What NOT to do to pass your exams

We get bombarded with advice on how to cope with tests, especially when you’re trying to revise and focus up. But it’s sometimes easier to look at what NOT to do in order to ensure you do your very best.

Avoiding all of the following bad habits will significantly boost your chances of success.

Don’t plan ahead

Failing to plan is the single biggest cause of stress when it comes to exams. According to the mental health charity Mind, it’s a good idea to make a list of all the things that you have to do and then arrange them in order of importance.

Avoid trying to do too much all at once. Instead, take plenty of breaks and take things as slowly as possible, splitting up your learning into manageable chunks. This approach may seem counter-intuitive but it will actually make you far more productive. If you try to learn everything at the last minute, you’ll only experience more pressure.

Of course, this strategy only really works if you have given yourself enough time to carry out all the revision you need to do so that you feel fully prepared. Work backwards from the date of the exam and put together a schedule that allows you to get it all done.

Don’t fall into the common trap of revising areas that you already know well. Although this can make it seem as though you are making progress, you’ll be setting yourself up for a fall as you’ll still struggle in other areas once the exam starts.

Keep it to yourself

It’s not surprising that a popular theme within Mental Health Awareness Week (16-22 May) is relationships, as talking things through with someone who knows the pressure you’re under can help put things into perspective.

Confiding in someone you trust who will be supportive helps to alleviate stress. Keeping it all to yourself is the best possible way to ensure your stress levels are as high as possible.

Another bad exam habit is believing you can achieve the impossible:

  • reading an entire text book in a day
  • staying up for three nights in a row in order to cram in more information
  • or trying to review a wide range of disparate topics in a matter of a few hours.

Talking to someone about what you’re going through, and your plans, can make it far easier to see the error of your ways.

Neglect your health and diet

According to psychologists, we can only fully concentrate for up to 45 minutes at a time. If you regularly work longer than this without a break, this is a habit you need to change. Though you may feel guilty about stepping away from your revision, breaks will help you to retain the information more easily.

Stress may make you crave sugar and shun the idea of getting any exercise, but these bad habits will also cost you in the long run. Instead, eat healthy snacks to keep your blood sugar level right and drink plenty of water as being fully hydrated will make it easier for your brain to function correctly.

Feeling that you need to cut all the fun out of your life in the run-up to your exams is another habit you absolutely want to avoid. While it helps if you have allowed enough time to have the occasional bit of fun, no matter how much pressure you are under, you will cope far better if you take a little time to do the things you enjoy alongside your work.

According to a research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in June 2013, authored by Wendy Wood, David Neal and Aimee Drolet, we don’t only fall back on bad habits during times of stress but good ones as well. This means that the more you can make good habits – exercise, healthy eating, getting the right amount of sleep – a part of your regular routine, the more likely you are to be able to maintain them regardless of how much pressure you find yourself under.


When it comes to the exams themselves, according to Dr Dawn Hamilton of the Institute for Stress Management, the best way to eliminate any feeling of panic you may have is to simply close your eyes and take a number of long, slow deep breaths.

This kind of deep breathing will help relax your entire nervous system.

You can also try giving yourself a pep talk, repeating phrases like “I know I’m going to do well”. If you get stuck on a question, deep breathing for a minute or so will also help you avoid getting into a panic (which makes it harder to think clearly). If this doesn’t help, don’t dwell too long – move on to another question and come back to the one that caused you trouble later on.

If you really want to push yourself, even when it’s all over, be sure to go over every aspect of the exam, focus on all the things you did wrong and spend as much time as possible in the company of those who felt it all went really well.

Alternatively, at the end of the exam, focus on the things you did well and don’t let yourself succumb to negative thoughts.

Read more on prepping for assessments;

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Tony Thompson is a freelance journalist.

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