Guide to Managing Stress Before, During, and After an Exam

It’s normal for students to feel stressed before big exams, especially standardized tests like the IELTS, TOEFL, or TOEIC.

Common advice for dealing with stress includes taking deep breaths, getting more sleep, eating healthy, and getting exercise. However, it’s also important to deal with the source of stress directly, not just treat the symptoms. 

Let’s look at some ways to do this before, during, and after an exam.

First, Rethink Things

We can’t change the fact that exams play a huge role in deciding our future. However, we can change how exams make us feel stressed, anxious, and even discouraged.

Rethink Your Stress

Studies have found that changing the way students think about stress can help them score higher on exams. Here are some ways to change the way we view stress. 

  • Know that our body’s response to stress is actually beneficial. For example, our faster heart and breath rates mean more blood is pumped up to the brain, which in turn helps us think. 
  • Accept our feelings. As an expert recommends, we can tell ourselves, “I feel this way because this goal is important to me, and my body is responding this way because it is getting me ready to perform.” 
  • Watch the following TED talk, “How to make stress your friend,”  to learn more positive aspects of stress.

Rethink the Exam

Another thing you can do is to change how you think about the exam. Here are some tips:

  • Instead of focusing on the final score, focus on how much you’ve learned preparing for the exam. Know that even if you don’t get an ideal score, your hard work was not in vain. 
  • Realize that exams don’t necessarily reflect how good you are at something. For instance, some people speak English well, but can’t take notes fast enough for the TOEFL or memorize a chart fast enough for the TOEIC.

And since students are generally most stressed about the speaking sections, here are some tips for coping with this stress in particular:

  • Think about how long the speaking section lasts. If you’re taking the TOEFL or the IELTS, you’ll just need to be uncomfortable for 15 minutes. That’s it!
  • If there is an examiner, remember that they are just there to evaluate your English — not judge who you are as a person. They might not always smile, but they also won’t remember what mistakes you’ve made after they go home. And don’t forget, examiners are often nervous too!

Before the Exam

Exam-related stress often comes from feeling unprepared. So by preparing well, we can feel more confident.

Know the Exam “In and Out”

As we’ve discussed, exams don’t reflect reality. Just think about it. In real life, would a stranger come up to you, say, “Tell me about the most impressive moment in your life,” and then expect you to speak for an entire 45 seconds by yourself? (This is an actual question type in TOEFL.)

No, and in fact, most native speakers would struggle with these questions too. For example, check out this video to see native speakers reacting to IELTS questions.

So no matter how good you are at English, you’ll want to be familiar with:

  • each section of the test;
  • what types of questions are asked;
  • how much time you have for each question.

You’ll also want to take practice exams. Practice exams will help you figure out what strategies work best for you. For example, in the reading section, do you read the passages first and then answer the questions? Or do you answer the questions as you read?

The UK’s National Health Service even recommends “doing practice papers under exam conditions or seeing the exam hall beforehand.” So you can try locking yourself in a room and doing a full three-hour practice test. 

And (if it’s allowed) take a trip to the exam hall. After all, this is where a scary, possibly life-changing experience will take place, so it’s better to familiarize yourself with it first.  This will give you a greater sense of security and control on exam day. 

Be Realistic

First, figure out what your goals are. Let’s say the school or job you’re applying for requires an IELTS score of 6. On your practice test, you scored 6’s in reading, speaking, and listening, but a 3 in writing. This yields an average of 5.25, which rounds up to an overall score of 5.5.

To get an average of 6, you might be tempted to aim for a 5 or 6 in writing. However, if you hate writing, then it’s probably more realistic to aim for a 4 in writing and a 7 in at least one other section. That way, you would get a score of 5.75, which would round up to a 6.

Next, be realistic about how you should study. If you’re not the type who can ace an exam by cramming the month before, then start early and do a little every day. Plan a study schedule, such as the one below:

Finally, be realistic about how much you can study in one go. Take regular study breaks, like 10-20 minutes of rest for every 40-50 minutes of study. Breaks don’t just refresh you; they also help you stay focused when you know there’s one coming up! 

On the Day of the Exam

What are some things we should do besides going to the bathroom before the exam, stretching, and not eating anything that might mess up our stomachs?

Write about your stress

A study at the University of Chicago asked students to write "as openly as possible about their thoughts and feelings regarding the math problems they were about to perform." Interestingly, the students who did so got more math problems right.

Researchers explained that stress takes away mental energy that you need to focus on something. If you deal with the exam-related stress first (for example, by acknowledging it and writing about it) you can focus more on the exam. 

Start with Easier Questions

It’s easy to get stuck on a question and then feel like it’s the end of the world. If this happens, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Then, skip the question. 

Work on the questions you can answer first, build up confidence, and then go back to the more difficult ones. Plus, remember you’re graded for your performance on an entire section or exam, not on one question.

Go with the Flow

No matter how well we prepare, we’re going to make mistakes. For instance, let’s say you want to talk about famous foods in your country, but you forget the English word “spicy”. 

If you cannot recall the word or paraphrase, just go with the flow: say the first related word that comes to mind, e.g. “salty.” The examiner won’t know the difference and your fellow countrymen will forgive you.

After the Exam

It’s time to reward yourself! No matter what the result will be, you deserve a reward for your hard work. You can go on a trip, eat lots of ice cream, see that movie you’ve been meaning to see, or simply sleep — the choice is yours! 

But if your stress doesn’t go away and you think you might have anxiety, you’ll want to get help from a health professional or call a local helpline.

Need More Practice?

If you need more practice, you can try our materials for the speaking sections of IELTS, TOEFL, and TOEIC:

We can’t promise our lessons will make you stress-free, but we’re sure that the more practice you get, the less stressed out you’ll be. So if you need help or motivation, we recommend you try out a free lesson with one of our tutors!