Tips for surviving in-person exams

By Mia Brady

The prospect of in-person exams is a daunting one for many, particularly when you’ve never done them at university level before. Psychology masters student and Inclusivity in Psychology connector Mia Brady shares some of the tips that helped her cope with in-person exams during her time as a student. Some of these tips are specific to sitting exams in-person, while others can be used for online exams, or any other point of life where you’re experiencing high panic or anxiety.

Before the Exam

Familiarise yourself with the location of your exam

Trying to figure out where you need to be 10 minutes before the exam starts would undoubtedly cause huge amounts of stress. Save yourself from this last-minute panic by checking the location of your exam ahead of time and making sure you know how to get there. You can even try looking inside the room to get a feel for what it will be like when the time comes for the exam. Checking things like where the nearest toilets are or if there’s somewhere nearby to get water, can also help you feel more prepared when it comes to exam day.

Practice breathing techniques and grounding exercises

For many of us, anxiety can be as much a physical experience as it can mental. Familiarising yourself with some breathing techniques or grounding exercises that work for you will provide you with useful tools if you find yourself becoming anxious or panicked in the exam room. 

Here are some techniques that I find helpful:

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and releasing the major muscle groups in your body, which can release some of the tension created by anxiety and physically ground you in times of panic.

This article from Young Minds provides a great description of the process and benefits.

Box breathing

Box breathing is not only a great way to calm your nervous system, but the process of counting the seconds as you breathe in, hold, and breathe out also gives your mind something to focus on other than the exam.

Simply follow these steps:

  1. Breathe in for 4 seconds
  2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds
  3. Breathe out for 4 seconds
  4. Hold your breath for another 4 seconds
  5. Repeat!

Further resources

The techniques above might not work for you, but there are plenty of other exercises you can try. Below are links to resources describing other breathing and grounding exercises that you may find useful.

30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts

25 Grounding Techniques for Anxiety

9 Breathing Exercises to Relieve Anxiety

On the day

Arrive early

Aim to arrive well before the exam start time. This allows time for potential issues with the bus/train as you’re coming to campus, as well as time for you to get settled before the exam starts.

Bring snacks

Having something to eat before the exam can give you a boost of energy and stop you getting distracted by pangs of hunger during the exam. There are lots of articles about the best foods to eat before an exam, but my advice is to have something substantial that you enjoy – you deserve it!

Practice breathing and grounding

Cramming before an exam doesn’t tend to work; not only are you unlikely to retain any more information, but it can also lead to increased feelings of anxiety and panic. You may find any spare time you have before the exam is better spent practising some of the breathing and grounding techniques described earlier, then these will be fresh on your mind if you want to use them during the exam.

Find something in the room to focus on

You’ll probably find you have a fair amount of time sat in the exam room before you get started. Use this time to find something in the room that you can bring your attention to if you start feeling overwhelmed. It could be a pattern on the desk, something on the wall; think about what it looks like and how you might describe it. This can help get you out of your head and you can then return to the exam feeling slightly more focused.

After the exam

Take a break!

It’s often difficult to take your mind off an exam after it’s done; you might be wondering about how it went, comparing answers with other students, or thinking about the next assignment you’ve got to work on.

Try to give yourself some time to completely detach from whatever responsibilities you may have and take a break doing something that you enjoy. Having a nice activity planned in advance can give you something to look forward to after the exam and provide motivation to get to the end.

Do something physical

After spending a long time in one spot, it can be good to get the blood flowing through your body again. Doing some stretches, going for a walk, or any other form of physical activity is a great way to re-energize and physically remove yourself from ‘exam mode’.

A woodland view from the South Downs National Park
Views from the South Downs National Park

Spend some time outside

As with doing something physical, spending some time outside is a great way to transition out of ‘exam mode’. There are many beautiful parts of campus where you can sit in nature or go for a walk to calm yourself down and bring yourself back to a neutral state after being in a potentially heightened state during the exam.

Be kind to yourself

When you’re a university student, assessments can feel like the most important thing in the world, but they don’t always go according to plan. If you’re unsure or disappointed with how you think the exam went, try not to be too hard on yourself for it. There are plenty of factors that contribute to how an assessment goes, and sometimes there is no particular reason other than it was a hard exam! Remember that this isn’t the only opportunity you have to show your abilities and that your result doesn’t define who you are. 

Need more support?

If you feel like you need more support during the assessment period, you can contact the psychology student experience team via their email: 

You can also find more information about supporting your mental health on the Student Hub.

Reasonable adjustments

The deadline for registering for reasonable adjustments for this assessment period has passed, but if you think these would help you in future years of study then you can find more information about registering here.

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