How to beat exam nerves - optimize your performance in an exam or test

Pauli Raivio·March 2, 2023·5 min read
How to beat exam nerves - optimize your performance in an exam or test

Even if the outcome wasn't very important, you're almost always nervous about a test or exam. Tension is a perfectly natural reaction when we unconsciously feel threatened or are in a situation that requires extra resources. Of course, a test in school does not pose a physical threat, but the level of performance will determine your level of competence and possibly even part of your attitude towards yourself as a learner. Who would want to get a bad grade?

A little tension is in order and can even improve your performance by helping to focus your attention on the task at hand. However, too much nervousness can paralyze and, in the worst case, even ruin your performance. In particular, important examinations such as entrance or exit exams can put some people under enormous pressure, eating up a significant part of their mental capacity.

The final result of an exam is the sum of preparation and performance. It is common to prepare carefully but not to put much thought into the test itself before it comes. Is it any wonder, then, that the situation feels tense?

Let's look at how you can prepare for the test in advance.

Take care of your alertness

Fatigue, hunger, stress, or fluctuating blood sugar levels will not help you in the test, although they are often present in the test situation.

Fatigue is usually caused by a panicky review from the previous night. Almost always, however, an adequate night's sleep outweighs the little benefit that could be gained by studying the night before. So put the book away early and make sure you get enough good-quality sleep. When tired, your brain is incapable of optimal performance, especially when combined with tension.

Eat an adequate and varied breakfast to keep your energy levels up throughout the test and your brain fueled for focused work. Be careful with foods and snacks that cause quick energy spikes, which will momentarily spike your blood sugar levels before the inevitable crash.

Focus on the things you can influence

One reason for tension is that we get caught up in things that are out of our control and beyond our control in every way. This is precisely why they are stressful: the unknown cannot be properly prepared for, so our bodies prepare for the apparent danger by triggering a stress response.

Try to actively remember that you have no control over the test questions or the outcome, except indirectly. You can only do your best and that is always enough. If nothing else helps, you can always influence the rhythm of your breathing. Balance your breathing and pay attention to it. At the same time, remind yourself that things are exactly as they should be and that you have done all you can in the preparation phase. At the moment, you can only influence your breathing and your performance in the test.

Do some visualization training in advance about the test date

Top athletes go through their race day several times in their minds before the actual performance. This prepares them for optimal performance, as the actual race day is not a new and exciting experience but a repetition among others.

Similarly, the test day should be thought through several times in advance. Always start with breakfast and fast-forward your preparation right up to the start of the test. Imagine vividly the transitions and places you will be in at any given time. Imagine yourself refreshed, confident, and energetic.

You may find that just doing the imagery exercise triggers a slight tension reaction. This is good because it's exactly what we want to practice.

Turn excitement into enthusiasm

One way to influence your emotions is to be able to identify and name them. Everyone's emotions show up a little differently, but you may feel, for example:

  • Butterflies in your stomach
  • A constant need to go to the toilet
  • Faster and shallower breathing
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Restlessness
  • Drowsiness
  • Impatience

If you find yourself feeling tense, be honest with yourself about your state of mind without judging it as a good or bad thing. Simply acknowledging and accepting the feeling is enough. This method goes a long way, but those who have been practicing visualization for longer can also try to rename the feeling as excitement.

In practice, the bodily sensations of excitement and nervousness are almost identical, but it is only our mind's judgment that turns one negative and the other positive. For example, consider your own state of mind as a child just before opening presents on Christmas Eve. The excitement is palpable, but only in a good way.

Maybe you can turn even an entrance exam into positive excitement by convincing yourself that you're finally going to do the thing you've been practicing for with determination.

Learn a simple method to calm your breathing

Much of the negative experience of tension is related to physical discomfort. One of these is the tightening of the diaphragm and breathing becoming shallow and difficult.

An easy method to relax the diaphragm and at the same time calm yourself is to do 5-5-5 breathing. In practice, you inhale while counting to five, hold your breath for the same amount of time, and then exhale for five seconds. You can especially extend the exhalation time as you progress. Go through about 10 breathing cycles. You can try the technique right away and notice how you visibly relax.

You can find out more about the factors that affect the performance of your studying in our course Optimize your learning.

To optimize your test performance, check out our course Prepare for entrance exams.

Thanks for reading and have fun learning!

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