how to overcome exam fear

How to Overcome Exam Fear

Exam fear, also known as exam anxiety, is a very common phenomenon. It can be experienced by students of any age or background – from young children, to junior college and university students, to older adults pursuing a graduate degree or professional certification.


For some, exam fear causes outright dread, panic, or fear – sometimes so paralysing that it hinders their performance. For others, exam fear feels more like anticipation or nervousness. However we experience it, overcoming exam fear involves developing emotional regulation skills, preparing thoroughly, setting reasonable goals and expectations, and adopting positive self-talk. When we do this, we are one step closer to fulfilling our potential.


Understanding exam fear


Exam fear, in its simplest form, is the apprehension or uneasiness associated with the impending assessment of our knowledge or skills. It is a normal and healthy response to an important event in an academic or professional journey. 


However, when this anxiety becomes excessive and unmanageable, it can debilitate us, affecting our performance and limiting any post-test opportunities that depend on high marks.


Healthy exam anxiety vs. paralysing exam fear


Healthy exam anxiety is a natural response to a challenging situation. It can enhance motivation, focus, and alertness, which can help us perform better. If exam-related worry has any physical symptoms at all, we may feel them as a light nausea or ‘butterflies’ in the stomach.


On the other hand, paralysing exam fear, also known as test anxiety, is an overwhelming sense of worry or dread that interferes with our ability to concentrate, recall information that we know, and effectively demonstrate knowledge or skill. Our self-confidence decreases, and our negative thinking patterns increase.


Test anxiety often manifests in physical symptoms, too. The stress hormones associated with the “fight, flight, or freeze” state can cause a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, profuse sweating, and a sense of impending doom. For some, exam fear and its physical sensations may be so intense, they experience a panic attack. 


Causes of exam fear


Several factors contribute to the development of exam fear. These include:


Expectations: The pressure to meet high expectations, whether from those expectations are our own or coming from external sources (like parents, teachers, or mentors), can shift healthy exam anxiety to extreme exam fear. 


Pressure: The rewards for high performance can create immense pressure. External pressures, such as the need for scholarships, entrance into a prestigious institution, maintaining a specific grade point average, getting a promotion, etc., can intensify exam fear; we worry so much over the loss of our goal that it affects how we feel about an exam and how we perform.


Past experiences: Negative experiences, such as failing a previous exam, can create lingering anxiety. We may dread repeating these unpleasant events and any unpleasant consequences.


Self-doubt and negative thinking: Negative self-talk and self-doubt are significant contributors to severe exam fear. Students may convince themselves that they are not capable of success, even when evidence suggests otherwise.


How to overcome exam fear


A combination of strategies can be helpful to manage exam anxiety so that it does not interfere with our performance. In summary, overcoming exam fear boils down to learning and using emotional regulation skills, effectively preparing, applying test taking strategies, setting reasonable expectations, adopting positive self-talk, and, if needed, reaching out for professional help.


Emotional regulation strategies to ease exam fear


Breathing exercises and meditation: Practising deep breathing and compassion meditation can help calm the mind and reduce stress levels.


Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves systematically tensing and relaxing muscle groups, one by one, to notice and ease physical tension.


Test prep strategies to manage exam fear


Create a study schedule: Organizing study sessions in advance can help reduce last-minute cramming, which increases anxiety and makes it more difficult to remember information. When we actively invest time and effort in thorough preparation, we feel more confident and better equipped to face an exam.


Join a study group: Active participation in a study group offers support from peers that not only aids exam preparation but also eases feelings of isolation. 


Take mock exams: Mock exams offer a chance to familiarise ourselves with the exam format, hone our time management skills, and sharpen our ability to handle challenging questions effectively. With each mock exam, the exam process becomes a little more familiar and a little less scary as we actively develop the resilience needed to perform at our best.


Visualise positive outcomes: Visualisation can be a powerful mental technique that enables us to actively imagine and mentally experience the successful exam outcome we desire. Create a vivid mental picture of your desired success by engaging your senses – how does your body move at the end of a confident test-taking experience? What do you hear? What do you do? Do this exercise regularly, as repetition solidifies this mental readiness. 


Test taking strategies to alleviate exam anxiety


Manage time wisely: Allocating specific time limits for each section or question and sticking to schedule ensures we don’t feel rushed, a feeling that can worsen anxiety. 


Avoid second-guessing: Effective time management should allow time to review our answers. While reviewing, it’s normal to have moments of doubt, but don’t overthink it. Changing answers only when certain that the initial choice was incorrect.


Stay calm: During the exam, we can use the deep breathing exercises to help us stay calm and focused on the task at hand.


Goal- and expectation-setting to minimise exam fear


Set achievable goals: Perfection is an unrealistic standard that can fuel exam fear. It’s essential to remember: Done is better than perfect.


Reframe exams as opportunities for personal growth: Exams are not just about grades; they offer opportunities for learning and self-improvement.


Self-talk strategies to reduce exam fear


Use self-affirmations and adopt positive self-talk. Exam fear is fed by negative self-talk – an inner monologue that critiques and undermines our capability or intelligence. Affirmations about our abilities can be helpful in silencing self-doubt. Counter negative thoughts with affirmations like: “I am well-prepared and capable” to actively reinforce a positive self-image.


Additionally, writing down these affirmations on a small card or in the margins of the exam paper can provide a constant reminder that mitigates self-doubt and fear during the actual test taking. This active practice of positive affirmations during the exam will bolster our confidence and reduce stress, actively improving our performance.


Finally, while these strategies are broadly helpful for managing exam fear, some of us may require guidance from a mental health professional, whether through digital therapy or in-person therapy, to overcome their exam fear. There’s no shame in this. Mental healthcare is just one resource among many that can help us live up to our full potential and achieve our goals.



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Vidula V Sawant (M.A., M.Phil., CRR No. A80980) is a clinical psychologist with  4+ years of experience and a passion for understanding the complexities of our minds and behaviours.

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