For many students, exams are not just a test of knowledge but also a major source of anxiety. Whether you’re sitting your GCSEs or A Levels, managing exam nerves is crucial for optimal performance. As someone who grappled with exam anxiety, in this article, I’ll be sharing some of my tried and tested tips to help you stay calm and confident before, during, and after your exams.

Before your exam

Alter your perspective

One of the most important things you can do before an exam is to change how you think about them. While exams are important, they are not the ultimate determiner of your worth or future. My dad always encouraged me to view exams as a platform to showcase my knowledge and skills, rather than traps set to catch me out. Although I might not have fully appreciated this advice amid the stress of revision, in retrospect, it was spot-on.

Your body’s physical response to stress is heavily influenced by your mental state. Approaching exams with fear triggers physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart and sweaty palms. If you can shift away from viewing exams as critical be-all and end-all moments, you’ll naturally alleviate some of the inherent pressure and pave the way for improved performance. Remember, if things don’t go as planned, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll always have the option to re-sit your exams.

Talk to someone

It’s completely normal to feel nervous before an exam. Speaking to someone about how you’re feeling can be incredibly relieving. Whether it’s a parent, friend, or teacher, they can offer support and provide useful advice or reassurance that what you’re feeling is normal and manageable.

Mother chatting to her teenage daughter about her upcoming exams.

Prepare your essentials

To avoid a last-minute scramble, pack your bag the night before your exam. Make sure to include a transparent pencil case, a transparent water bottle, reading glasses (if needed), as well as all necessary stationery (black pens, pencils, a ruler, a rubber, a pencil sharpener etc.) and any materials specific to the exam you’ll be taking. Remember to check with your school which items you’re allowed to bring into each exam, and perhaps run your packed bag by a family member or friend for a final check.

Nutritious start

On exam day, eating a healthy breakfast is essential. It’s well-documented that students who have breakfast before an exam perform better than those who don’t.

Opt for breakfasts that include slow-releasing energy sources such as oats, whole-grain bread, muesli, and bananas. These foods help maintain steady blood sugar levels, keeping you alert throughout your exam. Adding protein sources like milk, yoghurt, or eggs will keep you feeling full for longer, sparing you the distraction of a rumbling stomach in a quiet exam hall! Avoid heavy, greasy foods and too much caffeine, which can exacerbate your nerves and make you feel jittery.

Want to make a delicious exam-day breakfast? Check out these breakfast ideas.

If your exam is scheduled for the afternoon, applying the same principles to your lunch is just as important.

Music and movement

Listening to your favourite playlist can help soothe pre-exam nerves, and if you have time, a bit of light exercise, like a brisk walk or some light stretching, can help dispel nervous energy, boost your mood, and sharpen your focus right before the exam.

Teenager listening to music.

Arrive early

Plan to arrive at the exam hall early to avoid any last-minute stress and give yourself ample time to settle in. Use this time to breathe deeply, relax your mind, and perhaps go over your notes one last time if you find it helpful.

Personal space

If you find the pre-exam chatter with peers stressful, it’s okay to find a quiet corner to gather your thoughts. Personally, I found it incredibly helpful to locate an empty classroom before each of my exams where I could quietly review my notes and collect my thoughts. This practice allowed me to centre myself, focus on the material, and enter the exam room with a clear, calm mind. There’s nothing more unsettling than hearing peers discuss how much they’ve studied or bring up topics you feel less confident about!

During your exam


You’ve likely heard it many times, but never underestimate the power of regulated breathing to control your emotions and reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.

As you settle into your seat for the exam, give yourself a moment to take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing not only helps to calm your nerves but also increases oxygen flow to the brain, which can help you think more clearly. Practise mindful breathing by inhaling deeply, holding for a few seconds, and then exhaling slowly. This simple technique can be a powerful tool to reset your body’s stress response and sharpen your focus.

If you feel yourself panicking at any point throughout the exam, use this technique to calm yourself down and maintain a clear mind.

Students in uniform sitting an exam in the school hall.

Positive self-talk

Keep your inner dialogue encouraging and constructive. If you catch yourself thinking negatively or predicting failure, shift your thoughts. Remind yourself of the hard work you’ve put into your preparation and the times you’ve successfully overcome challenges before. Tell yourself things like, “I am prepared” or “I can work through this question step by step”.

