Let’s just get one thing straight right off the bat; exams are stressful experiences. Probably the most stressful thing most of us will deal with until we enter the workforce. It affects everyone differently, but the fact of the matter is that stress and exams sort of go hand in hand; and that isn’t always a bad thing. The problem is, that the brain doesn’t operate well under pressure. Staying calm is absolutely pivotal to making sure that you put your best foot forward.
People often ask me what my “keys to success” were. And I usually say some combination of three things:
The thing is, this absolutely didn’t come naturally to me. Anyone who saw me before a music performance would see me pacing back and forward around the room, picking my nails. I couldn’t even eat the day of a music performance sometimes because it would just make me feel terrible. Exams weren’t much better; for some of my assessments throughout the year I was a nervous wreck. Staying calm? Pfft, not my forte. And it still isn’t.
Heading into my final exams was shaping up to be a similar experience, but as I was working I realised something; I’d done this before.
I’d done my previous tests, and come out fine. I’d done school assessments and come out fine. Like, nothing about the final exams was new. Sure it was more important and there was more pressure, but was any of it something I’d not done before? No, and it’s same for all of you.
This is just another test. Yes, it’s super important, there is no denying that and we won’t play ignorant. But increased importance aside, the details are the same. And you’ve done this before heaps of times.
So my biggest and best piece of advice for the upcoming exams is this. Remember that you’ve done this before. Staying calm in a stressful situation is made so much easier when you remember that you’ve done it before.
So I prepared lots and got into my exams, and as it probably will for most of us: All positive/optimistic outlooks are left on our desk with our study notes. I am not going to lie to you guys; standing out the front of the exam hall on the first day of my exams in 2014, I was petrified. I was prepared. I was confident. But I still couldn’t help being terrified.
Being nervous outside the exam? Totally normal, and you should embrace that feeling rather than fight it. I totally get it. What’s important is knowing how to leave that stress at the door; so here are a few tips for staying calm in the exam room.
I’ve written this before, but I want to emphasise it again because it helped me so much in staying calm for all my exams.
This might sound stupid, but I would practically strut into all my exams. Like I’m talking the whole shebang; sway of the arms, puffed chest, I probably looked like an absolute moron. Of course you don’t have to take it that far, but the point is this: Ooze confidence.
Even if you aren’t feeling confident, act it. Someone asks you how you are feeling? You are absolutely fantastic, no worries. Have some music to get you fired up before you walk in; get that ‘big fight feel.’
The reasons for this are pretty simple; physical behaviour is reflected in your mindset. If you act confident, you’ll be confident. This tip might sound silly, but I did it for every exam, and it is a big part of the reason I was able to stay calm in those first few English exams.
I’m a big believer in momentum for big exams. There is nothing better than tackling a few questions in a row and feeling super confident, or finishing an essay you are super chuffed with. Staying calm in an exam is majorly dependent on how well you are doing.
For this reason, try doing the easy stuff first! Your easiest module, or the multiple choice section, or whatever. Get some easy marks and start feeling good about your performance!
Trust me, it is really difficult to stay calm when you go right to the back page of an exam and realise you can’t do the questions. I’ve been there, done that. The thing is, those same questions would have been more achievable had I just built up to them. Staying calm in an exam should always be your ultimate goal. Start of easy, build up to the hard stuff. Get on a roll!
Inevitably, there are going to be questions in the exam period that just stump you. It sucks, but it’s true. Staying calm is tough when you are skipping questions because you can’t do them. I’ve been in English exams where while I was writing my essay, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I probably bombed a previous section! Of course, my essay then didn’t perform very well either.
I know exactly how it feels to get in an exam and not click with a question. It happens to everyone. The successful students will know, however, that succeeding in an exam isn’t about getting everything right. It’s just about getting as many marks as you can. Do you think that stressing over something that has already been done is going to help at all with getting those marks for you? Of course not!
So, keep looking forward in an exam. Yes, check your answers and all that; but once a question is finalised, you need to leave it. Staying calm is impossible if you are churning a dozen questions you’ve already done in your head while trying to finish the paper. Or worse, doing math in your head to figure out whether you can still get the mark you want (I am guilty of this one even to this day…).
Just keep moving. It’s all about momentum. It’s clichéd, but yesterday is history. Don’t let it keep you from staying calm and smashing out the rest of the exam just like you know you can do.
Remember that you can ask all your QCE questions for your subjects in our QCE discussion forums! There are past and current students waiting to help you improve your marks in your exams; it’s never too late for questions!