Coping with exam stress

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Are you preparing for a specific exam? Perhaps you will soon be taking the Cambridge First Certificate (FCE) the Cambridge Advanced (CAE) or maybe the IELTS (International English Language Testing System).

How are you feeling about it? Different people feel differently about exams. Believe it or not, some people actually enjoy them! However, the majority of people get quite nervous about their exams, and if you are feeling terrified, you are not alone!

If, during your exam preparation course, anxiety motivates you to study hard, do your homework, arrive at your lesson on time, go to sleep early, eat healthily and really try hard to improve your level of English and also your exam skills, then that is a good thing!

But, and this is important, if your anxiety means you spend your lessons panicking about your future exam instead of concentrating on what you are being taught NOW, and causes you to lie in your bed worrying instead of sleeping, it will not help at all.

As the exam date gets closer, your anxiety might increase, and become unhelpful. So here is the question – What can we do about it? Well, everyone has their own way of coping with anxiety and stress. There are some healthy ways, for example getting exercise, meditation or maybe a walk in nature, and having fun with good supportive friends. There are the less healthy ways, which I definitely don’t recommend especially in the days before an important exam, for example drinking excessively and generally “enjoying the nightlife” in Brighton. That is not a sensible way to prepare for your exam and you know it!

But I want to talk to you about something that is possibly more important than anything mentioned so far. I want to talk to you about the voice in your head! That’s right, we all have a voice in our head (I hope it’s not just me!) That voice is sometimes called our “internal dialogue.” It is there to help us navigate through life. It wants us to be better people - safer, stronger, more successful, more loved and happier. It sometimes tries to do this by saying helpful and supportive things, but often says things like “You are not good enough” or “You don’t deserve it” or, in this case “You will fail your exam!” It is telling you this because it thinks it will make you work harder and be more likely to pass your exam. But the problem is, it just creates stress, which as I mentioned earlier, can be very unhelpful!

What I am trying to say here is that I believe an important part of your exam strategy is to try to get control of your inner voice. From this moment, do your best. Focus on learning that new vocabulary. Do those grammar exercises. Do those exam practises. Don’t worry too much about your marks, just see all your mistakes as an opportunity to learn something useful. The next time you realise that the voice inside you is telling you that you might fail your exam, ask yourself this question:

“Am I doing my best?”

If you believe you are doing your best, then that is all you need to know. You have every right to be proud of yourself! Keep reminding yourself you are doing your best, especially when your inner voice starts trying to “help” you. What more can you do other than your best? Whatever happens in the exam, you will know you did your best. So try to relax, I know it is difficult, but really try. It will actually improve your chances of success! Most importantly of all, be kind to yourself.

If you don’t believe you are doing your best, there are two possible reasons for this:

You are in fact doing your best but you have unrealistic expectations of yourself. For example, there is a limit to how much new vocabulary you can learn in a day. I have been told that the optimum number of new words, including the pronunciation and how to use them in sentences correctly, and not forget them, is about 7 a day for the average person. So don’t try to learn 20 new words every day and be upset that you are not doing your best because you can only remember 10. Do you see what I mean? “Do your best” means work as hard as you can, but no harder. You need to also relax and have fun. You will learn more if you do, and this is actually “doing your best”. Balance is what you need, so remember to work hard, play hard and sleep!


You are not doing your best! To be honest, if this is you, I am impressed you are still reading this! You obviously want to succeed, but something is stopping you. What is demotivating you? What is blocking you? Is it fear? Perhaps you have got some distractions in your life? Perhaps the exam is not important for your future and you are just wanted to work towards something. My advice is don’t give up. It is never too late to start doing your best!


So there you are. Do your best and you can be proud of yourself whatever happens. Good luck everyone.


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