What’s the best way to deal with exam stress?

We all get nervous before tests - but for some of us, the pressure becomes too much. We asked an Oxford student and a mental health expert for their top exam stress tips.

Mental health and wellbeing
By VoiceBox ·


Úna is in her third year of Oxford University where she studies history. She is the deputy editor for The Oxford Student and hopes to do a masters in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies.

Exam stress

As a 20 year old university student, I’m well versed in exam stress.

For me, something important to recognise when dealing with exam stress is that the exam system itself is deeply flawed. Especially at GCSE and A level, it often feels like a memory test. While lots of emphasis is placed on doing well in exams, they actually aren’t the best or even most accurate measure of intelligence. I recently listened to a podcast about the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) in America, and the host, Malcolm Gladwell, explained how the test favours the ‘hare’ over the ‘tortoise’. That’s not to say that ‘hare’ is any more intelligent, it just means that the test rewards speed. But inevitably, the strict time constraint affects the way the ‘tortoise’ sees their intellect, because they are ranked within a system ill-suited to the way that they learn.

Realising the flaws of the exam system can be frustrating, but it’s also empowering to realise that we aren’t defined by a grade in an exam. They are simply a passport to get to where we would like to go.

In my experience, organisation is a vital component in reducing exam stress. Being organised helped me feel in control, even when my workload was overwhelming. I made revision timetables to structure my time and I made sure I wasn’t neglecting any one aspect of my work. Like Dr Ramya Mohan, the expert here, I am a big believer in to-do lists, which helped to structure my day-to-day in revision periods, and gave me a regular sense of achievement, even over little things.

I also agree that taking breaks is really important in coping with exam stress. An important lesson I have learnt through years of exams has been taking a break isn’t ‘lazy’, it’s actually aiding productivity. It can be difficult to see the woods from the trees in periods of intense pressure, but I’ve learnt it is important to gain some perspective and prioritise your health and wellbeing first over any exam. Looking after yourself and taking time away from revision won’t automatically mean you’ll do worse in your studies: in fact, you'll probably do better.

A positive home environment really helped me through stressful exam periods. My parents were great at showing an interest in my studies without being suffocating or overbearing. They accepted that it was my hard work, my exams, my future, and didn’t try to control or micro-manage my revision process. During the exam period, they asked me how the exams went but encouraged me not to dwell on them.

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