How to put exam anxiety in its place

6 simple tips for beating impending exam anxiety and stress.


Mebbie Bell remembers her exam horror story all too well.

“I’d stayed up studying all night for an anthropology exam. When I woke up, I couldn’t believe it. The exam was just starting! I ran across the campus in my pajamas and managed to get there just before the 30-minute cut-off.”

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“The details are important too,” said Mebbie Bell, director of the U of A Student Success Centre. “You don’t want to do all that studying and then forget something important like a calculator.”

Bell wrote the exam in her pajamas, and luckily did surprisingly well, but she’d learned one of the golden rules of confident, successful exam performance—stick with a routine.

“When stress hormones are coursing through our bodies, and often made worse by lack of sleep, they can impact higher-order learning and the ability to make decisions, which are both critical leading up to and taking an exam,” said Bell, who went on to become the director of the University of Alberta’s Student Success Centre.

To help you stay calm and focused when it counts the most, she offered these useful tips.

1. Stick with a routine

The literature shows this is the best thing you can do to reduce exam anxiety.

“Just the simple strategy of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can make a huge difference to your stress,” said Bell. “Your brain likes things to be predictable.”

2. Take care of yourself

Self-care is often the first thing students let slip during exam time. Eating well—and going easy on the caffeine while you’re at it—and exercising regularly also help your body cope with stress.

3. Take breaks

Bell recommends choosing a cut-off time to end studying every day, and to incorporate several stress-relieving breaks. “Do whatever it is you love to do. Go for a run. Watch the next episode of a show on Netflix. Call a friend.”

4. Quit the negative self-talk

Don’t listen to your negative inner voice, said Bell.

“We’re really good at talking ourselves out of doing well. We may berate ourselves when we miss questions or can’t remember things.”

Instead, tell yourself what you might tell a good friend who has come to you for advice. In other words, be kind to yourself. “It’s also a good idea to write a message, a positive note or a strategy you’ll use if you forget something, on top of a piece of scrap paper that you can refer to during the exam,” she added.

5. Focus on what you can control

It’s common to draw a blank during an exam. Simply move on to the next question.

“Often continuing with other questions might help spark the answer or allow you to brainstorm calmly after you’ve answered all the questions you do know,” said Bell. “Your goal should be to answer the questions you can to the best of your ability and strategically limit the impact of the questions you can’t answer.”

6. Get help!

Don’t wait until your anxiety is out of control before getting help.

There are plenty of resources on campus including the Healthy Campus Unit’s Unwind Your Mind program running throughout the academic year in library spaces across U of A campuses for students to relax and take a break from studying.

There is also the Career Centre, Counselling and Clinical Services, the Community Social Work Team, the Student Success Centre, the Undergraduate Research Initiative and the Students' Union Peer Support Centre.