name on the exam booklet or scantron form, and you will know that you have one thing right! Have a sip of water. Take three deep breaths. Begin your work.

Avoid Distraction

Be strategic about where you sit. You may find the activity at the front of the room, which is close to the invigilator and where students submit papers and gather belongings, to be too busy; you may wish to sit near the back of the room. However, being surrounded by students who are writing furiously may cause you to question your approach or your knowledge, so sitting near the side or front may be better for you. Think about your preference in advance and locate yourself accordingly.

Just Write

Once you are allowed to begin, take a few moments to write out important content that you are afraid you may forget. You may not need to refer to it, but it will be there if you do.

Writing, in general, can offer some comfort. A recent study from the University of Chicago indicates that writing about and recognizing your fears before you begin an exam can help you to focus on the task at hand, allowing you to overcome the anxieties you feel.


You may find inspiration and comfort in your past accomplishments; you were able to succeed in the past, so you are able to do so again. Alternatively, you can think ahead to where you will be after completing the exam – it can be short-term, at the pub celebrating the end of term, or long-term, practicing as a nurse, taking water samples for government testing, or completing graduate work. Recognizing the positive effects of completing the exam often offers relief from any related anxiety.

Note that humour has been found to alleviate stress in many studies. Just smiling or laughing may make you more optimistic and less anxious or fearful; the comfort of a smile is contagious, so offer one to a classmate or your professor before you begin to write.

Take a Break

Ask the invigilator to visit the washroom; you may be accompanied by an invigilator of the same sex, but you will have a break from the hard chair, stale air, and general environment that fosters your fear. Wash your hands or splash water on your face. Stretch your legs. Returning to the exam, you may find new momentum or perspective to complete the exam.


Deep breathing is important to relaxation – slow your racing heart, calm your jittery hands, and close your eyes. Inhale and exhale. Repeat.