Surviving and thriving - taking care of yourself during exams

Exam stress Studying Mental health

A blog from Nightline

University can be stressful enough, without the additional complication that you suddenly have to hold a year's worth of knowledge between your ears in the space of just a few weeks. It can feel like your life is on hold, that you’re going from one exam to the next... that you’re just surviving.

If there were a singular life hack for doing exams, you can bet that everyone would be doing it. Whilst you can’t avoid the fact that exams are happening - or that they can be a cause to feel nervous - you can adapt your routine and habits to try and manage those feelings and cope with them in a healthy way.  

In partnership with iQ Student Accommodation, we’ve asked one of our volunteers to share some of their less conventional tips to take care of yourself during exam time.


1) Comparison is the thief of joy (and self-esteem, and productivity, and lots more…)

You’re likely to have seen that meme about how you walk out of an exam and everyone starts talking about whether the answer was 63 or 64 and you panic because your answer was 487. It can feel a bit like that with revision, with people totting up hours and discussing their revision plans in detail and debating a topic that you have even got round to revising yet. Just because Amy from lectures has done every single past paper in the book doesn’t mean you have to. Just because Will got up at six to study doesn’t mean you should feel bad about getting up at eight. Everyone revises differently, everyone has their own study techniques that work for them, everyone has different body clocks and ways of handling things. Comparing yourself to others is unlikely to help you improve, but rather make you feel inferior. And when you feel inferior, that doesn’t bode well for keeping up your concentration and motivation.


2) Sitting in a library doesn’t mean you are studying

OK, hear us out here. You can be sat in a library for eight hours, without doing eight hours of work. Think about it, you work for one hour, get bored and spend one hour on YouTube, you force yourself to stay on a topic you just don’t get and stare into space for another hour… if you know deep down that you aren’t working, then honestly what’s the point in being sat there? If you’re having a slump, try taking a break for half an hour - walk around the block, have a coffee, do some laundry.  If you can’t concentrate for eight hours in a row, then don’t waste eight hours if you only work for five of them. It’s much better to revise in concentrated, focused bursts and feel like you actually really got somewhere in that time than torture yourself for a day and feel like you may as well have done something else or taken the day off completely.

3) You are allowed to actually have fun during exams

If it feels as though exams and deadlines are engulfing you, it can feel as though you shouldn’t be spending time enjoying yourself during this period. Time spent having fun is not time wasted. We’re not saying going all out the night before an exam is a good idea, but taking a night off to relax and feel a bit more human won’t make or break your whole exam season. Having things to look forward to can inspire your studying, and can be seen as a reward for all of your hard work.

4) Coach your inner athlete

Think of yourself as an elite athlete. If you were going to run a marathon, you would make sure that you were in the optimum state of body and mind to take on such a big task. You’d make sure you ate well in the week before the run, you’d make sure you got some sleep, didn’t push yourself too hard and get injured, you’d rest and focus.  During exams, taking care of your health is not a distraction or a waste of time. It’s logical that if an athlete is healthy and well, they are going to perform better. In the same way, you want to optimise the conditions for yourself to perform in. This doesn’t mean that exams aren’t hard, and that you won’t encounter any struggles along the way, but keep in tune with yourself and be honest with what you need so that you can overcome these struggles as best as you can.

5) Ask and you shall receive. Take what you can

If there’s a topic you just can’t get your head around, you can go back to your seminar leader for a chat to get some enlightenment on the matter. At the end of the day, you earned your place at university, and deserve to feel supported academically when you need it. Similarly, make the most of what’s on offer. Free pizza and revision tips at the SU?! Get yourself down there (you can always take the margherita and run). Special revision classes by your faculty? Go for it. Welfare yoga by the student counselling service? What a great opportunity to try something new and take a break.

6) Don’t live in a hole

Sometimes when we’re having a tough time, we can bury ourselves into a hole. It’s a nice cosy hole, just for you. In the hole, you don’t have to worry about not being fine, because no one else can fit in the hole to ask you how you actually are. Sometimes we can only realise we’re in a hole by the time we’re ten foot deep in it. You may think you can do it all alone, that you don’t need anyone else; that you can just block out your feelings and carry on. Taking yourself out of the hole can give you air to breathe and a sense of perspective, and remind you that there are others who can support you.

7) Could have, have to, should have, can’t, I have, I will, I can

It’s a well-known fact that we tend to be a lot harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else.  Sometimes the way we think about things can have a real impact on our behaviour. If you think about all the things you didn’t do, could have done, should have done, that detracts from the power you have still; your ‘can do, will do’. Trying to scare yourself into revising is more likely to cause you debilitating panic rather than result in anything worthwhile.


8) Get by with a little help from your friends

FYI: being stressed does not make you a bad friend. Talking to your friends about your worries does not make you a ‘party pooper’. And you know what, it’s perfectly normal and legitimate to not be the biggest party animal when you have exams on. If you worry about relying on one person for support, remember that there are other people, other professionals, and other services that you can get support from. Which leads us to.


9) Landing on a crash mat

If you have the feeling that you can’t cope, that it’s all too much, there is help out there - a combination of support services that can cushion the blow. Even if you are feeling fine, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with welfare support that your university offers - in case you need it, or anyone you know needs it. Your university will have a more specific set of information on what they offer, but as a guide some services might include the counselling service, your student union, and services such as Nightline.


10) You are more than a piece of paper

It may seem like university, your exams, your results, that final number on a certificate are everything right now, but genuinely as few as one, two, three years down the line you will have collected new accomplishments, new experiences, met new people, and learned more about yourself, so that your disappointment with the 2:2 you got on your Shakespeare coursework won’t have the same power over you as it did before.  A grade is a measurement of how you performed in one exam, one assignment - it isn’t necessarily even representative of how you performed academically on the whole. What’s more, a grade you aren’t happy with doesn’t take away from the fact that university has helped you grow as a person, that it’s put challenges in your way that you have overcome, that it has given you life skills and knowledge and friendships that you will keep for many years.

About the Author:

Francesca Crisante volunteers in the External Communications Department of Nightline Association, as the Community Fundraising Volunteer. She has written this article after a period of ‘declimatising’ from University, where she has the distance to reflect on not just her own experience of exams, but the culture of stress that surrounds exams in general.

About Nightline:

Nightline Association is one of the UK’s leading student mental health charities, supporting our affiliated student-led services across the UK that reach over 1.8 million students. Our expertly trained volunteers collectively take over 36,000 calls a year on a variety of topics, from loneliness to money worries, course issues and relationships.

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