Have you ever experienced trouble sleeping the night before a big test? Do you more often than not feel completely overwhelmed going into an exam, with a pit in your stomach and shaky hands? Does your mind tend to go blank anytime a professor signals for you to begin a test?

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you might suffer from exam anxiety. And while it’s natural to feel nervous or even stressed before a test, extreme anxiety can cause barriers to learning and even poor performance on a test. In fact, studies have shown that students exhibiting symptoms of exam anxiety score an average of 12% lower than their classmates.

Test anxiety can be crippling. For most college classes, your final exams are worth up to 40% or even 50% of your final grade. And it doesn’t feel good knowing that all your hard work over the semester will probably go down the drain if you mess this up.

Lots of ambitious people think that they have to be anxious and worry a lot if they want to perform at high levels. After all, if you’re 100% cool with any outcome, then what motivation do you have to actually do well? Doesn’t stress help bring out that A?

How to Recognize Exam Anxiety

It’s true that not all stress is bad; in fact, a normal level of stress can help you to think more quickly and can even help boost performance in some instances. But if your stress goes unmanaged, it can quickly turn into anxiety and increase your chances of performing poorly.

The first step in managing stress associated with exams is to consider what might be causing you to feel anxious. Maybe you didn’t study as much as you should have or maybe you didn’t do so well on your last exam and you’re afraid of another low score. Or perhaps you are a perfectionist, often put a lot of pressure on yourself, or just worry in general. Whatever the cause, it’s important you identify it.

After you’ve found the root of your anxiety, the next step is to learn to recognize the symptoms you feel. Though there are common signs associated with anxiety, not everyone is the same. So it’s important to listen to your body and figure out when it’s telling you that you’re anxious.

Common symptoms of test anxiety include:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased consumption of alcohol or caffeine

Once you’ve figured out the cause behind your test anxiety and the symptoms that come along with it, it’s time to figure out how to manage it. Unfortunately, there is no cure for exam anxiety, particularly for those of us who tend to be worriers in the first place. But the truth is, there are ways to beat that anxiety and to make sure that you crush your exams without feeling too stressed out so you can rest easy over the weeks that come after.

How to overcome exam anxiety


People are inherently afraid of the unknown.

We hate the idea of not having a clear understanding of what a situation’s outcome will be. When we’re unclear, our brain runs through a million different “what-if” scenarios. And that’s the root of most of our anxiety.

Tim Ferriss has a really effective tactic to help with this, which he calls fear setting. Fear setting involves taking something you’re feeling stressed out about and breaking down the absolute worst case scenarios that could happen in hyper-specific detail.

For example, what’s the worst case scenario that could happen with your exam? Let’s say you completely bomb. What happens then? Will you fail the class? Will your parents be disappointed in you? What will your friends say? How will you feel about yourself?

Next, Tim says to do a couple of things:

  1. Write down what you’ll do to bounce back from that worst case scenario, and
  2. Determine what you can do to prevent that worst case scenario from happening.

Chances are, you’ll find that the worst-case scenario really isn’t as bad as you originally thought. If you really do fail the entire class because of one bad test performance, you could bounce back in another 3-4 months by retaking the course or something similar. It’s not ideal, but definitely not the end of the world either. Maybe you’ve got a good friend or family member who you can talk to and who will help you feel better about the situation if it happens.

Once you get clear on the worst case scenario and how to come back from it, your anxiety levels will plummet.

Focus on what’s right in front of you

Mark Divine is a former Navy SEAL who runs SealFit.com.

Once, he talked about how the Navy SEAL officers try to “break” new recruits. For example, when Mark was going through the training process, one of the officers told him to drop and do 1,000 pushups.

Of course, you’ve got to be in really good physical shape to be able to do 1,000 pushups on the spot. But it takes much more than that.

It takes a lot of mental fortitude.

Most new recruits would look at a challenge like that and fail because of sheer overwhelm. The number “one thousand” would seem like an impossible achievement.

But Mark Divine took a different approach. Instead of trying to do 1,000 pushups, he just focused on doing one pushup at a time — until he hit a thousand.

Same thing applies to virtually any big challenge you face, including exams. It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the thought of being assessed on everything you covered in class for the entire semester.

But focusing on one chapter at a time can help alleviate that overwhelmed feeling. Break down your lesson material into bite-sized chunks, and focus on one at a time instead of thinking about how much is left to study. Another way to do this is by spacing out your studying over a long enough time period so that you give yourself more than enough time to process all the material. Basically, stop procrastinating!

Take care of your body

When you exercise, your body produces endorphins and instantly reduces your stress. It also has long-term effects on your overall happiness and mood.

Try to incorporate a workout routine into your schedule. Hit the gym during your study breaks.

If you don’t have that much time, you can do something as simple as going for a walk outside. Or do one of these five-minute workouts in your own room. You can find five minutes, right?

Working out naturally relieves stress, helps you sleep better, and is actually proven to boost exam scores.

Study in groups

There are a lot of studies that prove that studying in groups helps students perform better.

For one, it can help you beat procrastination — if you have a group that meets on a certain day every week, you have other people to hold you accountable. Nobody wants to be that one person in the group who has no idea what’s going on.

You also learn faster when you compare notes with other students. Even better, your classmates might have picked up on certain important things in class that you might have missed, which increases the chances that you’ll perform better on your tests.

When you sign up for StudySoup, you’ll get access to a lot of top-notch study materials for virtually any college course out there, so you can get a good “group study” experience even if you can’t find anyone in your class to study with.


When it comes to final exams, anxiety is just part of the game. But with the right approach, you can mitigate it so that it’s small enough to use to your advantage.

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