A fear of exams is super common – especially in adult learners who haven't sat an exam for years OR whose last memory of exams were bad.

What feelings come up for you when you hear the word ‘exam’?

This blog post isn’t for those magical unicorn-type people who love and get excited by the idea of an exam. This blog post is for the rest of us, the ones for who fear of exams is a very real experience.

When you think about an upcoming exam, how do you feel?

Maybe your breath catches in your throat, or a shiver runs up your spine, or you start to feel sick. Your hands might start shaking and a hot, heavy pool of worry forms in the pit of your stomach.

Fear of exams can open up the floodgates in our minds so negative thoughts and doubts pour in until we can no longer see the possibility of a positive exam outcome.

In this blog post I’m going to walk you through why we experience fear of exams and then we’re going to tackle the three main causes to give you actionable strategies to help you overcome it and go through your exam season with less anxiety and more confidence.

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The different camps of a fear of exams

CAMP 1 > For some students, fear of exams hits them hard but they’re still able to perform well because they know that they always get like this before an exam.

CAMP 2 > For others, this anxiety doesn’t end when they turn over their question paper. Their fear of exams impacts their wellbeing, exam performance and, thus, their academic achievement.

I used to be in this lonely, overwhelming Camp 2. At Sixth Form when I was 16-18 years old, and up until the end of my first year of university, my fear of exams stopped me from performing well at all. If I put the effort into my essays I would do OK, but make me sit an exam and I’d crumble and achieve a low grade or fail.

I’m happy to say now that I’m in Camp 1. I STILL experience anxiety before every single exam. Once it gets to a few days before an exam I stop eating and I have a stomach ache that won’t go away. I have to meditate A LOT to calm me down. But…when I turn over my question paper my anxiety dissipates and I’m able to perform at my best and do well.

It doesn’t have to take you as long as it took me to stop fear of exams from ruining my grades. So, let’s get cracking.

The value of fear

Fear and anxiety has its uses, especially so during evolution. As a caveman or cavewoman, if you turned a corner and saw a lion in the distance, fear made you turn around and immediately get the hell out of there. This fear helped you in future by making you avoid that area but also in being more aware to look out for another lion. Therefore, fear is useful when it stops us from dying or becoming seriously injured.

Fear is still a part of our brains and has its uses today. But, fear of exams is a lot less useful because exams do not pose an actual physical threat to our lives.

Why do we experience fear of exams?

I believe there’s three main reasons behind a fear of exams:
1. The belief that failure will have enormous consequences
2. The belief that you don’t have control over your performance or the outcome
3. Past experience of failure.

Let’s dive into these individually and I’ll share how you can overcome each one.

3 reasons for a fear of exams – and how to kick each one to the curb!

1. The belief that failure will have enormous consequences

Failing an exam sucks – I know cos I’ve been there a good few times!

At the time, fear of exams and the idea of failing terrified me. But the reality of it was never as bad as I thought. Yes my pride and confidence was damaged, especially at having to tell friends and family what happened.

However, the consequences of failing are never as bad as we think. For me, failing exams cost me time and money as I prepared for retakes…but that’s it.

I’m still standing.

Doors weren’t shut in my face. My dreams weren’t shattered.

Try to see failing an exam as an annoying, upsetting, but TEMPORARY setback in your journey. See it as only a bump in the road and your fear of exams should lessen.

Another thing you can do is try to focus on your strengths, not your perceived weaknesses. It’s easy to believe we’re not good enough for exams, but what if we looked for our skills that could help us? I want you to have a think about what qualities you have as a student and as a person that will help you in the run up to your exams. Maybe you work well under pressure, you have neat handwriting, you’re good at managing your time, you take good notes, you’re motivated, you’re organised, you’ve learned how to focus…anything.

Direct your energy to your studying strengths (and don’t try and tell me you don’t have any!) and your fear of exams should shrink.

2. The belief that you don’t have control over your performance or the outcome

For most exams, you’re not going to know the questions before you turn over that question paper. Fear of exams can magnify this lack of control over the questions and turn it into a perceived lack of control over the entire exam.

If you feel nervous about your exam and are worried you’re going to fail then your brain can even make the connection that this lack of control means you have no way to avoid failing.

Luckily, this isn’t true.

Yes, the exact questions are going to be unknown to you. But you DO have control over how you prepare for your exam and how you approach the exam... and therefore, the outcome.

Focusing on what you can control will help draw attention away from the things you don’t have complete control over. If you find yourself fretting that you won’t be able to remember anything or you won’t understand the question, tell yourself that when you walk into your exam you’ll smile at the examiner.

Learn HOW to revise effectively and you can diminish your fear of exams and take back control.

I’ve written a number of useful exam study skills blog posts.

Here’s the key principles to follow with links to these broader blog posts:
- Understand your exam’s format, structure and the content that could come up
- Learn which revision strategies to use for your type of exam
- Focus on active revision techniques that test your knowledge i.e. not simply rereading notes over and over
- Review each concept multiple times to increase your ability to understand and recall concepts in your exam.

3. Past experience of failure

If you’ve failed an exam or exams in the past then your brain can lead you to believe you can’t break the chain.

As I mentioned above – failing an exam sucks. Failing can cause us pain, disappointment and embarrassment and these feelings are often intensified if our tutors or family react with shock, disappointment or even anger.

It’s normal to run away from these feelings. Again, our ancestors needed this response to prevent them from being harmed again. But fear of exams can make us run away from our future exams. It can lead us to procrastinate and put off revising until the last minute – which isn’t going to help!

It can lead us to only pick modules that DON’T have an exam at the end, or it can even lead us to give up on studying all together.

I want to tell you one thing which I know to be true. From my own experience and from that of students I’ve been coaching over the last few years.

YOUR PAST RESULTS DO NOT HAVE TO PREDICT YOUR FUTURE RESULTS.

Think about this. If you bake a cake on Saturday without looking at a recipe, without measuring your ingredients, without greasing the tins, and without paying attention to the oven temperature or cooking time – it’s likely the cake’s gonna be a failure.

But what if, just a week later, you tried again and COMPLETELY changed your method? You learned HOW to bake a good cake and you followed a clear, smart, step-by-step method. I can GUARANTEE the outcome’s gonna be different.

Well, what if you looked at your exam preparation in the same way?

If you learned HOW to revise effectively, and you learned the smart, science-backed study strategies to use for your specific type of exam, and the best ways to boost your confidence, organise yourself and remember what you learned – wouldn’t your exam outcome be different?

Follow my advice in my blog posts and you can conquer your fear of exams and completely change your outcome and grades.

If you want more support from me then check out my awesome study skills training course, Exam Revision Formula.

~ FREE TRAINING ~

How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

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