How to get through exam time stress


Aw shucks, it’s exam season again… 

Does the thought of exams and study fill you with dread? Unfortunately we can’t sit the exams for you, but we can help you with some tips to make the whole study process way less stressful. We were lucky enough to sit down with Marie Kelly, an educational psychologist and the founder of Kidz Therapy and KTL Tuition. She answered all our study questions around how to navigate this challenging time in your life. She even gave a few pointers for parents too!

Do you have any study tips for students who are getting super overwhelmed?

Have a plan or schedule. If you know what you’re doing and when, it will help you feel organised and more in control. But you also need to remember that it’s not the end of the world if things don’t go exactly to plan. Being flexible is a key part of being able to problem solve, especially when unexpected situations arise.

Use effective revision strategies. Common study techniques such as re-reading notes are actually the least effective. This is because you are not being forced to think critically, so you end up on auto-pilot instead. The study material won’t be solidified in your brain and you’ll end up forgetting alot of it during the exam. Instead try:

  1. Teaching your course material to someone else. This forces you to think in a clear and structured way. It also shows that you actually understand the content and can put it into your own words.
  2. Switching between topics – this helps you to build on previous revision strategies.
  3. Spacing out revision sessions – leave enough time between study sessions to forget and relearn your material. This  process  helps you cement and hammer in that knowledge in your memory. Studies have shown that studying the same material spaced out over long periods of time has helped with storing it in your long-term memory.
  4. Eating some chocolate! It has been proven that eating chocolate while studying can help improve memory retention - this was through a study at Loma Linda University in California.
  5. Not to cram and leave everything to the last minute. If you’re a procrastinator - you know this will only leave you super anxious and stressed out - not a mindset you want to be in just before a test.
  6. To work out what learning style works best for you, e.g., whether you learn visually, kinesthetically (through movement), auditorily (through listening) or a combination of these styles. There is a free online questionnaire called VARK which tells you your learning style and they also provide techniques to help you learn your best.

How should I deal with procrastination? The starting anxiety is real. 

Create a schedule and follow it. This is sometimes easier said than done, so here are some other tips you can use to avoid procrastination:

  1. Use checklists to track your progress. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction you get from ticking off your to-dos. These little wins add up!
  2. Set yourself incentives. E.g. if you complete your Science revision, you can do something you enjoy. This could be baking a cake, playing PlayStation, meeting up with a friend or busting out your skincare routine
  3. Work with a classmate or friend so you can help keep each other on track.

I’m panicking and can feel anxiety is building up in my chest. What can I do to self-regulate my emotions?

A great thing you can do is develop a self-care kit that you can use when you start to feel overwhelmed. A lot of successful self-care strategies involve a sensory component (utilising the seven senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (comforting pressure).

Here are some ideas you can use when you’re feeling a bit on edge:

  • Touch: a soft blanket, stuffed animal, or koosh ball to squeeze.
  • Taste: drinking a hot chocolate, eating your favourite icecream
  • Sight: pulling up photos of vacations, friends and good memories
  • Hearing: listening to comforting music, or your favourite podcast
  • Smell: wafting lavender or eucalyptus oil, or maybe even sniffing the scent of your favourite skincare product.
  • Vestibular: sitting in a small swing or rocking chair, or in a bean bag.
  • Proprioceptive: using a weighted blanket, giving and receiving hugs.

My parents want me to do well, but I’m really scared of disappointing them. This is making me worry a lot and isn't helping my mental health. How do I deal with parental expectations? 

Believe it or not, your parents’ expectations usually come from a good place. They want you to succeed and be happy, but it can sometimes come off the wrong way.

If their expectations don’t match up with what your reality is, you need to sit down for a good talk. Explain why you are worried and how the pressure is making you feel. Sometimes you might have to agree to disagree, but just airing your concerns and being heard can do wonders for your state of mind. If you don’t think you can discuss this with your parents, talk to a counsellor or your friends - you will find out you are not the only one who feels this pressure.  Remember, some pressure is okay, too much is counter-productive.

I’m super behind on everything but when I talk to my friends, they all seem fine and they're all so smart. How can I stop feeling so insecure about my abilities?

