How to walk into an exam feeling calm and confident

Feeling confident about exams

Do you ever have bad dreams about taking exams?

I had one of these dreams the other night.

My anxious exam dreams usually go something like this . . .

I’m back in high school and I’m not having a fun time.

I’m freaking out because I haven’t studied for an exam (and this exam is in just a few hours). So I’m scrambling. I’m cramming.

But it’s not working. I’m looking at the page and nothing is going into my brain. I’m filled with this sense of impending doom. But just before I enter the exam room, I wake up.


It was just a dream.

Why am I still having dreams about high school exams?

I graduated from high school nearly two decades ago!

These dreams usually occur a few weeks before I need to deliver an important presentation. I’m not big on interpreting dreams but here’s what I believe my subconscious is trying to tell me . . .

Lift your game. Stop slacking off. Start preparing.

Delivering a talk is similar to taking an exam.

Both activities require you to exert mental effort and be well prepared. They can also bring up a lot of anxiety.

When I deliver a presentation, I have to recall a large amount of content from memory. I need to keep an eye on the time. I have to be organised and make sure I have all my props and equipment. I also need to stay calm because if I look stressed, this will make the audience feel stressed.

Just like you can’t wing a 3 hour long exam, I can’t wing a presentation in front of a group of 200 students.

Don't wing it

Here’s what I believe . . .

The strategies that help me to memorise and deliver my talks can help you to perform well in your exams.

The strategies I share below help me to think clearly and quickly under pressure. They keep me calm and grounded in strange and unusual environments.

I realise some of the strategies below may seem a bit over-the-top. But my job is to present ideas to others. If I bomb out, I usually won’t get a second chance to present at the school again. So it’s really important that I apply myself and do my best every time.

Here are my top tips to boost your confidence when you take your exams:
1. Pack your equipment the night before

When you leave things to the very last minute and feel rushed packing up your gear, there’s a good chance you’ll forget something important.

This is why I pack all my presentation gear (e.g. props, adapters and data projector) the night before. I also go as far as packing my own glass and bottle of water.

Just before I go to bed, I lay out the clothes I’m going to present in. This means I don’t have to waste my brainpower on this small stuff in the morning.

2. Prioritise sleep

Just like you need to think quickly in an exam, I need to be able to think quickly on my feet when I present. Quality (uninterrupted) sleep helps me to do this.

If I mess with my sleep, I mess with my ability to think.

I have developed a strict bedtime routine – I go to bed at the same time and I wake up at the same time. My phone is on silent and charging in another room when I sleep.

Now is the time to develop good sleep habits. Aim to get 8 hours of quality sleep each night.

3. Release nervous energy

Consider doing some light exercise (nothing too strenuous) before an exam.

Whenever possible, I workout at the gym before I present. Not only does this make me feel powerful and strong, but it puts me in a positive frame of mind.

It’s a fine line though. If I do a gruelling workout, I’m going to exhaust myself. I need to make sure I don’t overdo it.

On the days when I do happen to push myself too hard, I’ll take a quick 20 minute power nap to re-energise before a talk.

4. Reframe any nerves as excitement

If I’m feeling a bit nervous about delivering a presentation, I don’t make a big deal about it. I view a bit of nervous energy as a good thing. I think, “I must be excited”.

I’ve also come to see a bit of nervous energy as better than being completely chilled. If I’m too chilled, I can’t muster enough energy to inject into the room.

If you’re feeling nervous about an exam, say to yourself, “I’m feeling excited!”

5. Get grounded

When I arrive at a school to present, before I get out of my car, I’ll sit and breathe deeply for 2 – 3 minutes. This helps me feel calm and grounded.

I also put my phone on airplane mode so I’m not distracted by any random texts or calls.

6. Eat something (but choose your food wisely)

Your brain needs fuel to think and function well. Where does it get that fuel from? Food. So whatever you do, don’t skip breakfast or lunch before an exam.

Before I present, I make myself a healthy smoothie. This gives me the energy I need to deliver high energy presentations.

I once cooked up and ate a big vegan schnitzel before I had to deliver an important keynote presentation at a graduation ceremony. This ‘schnitzel’ was packed full of salt and preservatives. I kept sipping on water throughout the whole ceremony. I was freaking out (“How am I going to do this? I need to go to the toilet!”)

Luckily, I managed to deliver the speech without any problems. But it was a close call.

I learnt an important lesson that night . . .

Don’t experiment with any new or strange foods before giving a talk. You’re asking for trouble.

Work out what foods make your brain feel good and then stick to those foods before each exam.

7. Arrive early

Give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam room. There’s nothing worse than feeling rushed, stressed or getting lost.

This is why I like to arrive at a job at least 30 minutes before I need to present. This gives me plenty of time to find the venue, get set up and avoid any technical problems.

8. Use effective learning techniques

Since I don’t rely on any notes or palm cards when I present, I need to know my content back to front and inside out.

How do I learn the content?

I use a combination of three highly effective study strategies:

1) Dual coding (using words and pictures to help you learn) ;
2) Active recall (bringing information to mind); and
3) Spaced practice (spacing out your study, not cramming).

These three strategies are much more effective than rereading and highlighting my notes. I recommend you use these study strategies to prepare for your exams.

9. Conserve your brainpower

Before each exam, keep away from people and places that drain your energy and stress you out. Avoid energy vampires (i.e. people who drain your mental energy and make you feel a bit out of whack) as much as possible. Don’t waste your brainpower on these toxic people. Save it for your exams.

10. Tell yourself “I’m doing the best I can”

Positive self talk
Sometimes things will go wrong that are completely out of your control. And you have to just roll with it and do the best job you can under the circumstances.

For example, earlier this year I did a job where nothing seemed to go to plan. The receptionist was rude and unhelpful. The venue for the talk wasn’t booked. The students didn’t have chairs to sit on. To make matters worse, it was a super hot day and the air-conditioner wasn’t working.

What was I supposed to do?

Having a meltdown wasn’t going to help.

In times like these, you need to remain calm. Focus on the things you can do to make things better going forward.

11. Take care of your biology

If you feel hungry or you have a full bladder, these things are going to create some discomfort. It will be hard to concentrate and recall information in the exam.

This is why I always make sure I take care of basic things (e.g. having a healthy breakfast or snack) before I go on stage to present.

12. Pace yourself

If you have two exams on the same day, you need to think about how you’ll manage your energy levels. You need to conserve your energy.

For instance, if I need to deliver two or three different talks in a day, I manage my energy levels by taking deep breaths and frequent sips of water. I also pack plenty of healthy snacks. If I can go home in between talks to have a power nap, then I’ll do that, too.

To sum up

Preparing to sit an exam is like preparing to go on stage for a performance. If you can use some of the strategies listed above, you can stay calm, energised and present. This is much better than the alternative (feeling stressed out, fatigued and distracted).