Every college student knows how stressful exam week tends to be. A student typically has a bunch of huge assignments and exams that happen in a relatively short period, and most people know all too well what it’s like to sacrifice sleep and run on caffeine while trying to get the grades they want.
Cue the elevated levels of stress for weeks at a time.
First, let’s zoom out and talk about what stress is.
Stress is a mental state which increases the heart rate and blood pressure of a person. Stress can be both good and bad, depending on the level of stress and a person’s individual capacity to handle it. In other words, too little stress can lead to a lack of motivation or interest in a task, whereas too much stress can lead to feelings of anxiousness which in turn makes us unable to focus on the task at hand. The sweet spot is the optimal amount of stress needed to be able to focus and accomplish any given task.
It’s entirely typical for students to be under the impression that every exam week is the make-or-break moment for their future. And it’s partially true – failing an exam could derail one’s chances at graduation or even stop someone from pursuing a degree in their chosen major altogether.
Students also believe that they need to study for months on end to do well on the exams. This becomes a stressor if a student finds themselves nearing exam week with just weeks (or days) to prepare.
But when it comes down to exam week, most people experience an unhealthy amount of stress that can impair their ability to remember and process the information they need to ace their exams. Here are some practical tips from high-performing students:
1) Identify what the stressors are
Is it a group project? A difficult professor? Pressure from parents or friends? Once an individual identifies the causes of their stress, they can create a plan to either manage or reduce it. A lot of times the mere act of writing down an itemized list of “stressors” brings about calmness because it helps put things into perspective.
2) Make a schedule and stick with it
People often don’t realize how important having a feasible schedule is for their health and well-being until they lose track of time with exams looming. Everyone’s guilty of losing several hours to an entire week because they stayed up late finishing that essay or lost track of time with friends. Sit down and plan out what needs to be accomplished, then schedule the study time accordingly.
Even though it seems counter-productive, schedule breaks as well. It’s been proven that the human brain needs time to consolidate the information that is spent time learning, so account for periodic breaks throughout the day (unless in a particularly tight time crunch).
3) Make the time to exercise
It might sound ridiculous to hear the advice of prioritizing exercise as exam week nears, but there are tangible benefits in doing so.
Not only does exercise release endorphins that makes a person feel happier, but it also gives them more energy, helps with focus, and reduces cortisol (a.k.a. the “stress hormone”) levels.
Exercising doesn’t need to take up a lot of time. It can mean going for a brisk walk around the block, doing yoga for 10 minutes or even doing a couple of sets of basic exercises such as squats, planks and pushups. Case in point – a person doesn’t need to set aside an hour or more to reap the benefits of exercise – do small bursts when possible.
4) Stop multitasking
It’s a common piece of advice, but it’s been proven ineffective many times over. When a person tries to split their focus between two or more things, their capacity for each task dwindles. So instead of listening to a lecture recording while reading study materials, give undivided attention to one thing at a time.
5) Allocate enough time to sleep
It’s very common to hear fellow students proclaim that they’ve pulled an “all-nighter” right before submitting an important assignment or writing an exam, but that’s something one should avoid for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, not getting enough sleep makes it incredibly difficult to focus on the exam, and it makes a student more susceptible to not catching errors in assignments before submission.
Secondly, sleep is when the consolidation of information happens. Studies have demonstrated that test performance is negatively impacted when the test-takers did not get adequate sleep.
Even if only a couple of hours of sleep can be budgeted before the big exam, that’s way better than not having slept at all. This is why it’s imperative to budget one’s time, avoid procrastination and prioritize proper rest.
6) Consume healthy and balanced snacks and meals
Anyone who’s lived through exam week can attest to how easy and tempting it is to go for the most convenient food that is driven by stress cravings. While it’s O.K. to indulge from time to time, think of the body and mind as a machine that needs the proper fuel to perform. Focus on preparing meals ahead of time so when the inevitable time crunch happens, all that needs to be done is warming a container in the microwave or pulling something from the fridge.
Focus on foods that have a combination of protein, healthy fats, fiber and slow-releasing carbs so that satiety can be reached to crush that exam. If strapped for time, snacks such as nuts and a piece of fruit or protein bars are good, cheap and portable options.
7) Keep the ultimate goal top of mind
A lot of students can start to lose steam, especially when they’re in the thick of things, or if they decided to commit to a larger course load. It’s important to be reminded of the reason why all of the hard work is being put in. Is it driven by the desire to be at the top of the class? Or is it to make friends and family proud of the academic accomplishments? Is there a goal to get accepted into law school? Does one want to pursue a masters degree?
One technique is to write down the big picture goal and have it somewhere visible – be it a virtual sticky note on the computer background, or a physical sticky note on the desk. That extra push of motivation will help during moments of exhaustion and study fatigue.
It’s incredibly easy to let stress supersede many of these tips, but it’s important to take the time to map out the study schedule, focus on one task at a time and be kind to one’s body.
Take a step back and focus on managing stress using these simple tactics to optimize the performance on exams and assignments.
About the Author
Claire Westbrook is the founder of LSAT Prep Hero, a hub of free LSAT resources aimed to help aspiring law students ace the LSAT. She’s on a mission to help as many students feel prepared and confident in their academic endeavors.