Exam nerves and fear of exams

This page offers help and advice on how to work on your approach to exams and the exams period. We recommend that you read the sections in order, but you are of course also welcome to choose the specific section that is most relevant for you.

Do you want to enhance your exam preparation?

At the Student Counsellors’ Office, we often meet students who contact us about the exams period. These may be students who:

  • are about to take their first exams at university and are unsure whether they have understood the syllabus
  • think the syllabus is overwhelmingly large and find it difficult to prioritise exam preparation and, as such, feel they have lost their overview
  • have neglected the need for sleep, food and breaks during the exam period to such an extent that it becomes counterproductive for their exam preparation.

All these situations can contribute to exam stress and make people nervous about how to manage their exams. It is normal to feel under pressure during exam periods, but, if you find that your worries and nervousness are taking over and affecting you in a distinctly negative way, it may be time to think about how to approach your exams in a constructive manner.

Are you tense or nervous about your exams?

“I found it difficult to accept that I had a fear of exams, but once I learned how to structure my revision I managed to stay calm throughout the most challenging exam I’ve ever had – and I even got a really good mark,” a student of Molecular Medicine 

It is quite normal to feel a degree of tension or nervousness before an exam. This can even be an advantage, because it sharpens our senses and helps us to give our best in the situation. It is often a question of how to use nervousness constructively. However, if nerves completely take over, they can hinder your preparation for and performance in an exam.

You can deal with some of your nervousness by asking yourself:

  • What exactly makes me nervous?
  • What are the requirements for my exam?
  • What can I do before the exam to practise what I need to do in the exam?
  • Who can best help me?

Write down your answers to these questions and consider talking to a friend, family member or student counsellor about what makes you nervous and what/who can help you.

Your inner critic
Could it also be your inner critic at work? Your inner critic is never satisfied with your performance. Despite your good efforts and results, it belittles and criticises you, rejects compliments and views praise as empty pleasantry. Your inner critic makes it difficult to be a student. It drains your energy and causes you to overlook all the good things you do and the results you have achieved. Worst of all, it deprives you of the feeling of pride and satisfaction and, instead, leaves you with a sense of uncertainty and doubt.

It is therefore important to try to silence your inner critic. Once you learn to see the critic for what it is, namely, an over-simplified and unreasonable voice that should not be taken seriously, you will achieve a greater sense of satisfaction and have more faith in yourself. Exams are rarely fun, but they don’t need to be unnecessarily unpleasant because of nerves.

Get to know your nerves

Most people associate exam situations with feeling nervous and worrying about their own performance. If this nervousness grows stronger, it is often associated with negative thought patterns.

It’s important to find out which typical negative thought patterns may arise in connection with exams, but it’s also important to learn where and when they arise.

Here are some examples of negative thoughts:

  • I’m going to fail
  • I’ll never understand this
  • I’m a loser
  • I’m going to say something stupid

Once you’re familiar with your own patterns, you can do something about them. So the first thing you can do is to be aware of your thought patterns.

  • When and how does my nervousness become apparent?
  • Are there any special factors that trigger it (thoughts, places or specific individuals, for instance)?
  • What are your typical negative thoughts about exams?
  • What are the emotions that exams arouse in you?
  • How do these emotions affect your behaviour?

If you learn to notice your own signs of nervousness, you will find it easier to register what your thoughts are about. This is because the reaction time between negative thoughts and physical reactions is often very short.

When you think of your own pattern, is there anything you already know that could make a difference? What is the first thing you will change?

What can I do?

We all tend to focus on the things that don’t work instead of the things that do. When it comes to exams, this means that we remember all our negative results and mistakes, which increases our nervousness. But you must also have enjoyed some successful exam situations, so perhaps you can use these positive experiences in your next exam. Find your experiences of success and use them! You might also get some inspiration from your fellow students. What works for them?

Think back on an exam in which you did well (or pretty well, at least).

  • What did you do before and during that exam?
  • What were your thoughts at the time?
  • What important elements helped it go well?
  • How did you structure your preparation for the exam?
  • Did you prepare with your fellow students or as part of a study group? If yes, how? If no, could this be an idea?
  • Would you have prepared differently if the type of examination had been different? If so, how?
  • What did you learn that could help you in future exams?
  • Write the most important things down.

Consider other situations in your life when things were difficult but when you overcame the challenges. What did you do to help you succeed, and how can you use these experiences in connection with your exams?

General advice

Follow the links below to Studypedia and the Student Counselling Service to find helpful advice and tools for exam periods. It is important to remember that everyone studies in different ways and that there is no one correct way to organise your exam period. We therefore recommend that you try out different strategies to find out what works for you.

Read more about what you can do before, during and after your exams on Studypedia and on the Student Counselling Service website.

See the workshops offered by the Student Counselling Service.

Exam anxiety

If you would like to know more about exam anxiety, please see this information from the Student Counselling Service.