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Final exam anxiety-16 strategies to help college and university students overcome exam day jitters

Updated on August 29, 2013

Preparing for final exams

If you're in college, you are probably writing or preparing for your final exams. There are some people who fall apart on exam day, some people who just want to leave quickly, and some people who are skilled at test taking and totally ace the final. How can you ensure that you won't be afflicted by exam anxiety? Here are 16 tips. Since I teach English and Liberal Arts courses, my advice is mostly geared towards this type of exam. However, science and math people may glean some wisdom too.

Work on your course consistently

Your preparation for the exam starts way before the exam. Attend your classes, then review and summarize your notes. Go over anything you don't understand, and ask your professor or tutor for clarification. When it comes time to review again, you won't be looking at the information for the first time and overloading your cerebral circuits trying to stuff your head with new material. .

Find a study partner if you can

Being able to discuss course concepts with someone else will help improve your learning. You wil learn and support each other's efforts, and that can make all the difference. This can go a long way to alleviate final exam anxiety.

Review your instructor's feedback

Even the smallest comment can shift your perspective or sharpen your knowledge. I find that the A+ students are always the ones who pester me the most about feedback, even if it's a about one grammar error. They don't want to make that mistake again. On the other hand, the students who are getting lower grades can be more shy; they are self conscious and afraid of being embarrassed. Don't be. We respect and support people who want to learn and improve.

Exam format: Multiple choice vs short answer vs essay question

Make sure you know what kind of exam you are writing. If your exam is multiple choice, that will require very specific knowledge, and factual information in a lot of cases. Be sure you also understand core concepts, because some questions will require critical thinking.

Short answer tests also require that you are familiar with a lot of content. Be sure that you have mastered concepts and information in all your textbooks and especially in your notes. The class notes are your road map to what the professor thinks is important, where key themes are emphasized. You will be less successful if you just study chapters in a textbook.

Essay exams are more broad and tend to cover core themes, but also require that you master information in texts and be aware of key concepts. You will be expected to answer the questions using examples from the texts that you studied in class. In English and liberal arts courses, one common question is compare/contrast. For example, "compare/contrast how two authors we studied in this course treat the theme of ..." Another type of question could be "give examples of how different writers approach the theory of ____"(fill in the blank) in this course. There's also the "do you agree or disagree" question (you have to give examples from your course reading.

Make your own cheat sheet

See if you can reduce everything in the course to one sheet, or maybe a set of PowerPoints with key points. This takes some doing, but once you are there, then just go over and over this concentrated but condensed version of the course.

Get enough sleep

As you are getting closer to the exam and even the night before, be sure you get enough sleep. No matter how much youthful adrenalin you think you have, or how many energy drinks you consume, I can guarantee you that your brain will NOT perform as well as if you got a good night sleep. You will just not have the same critical agility or mental energy.

Monitor your self talk

A large part of doing well on exam comes from internal programming. Telling yourself you are going to fail can become a self fulfilling prophecy. So can telling yourself you will do well. You may want to use affirmations (statements you make out loud to yourself that something is true).

Exam day tips

  • Come prepared. Assemble a kit of pencils, pens, erasers, whiteout calculators, dictionaries--what ever you need--so you won't have to worry about not putting something down on the page.
  • Come to the exam hall early, so you can pick the best seat.
  • Consider bringing water and chewing gum. These may help calm your nerves.

Once you get your exam paper

  • Take the first few minutes of the exam to plot your strategy. I often see students have a knee jerk reaction upon getting the paper and just start writing. It's better to skim the paper and see where the questions are for the material you know cold. Even if that means starting in the middle, do it. Your momentum and confidence will build for the more challenging questions.
  • Budget your time. Be sure not to over focus on one question. If you get stuck move on quickly and come back to it later. I have seen students sabotage their efforts by tinkering too long with the intro of an essay question.
  • For multiple choice questions where you don't know the answer, take an educated guess, but don't leave it blank. Eliminate obviously wrong answers. But do fill in something.
  • For essay or writing questions, do some pre-writing. Decide what your main point and supporting points are. Jot those down. I have observed students writing exams. Those who did some pre writing, tended to do much better than those that didn't.

To sum up

Keeping in mind some of these suggestions can help you do your best, to work smarter on the final and prevent you from losing marks needlessly.

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