You have prepared well and are ready for your exam. However, a few days beforehand, you start getting stressed about it: You don’t sleep well, feel sick and break out in a sweat. And during the exam itself, your mind goes completely blank. All that effort is wasted! But it doesn’t need to be that way. We can learn mental strength and develop tips and tricks to ensure we can sit an exam with confidence.
Feeling a degree of nervousness before an exam is positive, since this causes hormones to be released (especially adrenaline), making your heart beat faster and accelerating your breathing. As a result, more oxygen reaches the blood and the brain and you have plenty of energy. You are fully focused and capable of performing well. So what is the problem? Your fear can take over and dominate you. The possible consequences include problems sleeping, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, shaking hands and much more – such as your mind going blank during the exam. Despite having prepared so well, you suddenly can’t remember a thing! Often just the thought of the approaching exam is enough to trigger these symptoms.
Contrary to what many people believe, exam nerves are not caused by a fear of failing an exam. Instead, they are triggered by what experts refer to as ‘social evaluation anxiety’. It is a fear of losing face or being mocked by others – in other words, of anticipated shame. Everyone needs esteem and recognition – but some need a great deal of it, especially if they feel that they only gain recognition by performing well. You then have exaggerated expectations of yourself, which are potentially heightened by pressure from your environment and bad experiences (e.g. being made to feel stupid by a teacher during childhood). The people who are most at risk are therefore perfectionists, control freaks or those with low self-esteem. From my coaching experience, I can say that there are many such individuals.
A horror movie in your head
These people envisage a whole series of horror scenarios before sitting an exam. The result is a veritable horror movie, which then keeps running through their mind. They feel as if they are at the mercy of these scenarios and have a sense of being unable to act. However, that is not true because the things we think of have a strong influence on our mental state and body – both positive and negative. As the American car-maker Henry Ford once said: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” And the German mind coach and trainer Antje Heimsoeth rightly commented: “If we constantly think about what we have done or could do wrong, it doesn’t exactly improve our performance.“
Negative thoughts therefore actually make us feel bad. Exam nerves trigger a vicious circle: The greater the fear of failure, the more likely it is to happen – which of course seems to confirm the fears and increases exam nerves even more. Fortunately, however, this also works in reverse: We can make ourselves feel good – especially through mental techniques and relaxation exercises before and during the exam. Having the right strategy for studying is also important. My tips therefore cover all of these categories. I have divided them into: Tips for studying, pre-exam tips, and tips during the exam.
Tips for studying
- Start studying early and draw up a good study plan that includes rest periods. Remember: Exam preparation is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Take a short break of a few minutes after studying for max. 90 minutes and take a 1-hour break after max. 4 hours. Try to do something completely different during your breaks.
- Make sure you get enough sleep during the study phase to recover and stay fit.
- Research shows that your study plan should be structured so that you ideally repeat learning units after 10 hours.
- Plan your study phases so that they fit with your circadian rhythm (depending on whether you are an early riser or a night owl).
- Train yourself in exam techniques by completing mock exams.
- Talk to others about your exam nerves. You will see that you are not the only one.
- Learn techniques to boost your mental strength. For example, reflect on what you have already achieved and what you have been good at. And: What has helped you in other difficult situations? Become aware of coping strategies that work well for you. Actively block negative thoughts and replace them with helpful thoughts, such as “I can do it”. Repeat these positive sentences (mantras) several times a day. In short: Shift your focus from the negative to the positive. All it takes is some practice.
- Visualize regularly how you celebrate your exam success (if possible using all your senses), picturing the detailed scene in full color. Many top athletes use this method.
- Learn a relaxation technique that you can also use shortly before the exam, e.g. breathing exercises. This is important because your breathing allows you to influence your vegetative nervous system and therefore also your heart rate and blood pressure. For example: Try breathing in slowly through your nose four times (making sure you breathe into your stomach), hold your breath while slowly counting to eight, and then breathe out slowly through your mouth eight times. That calms you down. Another option is progressive muscle relaxation, for example: Clench your hands to make a fist and then release them.
- The Zurich study coach Katrin Piazza recommends that you write down your fears once a day for a few days before the exam. How strong are they on each day? 10 minutes before the exam, write down all your fears and horror scenarios again. This saves them as if they were on an external hard drive. The action of writing them down relieves the brain.
- Katrin Piazza advises against learning anything new the day before the exam (especially not the evening before). After all, what you learn last blocks access to information stored in your long-term memory. She therefore recommends ‘simply’ relaxing for the last 24 hours before the exam – for example, by playing board games, doing light sports, going for a walk, etc.
- Do not drink coffee or energy drinks before the exam. These will only make you more nervous.
- Do not discuss material with others shortly before the exam. It is better to stand alone and listen to your favorite song. Do your relaxation exercise – or, of course, write down your fears.
- Go to the toilet before the exam. While you are there, smile for a minute (this releases happiness hormones) or practice power posing. Read my blog to find out more: LINK.
Tips during the exam:
- Put an analog clock on the desk. It will tick more slowly than the clock in your head…
- Read through all of the questions first and then start with the simplest one. Do the difficult ones towards the end.
- If your mind goes blank, turn the exam sheet over and write a shopping list for the weekend, write the alphabet backwards or list your favorite movies. This should help to unlock your mind!
- In this situation, the relaxation exercise you practiced will also help – simply ensure that the exam is not the first time you use it.
© Claudia Kraaz