Stress less: Strategies to optimise your brain power for exams

Have you ever had the experience where your mind went completely blank in an exam or test situation?

If the answer is yes, chances are you panicked.

Let’s face it, stress can make us stupid.

I’m living proof of this.

For my first test for law school, I got 1 out of 20 (and believe me, the teacher was being generous when she gave me 1 out of 20!).

So what on earth happened?

In a nutshell, I read the test question and freaked out. How do I answer this? I have no idea! and I’m going to fail! NyOOO! is what ran through my mind for the entire test.

According to Yerkes Dodson law, an individual’s performance can be enhanced by some stress and anxiety, but only up to a point. If you experience too much stress in a test/exam, then you run the risk of getting 1 out of 20 like I did.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Sure, it’s understandable that some of us can get a bit stressed when taking tests and exams. But it certainly doesn’t have to be this way.

There are a number of things you can do to decrease your stress levels and feel more in control when taking tests/exams.

Here are 5 things you can do to calm and focus your mind during the exam period:

1. Get familiar with all aspects of the exam

Before taking an exam, get your hands on as many past exam papers as possible. Do them. Visit the room you’ll be taking the exam in and if you can, simulate a mock exam in that room.

By doing this, you will decrease your chances of any nasty surprises occurring on the day of the exam.

Less nasty surprises = less stress.

2. Visualise the Exam Process

A week or so before your exam, spend 30 seconds to one minute each day visualising yourself going through the exam process. Imagine yourself waiting outside the exam room and focusing on your breathing, walking into the exam room with good posture feeling confident and calm, flipping through the paper during reading time and taking note of the questions you will start with.

Why do this?

Sports psychology tells us that the act of mentally rehearsing the process of doing anything will mean you will feel calmer and more confident when it comes time to actually do the task or execute the move.

3. Keep away from the ‘Meh’-heads

You know the people I’m talking about. The students who brag about the fact they’ve hardly studied and will probably fail. I don’t care if I fail they say with a smile, but you can bet your bottom dollar that deep down they do care. They care a lot.

There is no point having their words occupy your precious mental space and drain your energy. You need to remain calm and focused for the exam, so do yourself a favour: avoid these folks.

4. Breathe deeply: 3 Sighs

Often when we get stressed or nervous our breathing becomes shallower and faster. You can decrease your stress levels by consciously slowing down your breathing and using the 3-Sigh Breathing technique.

This strategy requires you to take a deep breath in (filling up your chest), then hold and let out a big sigh. Repeat this twice.

Letting out a big sigh is the fastest way to relax your body. This strategy takes only 10 seconds to do and can be repeated as many times as you like throughout the day.

5. Focus on what you know

My first lecturer at university told me that on the morning of an exam I had to forget about the things I hadn’t had a chance to study and simply focus on the things I knew.

He told us to tell ourselves statements such as, I know a lot more than I did before and I’ll be able to answer a lot of questions in the exam.

He strongly urged us not to bother studying new content on the morning of our exams.


The reality is that on the morning of an exam, you know what you know. Trying to learn new content is a recipe for disaster as it may just scramble your thinking. Focusing on what you know means that you are more likely to walk into the exam in a positive frame of mind.

If you combine these stress management strategies with solid exam preparation, there is nothing that can stop you from doing well. Managing your stress levels is critical as you can do hours of study (like I did for my first test) but it can be a total waste of time if your mind goes blank in the exam because you panic.

Want to learn more strategies to develop the art of exam mastery? Check out my free eBook 70 ways to ace your exams. You can download a free copy here.

8 thoughts on “Stress less: Strategies to optimise your brain power for exams

  1. Hi.

    I’m a psychology student, from Chile, and I always read your blog. I’m using many of your recommendations and tips, and they were so useful.
    Can these tips be used by people with ADAH?
    Your work is very important for people who has many problems to focus, to work, to study or feel good and healthy.
    Can I translate your entries’ blog and publish on a own blog but in Spanish, for all the Spanish speakers who would be glad to read your work. Obviously, I will give you the recognition and credits. I think that is important spread this information to Latin American population.


  2. Hi Javier,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Yes, feel free to translate the blog entries for Spanish speakers.

    I feel like this information is relevant to everyone (not just high school and university students), especially for people who have difficulties with learning, staying focused, etc.

    All the best,

    Jane Genovese

  3. Hi Jane ! Thanks for your post for allowing me to handle stress. I have question, that I used to do score well in my exams but i have lost my hope, faith and confidence to do well again, inspite of harassing myself to do well. As a result, I have lost the passion of study that I used to have. If you feel like answering this question, please do so.
    Yours Yash

  4. Super tips! For the breathing technique I find that its best to do 3-5 slow deep breaths in a row, not just two. I also find stretching (especially neck and back) helps overcome fatigue, lower stress levels and increase focus. I like very dark (85% to 90% cocoa) chocolate during exams but then again, any excuse for some chocolate is good.

  5. Hi!! Jane..
    Your advice is very useful for me too. Thanks. I have some problem which is so confused.
    I’m Thai and my school study a lot of subjects. They gave too much homework. What should I do if I have to sent homework tomorrow but I’m too tired to do it. Should I do it later and sent it late.

    1. Hi

      My advice is to take a power nap before starting your homework.
      Just have a nap for 20 minutes and this should have a re-energising effect and help you to think clearer.

      All the best!

      Jane Genovese

  6. Hi Jane You have given me some very awesome tips, but please could you please give me some tips for exam time management and some activities for releasing STRESS as I have exams starting tomorrow….

    1. Hi Saloni

      Decreasing your stress levels is one of the most important things you must do when it comes to preparing for exams (besides doing the work and studying!).

      Check out this blog post on simple ways to decrease your stress levels -

      I highly recommend the 3 sigh breathing technique!

      All the best!


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