Effective strategies for coping with exam stress – By Alex Wallace, Deputy Head-Academic at Leighton Park School

16 May 2024

“Millions of students are set to be writing their GCSEs in May this year.

“Without the right preparation and with the pressure to perform, students can become overwhelmed and stressed, potentially impacting their overall mental health.

“It’s normal for exam time to come with natural pressures but preventing the build-up of excessive stress is key to good mental health, productive revision and completing exams.

“Firstly, it is never too early to start preparing. Making a slow but early start helps set the foundations for a calm and motivated season of revision leading up to exams.

“With many subjects to juggle, organising the large load of subject matter can be daunting. Part of early preparation is creating a detailed study schedule to break the workload down into manageable chunks, giving students a calm and structured way to carry out their revision.

“Importantly, students should remember to ensure they include time for their well-being by setting time aside for their hobbies, seeing friends and switching off.

“These breaks should be regularly scattered around their schedules to reinvigorate their minds and give them a chance to get some fresh air and exercise, which is good for the mind and body, releasing tension.

“Secondly, preparing a study space clear of clutter and equipped with all study materials and snacks (to keep the energy up) is crucial. Having a well-equipped area dedicated to study helps the mind focus on the task at hand, free of distraction. It’s a great idea to leave your phone in another room and let yourself use it only during breaks.

“Students should always avoid studying on their beds. The bed should first and foremost be a place of rest, and studying here could impact a student’s ability to relax come time for sleep. Poor lighting and improper back support are also likely to make students less productive in their studies.

“Ideally, a clutter-free desk setup with minimal distractions is best for effective study, but any quiet area with plenty of table space can work. Some students may benefit more from visiting a library or agreeing to use the school facilities after hours if the home environment is not conducive to productivity.

“At this point, procrastination can set in, with students often finding it difficult to begin studying and can feel overwhelmed. The best way to deal with this is to start with five to ten-minute portions of revision to warm up.

“Eventually, momentum will build up and before they know it, they’ll be well on their way and feeling less stressed. Completing small jobs can often be the motivation students need to carry on.

“The best evidenced revision methods are active: highlighting your notes won’t be an efficient use of your time. If you’re ready, sit a practice exam paper: this can help you identify areas in which you are less confident – start your further revision with those! You will need to activate information in your long-term memory through spaced retrieval practice. Creating flashcards, flow tables, diagrams, graphs, acronyms and mind maps are ways to engage the mind, helping information to stick while exercising creativity at the same time. This can help break the monotony of revision.

“Another way to help information stick is to engage in conversation with family members or fellow students about study topics. Changing up their study routine gives students the chance to learn while enjoying social engagement too, which can effectively relieve stress build-up.

“Finally, students should be mindful of comparing themselves to their peers. Everyone moves at their own pace and comparison is a futile task more likely to cause anxiety than be helpful.

“Parents have a role to play here too by encouraging their children to eat healthily, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep during the exam period. Research has shown healthy habits and good sleep can reduce cortisol levels and help us cope with stressful events.”


Leighton Park School, Berks