Exams are an intense experience.
This means you need to prepare yourself mentally and physically for them.
You can work so hard to memorise large quantities of information for an exam, but if you’re not mentally and physically prepared, all that hard work can sadly go to waste.
When it comes time to take your exams, you have to relate to yourself as a professional athlete. Leading up to the day of the big performance (i.e. the exam), you need to eat nutritious food, be in the right frame of mind, manage your nerves, and allow your body to rest. These simple things can make all the difference to your exam performance.
You may be thinking “But isn’t this just common sense?”
It is! But creating healthy habits takes time and practice.
It’s one thing to intellectually know you should be eating well but it’s another thing altogether to incorporate healthy meals and snacks into your lifestyle.
I see a lot of students drinking energy drinks, getting very little sleep, and eating highly processed foods in the days leading up to exams. I have to admit, there was a time when I engaged in these behaviours too. I can tell you from personal experience, this is a recipe for mediocre grades and a miserable existence.
Here are my top 10 tips to prevent burnout and boost exam performance:
1. Prioritise sleep
Sleep is critical to the learning process, exam performance, and wellbeing. Yet it’s usually the first thing students sacrifice to get more study done.
If you miss two hours of sleep each night for a week, the cognitive effects are as bad as going without sleep for two days straight!
Studies have also found that if you stay awake for 18 hours straight that’s like having a blood alcohol level of 0.05. In other words, it’s like being legally drunk. Your ability to focus, think, and learn will be seriously impaired.
You can’t adapt to getting less sleep. As adolescents, you need about 9-10 hours of sleep per night to be as alert as possible when you wake up.
If that feels unachievable, try to just get an extra 15 minutes of sleep tonight. Gradually increase this each night until you reach your target.
2. Incorporate movement breaks into your study sessions
Often students stop exercising when they start preparing for exams. They think “I don’t have time to exercise!”. It’s as if they think they must spend every moment studying. Don’t fall into this trap.
Movement is your friend when it comes to studying for exams.
Research shows engaging in regular physical movement will help you to study more effectively. Firstly, it’s a great way to relieve stress and release feel good chemicals. Secondly, it gets the blood flowing more efficiently to your brain, which can give you a cognitive boost.
One study found students who engaged in 5 minute movement breaks every 17 minutes during a lecture retained more information and could focus better.
Every time you engage in a short movement break, you’re enhancing your study sessions.
3. Eat a healthy breakfast
Research has found that students who skip breakfast experience a decrease in cognitive performance and alertness compared to students who eat breakfast.
Eating a nutritious breakfast will give you a cognitive boost before an exam. It will also help you to feel fuller for longer, stabilise your mood, and give you plenty of energy to get through the exam.
Here are some healthy breakfast ideas:
Muesli or porridge with nuts and fresh fruit (e.g., berries) Wholemeal toast with a variety of toppings (e.g., baked beans, tomatoes, and avocado) and a piece of fruit A healthy homemade smoothie (click here for my brain boosting smoothie recipe)
4. Drink plenty of water
Your brain requires adequate hydration to function properly. Drinking water ensures that your brain receives the necessary fluids to perform tasks efficiently, such as retaining information and problem-solving.
Take regular sips of water as you study. It’s a good idea to have a glass of water or a reusable drink bottle within arms reach.
You may even want to create a tiny habit to remind yourself to engage in this simple behaviour (e.g., “After I finish answering a practice exam question, I will take a sip of water”).
5. Remember, your teachers want you to do well
Many years ago, I started thinking that my teachers and lecturers were out to get me. I thought they would mark me down wherever they got the chance. As a result of this distorted thinking, I became too scared to write anything in one of my first tests at law school. After receiving a terrible grade (5%), my brother said to me:
“Remember sis, your teachers want you to do well. They will try to give you marks wherever they can. It’s in their best interest to do so.”
Don’t worry about writing a perfect answer. If you’re unsure, be brave and still write something down. Even if it’s just a few dot points, it’s better than nothing. You may not get any marks for it, but your teachers won’t take marks off.
Just remember, most of the time your teachers are on your side and they want you to succeed. When you do well, it makes them look good.
6. Focus on what you know
Chances are there will always be something that you could have studied more thoroughly come the day of your exam. But on the morning of an exam, you can’t do much about that, so there’s no point worrying. Worrying will just deplete your finite energy, which you need to conserve for the exam.
Instead of worrying, try saying this to yourself before each exam:
“I now know so much more than I did before. I’ll be able to answer many questions in this exam.”
Telling yourself this positive micro-thought will allow you to enter the exam in a calm and confident frame of mind.
7. Avoid things and people that trigger anxiety
It’s normal to feel a bit nervous before an exam. But there are certain things and people that can push your anxiety levels into dangerous territory and impair your exam performance.
For example, coffee and energy drinks will skyrocket your stress levels. Similarly, hanging out with people who have a lot of nervous energy and are venting about the exam (“I’m going to fail!” and “I hardly studied!”) are going to leave you feeling distracted and a little jangled.
Before the exam, do your best to isolate yourself from these people. If you’re worried about offending someone who is venting to you, you could say “I’m sorry but I really need to do some last minute cramming”. Then proceed to pull out your notes and pretend to read them.
8. Mentally disconnect from the exam when it’s over
How many times have you stayed back after an exam to talk to your friends about what you put for each question? Have you ever felt terrible after doing this?
It can be reassuring to know that you wrote the same answer as your friends. But if you find out that you wrote something completely different, you may start to second guess yourself. If you have another four or five exams to go, this may throw you off your game.
This is why I don’t recommend engaging in a postmortem of the exam until you get your results/exam paper back.
When you walk out of the exam room, tell yourself:
“That exam is over. There’s nothing I can do to change how I went. It’s time to move on!”.
You could imagine yourself locking the exam in a box and throwing it off a cliff or rolling it up and stuffing it in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. The point is you need to mentally disconnect from that exam and focus on studying for the next one.
9. Engage in the Box Breathing Technique when you get stuck
If you come across a question that you’re not sure how to answer, stop for a moment and take a few deep breaths (in for the count of 4 and out for the count of 4).
A simple breath activity you can try is the Box Breathing Technique. This involves imagining yourself breathing along the sides of a box (breathing in for the count of four on one side, out for the count of four on the next side, etc). Repeat this 2-3 times. Then take a look at the question again.
If you are still unsure how to answer the question, move on to another question.
The worst thing you can do is panic (remember, stress impairs your ability to think and recall information).
By engaging in Box Breathing, you can help yourself to remain in a calm and stable state.
10. Dealing with writer’s cramp
Many of us are familiar with writer’s cramp. This can be caused by gripping onto your pen too tightly. Try loosening your grip a little.
Alternatively, experiment with a range of different pens. Some biros require you to press down hard on the page to make a mark, but not gel pens. The ink just flows onto the page!
The reality is, even with a good gel pen, your elbow will start to hurt at some point if you’re taking a 3 hour exam. When it does start to hurt, have a rest for a few seconds (yes, you have time to do this). Stretch your arm out. Shake it a little.
Treat each exam like a mountain hike rather than a 100 metre sprint. Resting for a few moments here and there will be time well spent and will enhance your overall performance.
To sum up
These simple strategies can help to elevate your exam performance. My advice is to start small. Even if your exams are several weeks away, select one or two of these ideas and start testing them out today. At first, the strategies will require a bit of mental effort. But like anything in life, if you persevere they’ll become second nature to you and they’ll just be things you do without even thinking.
Want to learn more exam strategies? Click here to download a free copy of 70 ways to ace your exams.