Exams can be very stressful.  There are a number of different things you can do to reduce the stress you feel, and to improve your performance on exams.  Some anxiety is useful in motivating you and helping you feel alert and ready to go.  However, too much can leave you distracted and unable to concentrate.  Here are some suggestions for reaching the ideal exam-taking state for you:


1. Prepare!

Feeling confident when you enter an exam room is in large part a reflection of what you have been doing outside that room for the previous weeks. You have heard it all before many times, but you will learn the material most thoroughly and for the long-term by preparing for an exam for several weeks rather than several hours. “Overlearning” the material, past the point where you think you know it, is ideal. This gives you the best chance of being able to approach the exam flexibly, and see the material you know in those funny questions the instructor writes that present the material in unfamiliar ways. Joining a study group can be a good way to have the material presented in different ways, so you can really learn it. Studying in different ways can also increase the effectiveness of your learning – for example, you can re-copy your notes, try to remember the key facts in a chapter or section with the book closed (rather than just running your eyes over the highlighted sections), do extra problem sets from a different textbook on the same topic, and other techniques. The Learning Centers can help you with finding the best ways to study.

2. Learn ways to relax!

This will allow you to adjust your anxiety level up or down. The ability to release physical, emotional, and mental tension is actually a skill that you can practice. Being able to relax while you watch TV with a beer in your hand isn’t very useful when studying or taking an exam. Learning how it feels to be fully relaxed, and learning techniques to quickly reduce your level of tension can be very helpful in many situations in life. Some of the ways that you can try (and each of us seems to have an approach that feels best) include:

      • Progressive relaxation. This is a technique of systematically tensing and then relaxing the muscles throughout your body. Audiotapes are available at the Counseling Center at 17 Senior Street that teach this basic technique. You can hear some basic relaxation instructions on-line at Relaxation Instructions, part of the web site for the counseling center at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
      • Breathing. Of course we all do it – but there are ways you can become aware of your breathing to be able to relax and avoid getting panicky. An audiotape is available at 17 Senior Street that guides you to more effective breathing.
      • Yoga. This ancient discipline helps you become more aware of your body, and learn ways to relax deeply and effectively. There are yoga courses offered through the Rutgers Recreation Department, and other places.
      • Meditation. Meditation is an inward focus on your own experience, that has been found to produce relaxation and have many positive effects on the body and mind. There are a number of forms of meditation.

3. Learn to take exams effectively!

There are a number of techniques of test-taking that can help you perform better. The Learning Resource Centers can offer more extensive information, but here are a few quick tips:

      • take a practice test if possible
      • get enough sleep the night before the test – this is especially important if the test will require you to think creatively rather than just show what you have memorized
      • avoid caffeine (it increases anxiety)
      • be on time for the exam – not late, but not so early you can make yourself anxious by talking with others in the class who seem to know more, or whose anxiety will be contagious
      • look over the entire test, and READ THE INSTRUCTIONS
      • plan your approach to the test (e.g., easier questions first)
      • don’t waste time on difficult questions (mark them and go back later, if time)
      • if you start to feel anxious close your eyes, take three slow deep breaths and then go back to the task at hand.

4. Think about the exam in effective ways!

There are some simple things you can do to keep your thinking on exams productive. Remember that your task is to understand the questions completely, and recall the key material from your memory that will help you answer the question. That means that other kinds of thoughts are irrelevant, and possibly even harmful. For example:

    • Thinking about how important the test is and how it would be terrible if you messed up on it is likely to raise your anxiety beyond the effective level – and the test isn’t asking you how important it is, so this is irrelevant. Leave these thoughts for after the test, if you have to think about this.
    • Thinking about how you are going to do on the exam is irrelevant – and could be harmful if you think negatively. It could be helpful to remind yourself of the reasons you will be successful on the exam (how much you studied, previous success) – but then quickly go back to just thinking about the exam.
    • Don’t compare yourself to others – even if someone finishes before you do, you don’t know whether they left early because they couldn’t remember anything and gave up, or knew everything. And it doesn’t make any difference to you – you can only do your best, and you will do that if you keep your focus on the questions and answers.

Some apps that may help with exam stress include:


Breathe2Relax assists the user in learning the stress management skill of diaphragmatic breathing, which is also known as “deep breathing”.

A free download of this app is available for iPhone and Android phones.

iTunes website: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/breathe2relax/id425720246?mt=8

Google Play website: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.t2health.breathe2relax&hl=en

Relax Melodies

Relax Melodies provides melodies to help relax or sleep. This app also provides simple, guided meditations.

A free download of this app is available for iPhone and Android phones.

iTunes website: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/relax-melodies-sleep-zen-sounds/id314498713?mt=8

Google Play website: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=ipnossoft.rma.free

Interested in more apps? Check out our Self Help Apps page.