Practise positive self-talk. Positive self-talk can have a big impact on your confidence. Instead of saying “I’m so behind, I’ll never get all of my English studying done”, try saying to yourself “I am doing the best I can,” or “I will definitely get through this English exam”. Try not to compare yourself to others - it's hard but this doesn’t help you because remember everyone is different and learns differently.

I’m scared of asking for help. It's hard telling people I’m having a hard time or struggling. How can I start trying to reach out?

The first step is finding someone that you feel comfortable talking to. This could be a friend, a parent, a family member such as a cousin or aunty, or a trusted teacher or family friend.

Write stuff down. Things such as what you’re struggling with, how you’re feeling and what type of support you think you need. This way, your notes will help you remember everything important so that you’re not trying to articulate your feelings on the spot..

Next, pick a time and place that works for you and the person you want to talk to. Sit down somewhere you feel comfortable that offers the right degree of privacy. Also, make sure you and the person you’re talking to have enough time put aside. It’s no good approaching your mum while she’s cooking dinner or your friend when they’re on the way to soccer practice.

I feel like I should spend all my spare time studying. I feel guilty for eating, showering or sleeping - a.k.a taking care of myself. It just feels wrong - like I'm wasting my time, especially when exams are so close.

Studying is most effective when done in 30 to 50 minute blocks, after that its good to have a mental and physical break. A mental break means taking yourself out of your study environment and doing something completely different, e.g., having a snack, taking a shower, going for a walk, talking to a family member or friend. This ensures you aren’t placing too much high demand on your brain and ultimately leads to you feeling less stressed.

Never feel guilty for getting a good night’s sleep. Numerous studies have shown that sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do for your brain function. Not getting enough sleep increases mistakes and decreases your ability to pay attention for sustained periods of time. Sleeping your 7-9 hours 

The night before an exam, how can I best mentally prepare? I find sleeping the night before hard.

This is where you can once again use positive self-talk. Instead of panicking and worrying that you don’t know enough, say to yourself “I am prepared. I am going to get through this exam.”

Instead of trying to cram in some last-minute study, take time out to do activities that relax you.  Try listening to some music, go for a walk, do a skincare regime or some exercise. Activities such as these are important for putting you in the right mind set, managing stress levels and helping you get a good night’s sleep.

How should I support my teen and take care of them while at the same time giving them space to do their own thing?

The number one thing you can do is be there for them. Take an interest in their activities and their life. Watch their netball game, eat dinner together as a family as much as possible. Give them freedom to catch up with friends and pursue their own interests. But by being available and taking an interest, you are letting them know that you are close by, if they ever need you.

My teen doesn't talk to me about what's going on. I can tell they are really stressed - how can I approach them to encourage them to open up more?

Keep in mind that all talk is valuable talk. Sometimes you need to get them talking (about anything) so you can approach the tougher conversations. Try starting the conversation with something they are interested in. Keep the conversation light, specific and keep asking questions. Once you can feel the conversation flowing, it becomes easier to say something like, “you seem a bit stressed about school, what’s worrying you?”

My teen does not appear motivated to study and it doesn’t bother them that they are not prepared for exams, how can I best motivate them to do well? 

Send them to a course at KTL Tuition!  Help them plan ahead, the worst thing to do is procrastinate and then cram and panic, it is totally counter-productive. Try to speak about the wins that happen after the exams such as the long summer ahead and the great feeling of personal satisfaction once exams are finished.

If you are keen to get more help in this area you can book an appointment with Marie or one of her qualified psychologists at Kids Therapy or look into a course at KTL Tuition.  

Also, don’t forget if you still feel overwhelmed and like you need a little extra help (and if you don’t feel like talking to someone you know), you can reach out to Youthline. Youthline provides a 24/7 Helpline service that is made for young people who are facing any and every sort of challenge. It’s free and you can contact them by text, email, phone or web chat for counselling support. The team are friendly and know how to help you, so it’s a safe place to share any of your worries. Youthline is a great place to learn more about mental health issues, well-being and personal development. Head to their website if you want to understand more.