Exam preparation: 8 strategies for reducing exam anxiety

Have you ever frozen on an exam?  Found yourself unable to recall material during the exam and then recalled everything afterwards?  Had trouble focusing on exam questions because of interfering thoughts?

Here are 8 strategies to prevent this from happening again. Select which ones you think are most relevant for you.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

  • Get aerobic exercise on a regular basis.
  • Sleep well and eat healthily.
  • Continue to get adequate sleep, exercise, and healthy food during exam time.
  • Avoid substances that increase anxiety:  caffeine, sugar, nicotine and cannabis.

Get accurate information

  • Check out the time and location of the exam well in advance.
  • Know what to expect when you arrive at the exam – format of questions, what material the exam will cover, and how much it is worth etc.

Study effectively

  • Reduce anxiety by being well prepared
  • Spread your studying over the whole term rather than “cramming.”  Feeling that you don’t have enough time to cover everything increases anxiety.
  • Study in 50-minute blocks with 10-minute activity or nutrition breaks.
  • Learn memory enhancement techniques.
  • See the Student Learning Commons: Exams for additional resources.
  • Study by getting comfortable with what you will have to do in the exam: writing answers to practice questions under a time limit while sitting at a desk.

Prepare to write the exam

  • Eliminate extraneous sources of anxiety such as how to get to the exam room by figuring that out in advance.
  • Think about what commonly distracts you during exams (e.g.: frequent clock-watching, noise from other students etc.) and develop strategies in advance for dealing with these distractions.
  • Get as much rest as possible the night before the exam.
  • Wear a watch to monitor your time.
  • Wear layered clothing so you can control your temperature during the exam.
  • Only go to the exam room a few minutes early to avoid encountering anxious people.

Adjust your attitude

  • Maintain an attitude of doing the best you can under the circumstances, rather than requiring perfection from yourself.
  • Plan a reward for yourself after the exam. Praise yourself as you write the exam; e.g.,“half done and so far, so good.”

Change unhelpful thoughts

  • Learn, and practice over time, how to challenge your negative thoughts (e.g., “I’m going to fail.”).
  • See SFU's Health and Counselling Services's resources on emotion healthy resources.

Use test-taking strategies

  • Do a “memory dump” of information you are afraid you will forget on the back of the exam when you first receive it.
  • Read through the exam at the beginning and figure out how much time to spend on each question, according to what each question is worth.
  • To build confidence, start with questions you know rather than focusing on the ones you don’t.
  • Start with any multiple-choice or True/False section to gain clues that might help you answer other questions.
  • Take 30-second “mini-breaks” at specified points during the exam to use a relaxation strategy such as closing your eyes, relaxing your hands, and breathing deeply.

If your thoughts are racing and your mind becomes cluttered with worries:

  • Don’t focus on getting rid of the anxiety because that will only feed the anxiety;
  • Mentally yell “STOP” to break the cycle;
  • Take a 30-second “mini-break”;
  • Concentrate hard on a specific sensation (e.g.: the hum of the lights in the room) to clear your mind of anxiety; OR
  • Be with your anxiety – concentrate on your physical symptoms. If you can completely experience a physical sensation, it often disappears.

Use anxiety reduction techniques

  • Learn and practice, on a daily basis, relaxation and visualization techniques so they will come easily to you at exam time.
  • Check SFU's Health and Counselling Service's resources on Self-Guided: Well-being & Resilience.
  • While preparing for the exam, visualize a positive exam-writing experience. Seneca College has helpful techniques on memory and the SLC has additional resources on exam anxiety.

If your exam anxiety is serious and persistent, visit Health and Counselling Services at MBC 0300, 778-782-4615.


Thanks to Ken Dickson of Athabasca University’s Counselling Services for the “8 Strategies” organizational framework.  (Retrieved October 22, 2007)