Exam Stress: Tips from a psychologist

Our clinical psychologist, Dr Veena Sothieson, writes about the impact of stress on exam preparation and exam performance. She shares some practical and concrete tips for managing stress effectively, so that you can study and perform at your best.


The lead up to exams can often be a stressful challenge. We may have ideas about how we would like to deal with exams, but when crunch times comes, the reality can look quite different.

Below are some practical and manageable tips to consider in getting you exam ready. Remember – starting as early as possible will set you up for success.

Lifestyle factors

We often underestimate lifestyle factors such as good quality sleep and adequate sleep routines, regular exercise, adequate nutrition and water intake for nourishment, taking medications consistently and as prescribed, getting sufficient sunshine, and remaining socially connected. Do a quick overview of the following factors and create a basic routine for how you will approach each:

  • Exercise and moving your body
  • Keeping hydrated and eating for nutrition
  • Medications and/or vitamins
  • Sleep: hours per night; idea sleep and wake times

Tips to help you plan your study timetable

  1. Set up a big calendar and plan what assignments and exams are coming ahead. Make sure you have this calendar somewhere visible to refer to each day.
  2. For each subject, set a realistic time frame for study. How long will it take? Leading up to the exam, how many hours will you need to dedicate each day and week to each subject?
  3. Break this down even further by mapping out what each block of study per subject will look like. Will you tackle one topic in each study block?
  4. Determine if you will limit study to the week or also include weekend days. If you thrive on pressure, you might consider limiting study to weekdays so you will be more motivated to get study done in a short time frame. This will also allow you to recuperate over the weekends.
  5. How can you spread this out in the upcoming weeks so you can tend to all the subjects?
  6. Start with the most difficult and challenging subjects and topics first.

Set yourself up for success

As you work through your study timetable plan, here are some tips to help you stay on track:

  1. Avoid procrastination behaviours by minimising distractions and putting away technology or devices that will be distracting. You can use time on these devices as incentives for successfully completing a chunk of study that day.
  2. Set up your study environment in a way that works for you and have everything available that you may need. Find spaces in which you can adequately study with minimal interruptions. You may need to change up your environment (e.g., study at the library some times and at home other times). Plan for these ahead of time.
  3. Set time limits and chunk your study. You may only be able to study in 25- or 45-minute chunks with 5 minute breaks. Make breaks short and effective to go to the toilet, get water or snacks, or to stretch. Try not to exceed 5 minutes.
  4. Use timers and alarms as much as possible to keep you on track.
  5. Use a visual tracking system, such as a chart or a whiteboard where you can tick off chunks of time that you have successfully used to study – it will feel good and motivating to see this achievement over the day and week!
  6. Set rewards for longer periods of study. For instance, after 3 hours of study with breaks, I will reward myself by having the night off and watching a movie.

Exam Stress: Tips from a psychologist / Sydney City Psychology

Be reflective and flexible along the way with your planning

Make a conscious effort to plan, prioritise and practice. You won’t know if a certain way of studying is effective until you’ve implemented it for a few weeks.

After a week of trialling a particular way, evaluate how well it has worked, if it was realistic and achievable, and what you may need to modify or change. For instance, studying at the library in the evenings will minimise procrastination later in the day.

If you’ve underestimated how long study for each subject or topic takes, you may need to go back to the drawing board and allocate more time certain subjects or topics.

If tiredness, boredom, frustration or low motivation gets in the way constantly, engage in problem solving. What is the minimum amount of time you are willing to study most days? Perhaps only an hour. An hour is better than nothing.

Dealing with symptoms of stress

Allocating time to look after for yourself and manage psychological and physical symptoms of stress can be helpful in the lead up to exams. This will also require consistent practice.

Find a small amount of time each day to unwind and relax. It can be as short as 10 minutes. Engage in pleasurable activities, stay socially connected, talk to a loved one, engage in physical activity, stretch your muscles, have a relaxing bath or shower, and focus on slowing down your breathing.

If you find it hard to switch off your mind, redirect your attention to the present moment, using your senses to fully engage you in one activity at a time. For instance, if you’re making dinner, focus deliberately on making dinner rather than go into autopilot mode of thinking. Engage your sense of curiosity in what the food smells like. Notice the way the knife moves as you cut food. What are the shapes of the food you are making? How does the food feel against your fingertips as you are preparing it? Tune into the noise water makes as it boils. When you taste your cooking, what flavours obvious and subtle do you notice? Engaging your senses and orienting towards what you’re doing in the present moment has the benefits of unhooking or distancing from a busy mind and redirecting attention to your immediate physical surroundings.

Of course, the most important thing is continued daily practice of these tips so you can manoeuvre and master stress associated with exams. Good luck!

If you’d like more assistance with study stress, anxiety, or any challenges related to exams and coursework, get in touch with us at Sydney City Psychology today.

Exam Stress: Tips from a psychologist / Sydney City Psychology