How to deal with A-Level exam stress

How to deal with A-Level exam stress

Stress is what a person feels when they have internal and external pressures, or their body or mind feels threatened in any way. Short term stress can cause you to make rapid decisions or change behaviours but long-lasting stress can cause physical symptoms, anxious feelings and low confidence.

During exam season, emotions are heightened because often results determine the next big step in a student's life. Exams and the preparation spans over a few months, so it is important to not let stress become overwhelming and result in burnout.

Spotting the signs of stress

Individuals can feel stress differently and it can present itself in many ways. However, there are some key identifying factors to show that you are feeling stressed about a situation. The most common signs of stress include:

Change in sleeping patterns: have you identified that you are getting less sleep than usual, not in your usual going to sleep and waking up times, waking up in the middle of the night or feeling more tired?

Different general habits: are you avoiding food or feeling the need to comfort eat? Have you lost interest in your usual hobbies or activities outside of education?

Socialisation: do you find that you no longer want to speak or see other people as often?

Change in mood: do you feel more irritable, anxious or angrier than usual? Do you feel like you cannot rationalise your thoughts any more or your mind is often racing?

Why do you get stressed in exam season? 

Stress is triggered differently for everyone. It is important to reflect about what is the root cause of what you are feeling and how you can put it in perspective during exam season. Some common causes of exam stress include:

  • Feeling like you’re unprepared or haven’t revised enough
  • Worried about how the exams will affect your future
  • Feeling pressure to meet expectations from family
  • Thinking you’re not going to meet your own goals 

If you have surrounding pressure or worries about the implications of not doing well on exams, it can heighten your emotions before, during and after the exam period. Once you have pinpointed the cause, you can choose which one of our tips below will help you to overcome it.

If you have seen any of these changes in the run-up or during exams, then you could be experiencing the effects of stress. 

Tips to deal with exam stress

Maintain self-care

Your self-care routines are important to maintain, as letting this slip can make you feel worse about yourself or give you low self-esteem. This can be as simple as replicating your pre-exam season routine as much as possible, despite the timetable changes you’re experiencing. You should also maintain hobbies whether that be sports, clubs or reading and be sure to take a break if you need to.

Eating a well balanced diet and getting a sufficient amount of exercise will help maintain a healthy lifestyle and will contribute to alleviating stress.

Perspective and positive outlook

It is common to feel scared of the unknown about your exams, wondering which topics will come up and if you have any knowledge gaps. However, you should try and put things into perspective and avoid focusing on things you cannot control. After identifying some of the reasons why you might be stressed, you can rationalise what these exams mean and focus on what you are in control of.

Getting into a positive mindset about your exams can mean that you will be more motivated to succeed, which is often what you’re worried about in the first place. Focusing on the right things can build resilience, keep your thoughts clear and help you concentrate throughout revision and the exam.

Keep a tidy workspace

Your surrounding environment can often be a reflection of your wellbeing. Having a messy workspace can contribute to negative or anxious feelings. Try and ensure your desk or area is clean and organised before and after you start your revision.

You should also try to organise and prepare for things you will need for your exam before the day. This eliminates any further stress around exam time if you have your notes in order and your bag ready.

Stop comparing yourself to others

Every student approaches exams and revision methods differently. How you approach exam season is not necessarily going to be the same as your friends or other students in your classes. If you hear about how many hours of revision others are doing, techniques that are different to yours or talking about the subject can create anxious feelings. It is also best to limit your social media usage during this time to avoid getting overwhelmed by seeing what others are doing.

Whilst it is difficult to not compare in this scenario, you need to be confident in what works for you. Another student spending hours a night on revision doesn’t always mean it will correlate with success. Understand how you learn best, focus on what you do know and try to rationalise what others are saying. Your goals and future plans are also never the same as others, so whilst you're taking the same exam, you are not always working towards the same result.

Create a realistic timetable

During revision and exam season, you need to create a realistic routine. If you’re going to maintain balance and a healthy lifestyle, you have to set yourself a timetable that you can stick to. In your timetable, ensure you have:

  • Your exam times and dates mapped out
  • Blocks of revision correlating with your exam dates
  • Planned which topics you’re going to study in your revision blocks
  • Your other commitments blocked out
  • Regular breaks
  • Time to relax after an exam
  • Not too much in one day

It’s key to know what you’re doing and when you’re going to do it. This reverses the need to cram revision in and you can take a step back with breaks. By planning ahead, you can avoid heightened feelings of stress as you know what to expect on each day.

Study exam technique

During A-level exams, there are criteria that need to be met to achieve certain grades. While knowledge on the subject is crucial, you have to also understand how to put this into practice in your answers. Knowing how to execute your thoughts well in exams can help you.

Whilst you will often do this during your classes, doing practice papers, practice exam questions and looking at how questions need to be answered will prepare you for the real thing. This can also lift any stressful feelings about not knowing every topic, if you can answer the ones you do know well.

Talk to someone

If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed but are having a hard time getting out of this mindset, talk to someone. This could be a trusted family member, guardian, friend, teacher or charity. It is often overlooked the importance of telling someone how you are feeling but they can help you with advice, give actionable steps to take or simply just be there to listen.

Stress and mental health resources

What to do the night before an exam

If you feel like you have left everything until the last minute, this can contribute to anxious feelings. Don’t dwell on what you haven’t done or resent yourself for not starting sooner, as you cannot change the past. Instead, focus on the knowledge you do know and don’t try to learn whole new topics the night before.

  1. Go over key points
  2. Ensure you have enough sleep
  3. Get some exercise
  4. Stick to usual eating habits
  5. Prepare what you need for the morning

Try to not stay up late, avoid learning new topics, don’t have too much caffeine or excessively read over notes.

Remember there are always options

Exam stress is often created by the fear of failure or not meeting expectations. University places have grades to meet to secure your place but not meeting them doesn’t put an end to your dream career path.

Here at Heriot-Watt University, we have clearing options available which can secure you a place for the next academic year. Alternatively, our Global College offers an alternative pathway with programmes that give you the knowledge foundations to progress onto the second year of an undergraduate degree.

For more information, listen to our podcast on how to deal with exam stress.