Be strategic

How you approach the order of questions during an exam can impact both your confidence and the efficiency with which you use your time. Consider starting with the questions you feel most confident about. This can quickly boost your morale and settle any initial nerves. For example, if your exam includes multiple-choice questions, tackling these first can be a good strategy. They often require less time per question and can serve as a productive warm-up, getting your brain into the right mode for the rest of the exam.

Focus on the present

Concentrate on one question at a time. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by the volume of the paper, redirect your focus back to the question you are currently working on. If a particular question seems too difficult, use a highlighter to mark it and move on; you can always return to it later with a fresh perspective.

Don’t worry about what is happening around you or how your friends appear to be finding the paper. Stay focused on yourself and on your exam.

Student using a rubber in an exam.

After your exam

Avoid comparisons

Avoid discussing the exam with your peers if it tends to make you anxious. Comparing answers often leads to unnecessary stress and can make you feel less confident about your performance. In subjects like English, each student’s approach and understanding of the questions can vary significantly, so direct comparisons are rarely accurate or beneficial.

Similarly, it’s best to avoid going on social media right after your exam. Social media platforms can be flooded with post-exam discussions and speculations that might increase your anxiety or lead you to doubt your performance. It’s all fun and games until you read about an answer you didn’t get!

Don’t predict outcomes

Resist the urge to estimate how many marks you scored post-exam. Once you’re out of the exam hall, revisiting and dissecting your performance is not only a waste of mental energy but can also negatively impact your preparation and mindset for future exams. Instead, use this time to decompress, engage in activities that relax you, and clear your mind from the stress of the exam.

Prepare for the next challenge

Once you’ve taken some time to relax and recharge after your exam, it’s crucial to begin preparing for your next one. Exam season can be exhausting, but maintaining your momentum is key to avoiding the stress of last-minute cramming.

Student decompressing after an exam.


How do I manage my exam anxiety?

The best way to manage exam anxiety is to alter your perspective on exams themselves. View them as opportunities to demonstrate your knowledge, rather than as obstacles. Establish a pre-exam routine and use coping strategies such as deep breathing and positive self-talk to stay calm in the exam hall.

How can I prepare the night before an exam?

The night before an exam, prioritise a good night’s sleep and avoid cramming. Instead, organise your exam materials, review your notes briefly, and then engage in a relaxing activity such as reading a book or listening to calm music. Setting out your clothes and packing your exam bag can also minimise morning stress.

Can diet affect my exam performance?

Diet can significantly affect your exam performance. You may feel too anxious to stomach food before an exam, but food is fuel and eating a good meal will keep you energised and focused.

How do I calm my nerves before an exam?

Before your exam, listen to your favourite playlist or engage in light physical activity to clear your mind and boost your mood. It can be helpful to find somewhere quiet to gather your thoughts or read over your notes one final time, away from the hustle and bustle of stressed students.

What do I do if I panic during an exam?

If you start to panic during an exam, try to calm yourself down using deep breathing techniques. Focus on taking slow, deep breaths. If you find that your panic is not subsiding, or is affecting your ability to continue the exam, it’s important to let an invigilator know. You can simply raise your hand and quietly explain that you’re feeling extremely anxious. Invigilators are trained to handle such situations and can offer assistance.

Is it normal to feel anxious after an exam?

Yes, it is completely normal to feel stressed or anxious after an exam. To reduce post-exam anxiety, it is best to steer clear of social media or exam-related discussions with peers. Instead, try to switch off by engaging in a relaxing activity you enjoy.

When immersed in revision and the stress of exams, it can be all too easy to dismiss or forget these strategies. Practices like deep breathing may seem ‘silly’ or a waste of time. However, it’s precisely in these moments that such strategies prove their worth. By integrating these strategies into your exam preparation, you can effectively manage exam nerves and improve your performance. Remember, it’s as much about preparing mentally and emotionally as it is about revision. Good luck!

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Molly Wood

Molly is a recent first-class graduate from the University of St Andrews, where she studied biology. As Project Manager at PMT Education, she oversees SEO, digital content, and media management.