Student Advice

Exam Stress

Uni Compare  · May 4th 2023  · 5 min

Exam stress is an unfortunate component of any exam. They go hand-in-hand and sometimes, it can get the better of even the best students.


This type of stress can manifest in a variety of ways. Additionally, exam stress can impact a student's academic performance and overall well-being. While some levels of stress can motivate and help students perform better on exams, excessive stress can be detrimental to both academic success and mental health. Therefore, students need to learn how to manage exam stress in healthy and effective ways.

Stressed student

What is exam stress?

There is no easy way to accurately describe just what exam stress is. It can manifest itself in different ways for different students. Exam stress usually manifests around exam season (specifically on exam day), but has also been known to manifest in study periods, such as study leave. Exam stress can be the feeling of a weight being placed on top of you, the feeling of being overwhelmed or the manic need to cram everything into one short time period. Sometimes these can manifest into very specific symptoms such as feeling low or depressed, losing appetite or over-eating, tense muscles, racing heartbeat or more.

Stress can often be described in different ways too. Sometimes, people refer to stress as worry, anxiety, or even blind panic. Finding stress relievers can be easier said than done, but finding what is best for you is more important than people give credit for.

If you do not feel comfortable sharing issues with friends and family, speak to your tutors, lecturers or teachers.

Sometimes, post-exam depression can manifest. This is very similar to exam stress, but is more closely related to how people feel they did in their exam. This can be worrying about potentially failing or worrying about how you performed in the exam itself.

What causes exam stress?

You might think that exams are what cause exam stress, but sometimes it can be other factors. While the name suggests that exams are at the heart of it, the workaround exams can also influence things. In fact, a 2014 study Putwain & Daly found that 15% of GCSE students can be considered ‘highly test anxious’.

Potential influences may include:

  • Anxiety regarding the forthcoming exam.
  • Feeling unprepared.
  • General exam anxiety.
  • Mental health issues.
  • Moving from school to college or university.
  • Pressure from friends.
  • Pressure from teachers.
  • Pressure from yourself.
  • Worry about performance.
  • Worry about the future.

Remember, not everyone feels the same. Anything can cause stress and exam stress is no different. Just because you may not find your own reasons here doesn't make them any less relevant. Everyone handles stress differently and different things can cause it for different people.

Uni stress

Dealing with exam stress

There are plenty of different ways to handle exam stress. Remember, these will not necessarily work for everyone. Lots of students handle stress in different ways. There are organisations who can help too, such as Student Minds who specialise in helping students with issues such as these.

Developing coping strategies on your own is sometimes the best way to handle stress. Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. Some students struggle to develop coping mechanisms of their own, while some prefer to read up about different strategies online and see if they can work for them. We have some practical ideas below.

Be kind to yourself

You are not a superhero. Remember that. Your best looks different every single day and sometimes being kind to yourself does more good than you think. Self-care is the cornerstone of good mental health.

Being kind to yourself can be anything. This could be setting more realistic goals for yourself, not beating yourself up when you don’t achieve the grade you wanted, or even just giving yourself a break from studying.

There is no easy way to accurately describe just what exam stress is.

Results aren’t everything

Results are important, but they are not the only measure of success you need. Remember, you can retake your exams if you need. It is also possible to explore a career where grades are not important.

Regardless, all anyone can ask of you in an exam is to try your best. If you try your best and things don’t work out, then there are still other options and routes open to you. Not everyone performs in exams and sometimes their coursework or assessments speak for them.

There is a life outside of exams. You don’t need exams to see friends, spend time with your family, or do anything that helps you unwind.

Revise smarter, not harder

Students often think that revising means spending as much time as possible revising. This is not the key to perfect revision.

Sometimes developing good revision strategies is better than revising a good timetable. If you are a visual learner, spending hours reading doesn’t make sense. Find a good alternative, like a descriptive YouTube video.

Check out our how to revise and revision timetable guides for more exam tips and ideas for dealing with stress.

School stress

Speak to your friends and family

A problem shared is a problem halved. Sometimes speaking to someone and telling them you are stressed, worried or struggling can help.

Your friends and family will be only too glad to help. If you do not feel comfortable sharing issues with friends and family, speak to your tutors, lecturers or teachers. Exam stress is a common issue for many people, so sharing your thoughts and worries can be a good way of moving forward.

Eat, sleep and exercise

Good physical health is just as important as good mental health. Make sure you get to bed at a reasonable time, eat three square meals and constantly get some fresh air.

These things can be essential when coping with exam stress. Sometimes taking a moment to disconnect from the constant need for revision and focusing on yourself can be everything you need.

There are plenty of different ways to handle exam stress. Remember, these will not necessarily work for everyone.

Pulling “all-nighters” isn’t sustainable or advisable. You need to give your brain a chance to shut off and to give yourself time to relax, so sleeping, eating and exercising are essential and will help to alleviate exam nerves.

Be realistic

Setting yourself unrealistic goals isn’t going to do you any good. The best thing to do is to assess your abilities, both as a student and as a learner and see what is achievable.

Do not set yourself an unattainable goal. If your predicted grades have you at grade C, don’t suddenly set yourself the task of getting an A**. Having a high target is good, but it must also be realistic if you want to achieve anything.

This is also the same when it comes to revision. Don’t suddenly set mammoth revision tasks that you can’t hope to complete. For instance, setting a 12-hour study day with no breaks is just asking for trouble. Make sure you are smart about planning your revision and what you think you can achieve from your grades.

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