Exam confidence

Exam time can bring about a range of different thoughts and feelings for students. The following information will assist you to develop techniques to improve your confidence and to manage any anxiety that you may experience in the lead up to your exams.

Does the thought of sitting for an exam:

  • make you feel excited?
  • make you feel energised?
  • encourage you to perform at your best?
  • make you think of success?

Most students would like to identify with at least some of these reactions. A small amount of anxiety together with confidence in relation to sitting exams is the key. Research indicates that optimum performance in exams is obtained when students experience medium or manageable levels of anxiety. Mild levels of anxiety can improve alertness and provide the burst of energy needed to get through demanding situations. However, excessive levels of anxiety in relation to exams can be debilitating; inhibiting concentration and memory and, in its most severe form, causing panic attacks.

Anxiety can fool you and convince you that you cannot function when you really can. It is important not to give up when you feel anxious! If you persist you will discover that you can perform effectively and you will become increasingly confident. Most people experience some degree of anxiety when faced with an exam. The students who perform better tend to cope with anxiety in more productive ways.

How to become confident with exams

  • A good study routine and adequate preparation are essential factors in becoming confident for exams. Nothing can replace being well prepared.
  • Ensure a balanced lifestyle with leisure activities built into your timetable. Make sure you get adequate sleep and eat well.
  • Thinking positively and challenging you negative thoughts about your ability to perform in exams.
  • Introduce relaxation exercises into your daily routine. By practising relaxation you can develop a sufficiently strong relaxation response to counteract the physical symptoms associated with any excessive anxiety.

Relaxation techniques

Breathing exercises

To be practised regularly and at the first sign that your confidence is wavering.

  • Hold your breath and count to 5 (do not take a deep breath)
  • When you reach 5, breathe out and say the word relax to yourself in a calm manner.
  • Breathe in and out slowly through your nose in a 6 second cycle. Breathe in for 3 seconds and out for 3 seconds. This will produce a breathing rate of 10 breaths per minute. Say the word relax to yourself every time you breathe out.
  • At the end of each minute (10 breaths) hold your breath again for 5 seconds and then continue breathing using the 6 second cycle.
  • Continue breathing this way until the symptoms of over breathing have gone.

Muscle tensing and relaxing exercises

To be practised daily whilst listening to soothing music.

  1. Find a quiet place and choose a comfortable chair.
  2. Clear your mind of all worrying or disturbing thoughts. Let your mind be clear and calm.
  3. Practise slow breathing. Imagine the tension flowing out of your body every time you breathe out.
  4. Relax your muscles in the following order - hands, arms, shoulders, neck, forehead and scalp, eyes, jaws, chest, stomach, back, bottom, thighs, calves and feet. For each muscle group tense the muscle for 7-10 seconds then slowly release. Every time you release a muscle imagine the tension flowing from your body.


Imagine a very peaceful scene, like lying on the beach, walking through a rain forest, sitting by an open fire in a log cabin. It can be a real or imagined place.

  1. Involve all your senses as you imagine being in this very peaceful place.
  2. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What is the temperature? Is there a breeze?
  3. Are there birds around? For example, you might imagine the sun on your face, the cool breeze on your forehead, the salt tang of the ocean, the gentle sound of the waves, the soft grit of the sand.
  4. Once you have found the location where you feel totally calm and at peace with yourself, describe your image into a tape recorder, together with some soothing background music. Listen to your recording daily. There are also commercially available tapes that lead you through visualisation exercises.

There are many other forms of relaxation exercises; the above is not an exhaustive list.

Whichever form of relaxation you choose, it is important that you practise it on a daily basis, and over a period of at least eight weeks in the lead-up to your exams.

Positive thinking

Thinking positively and challenging negative thoughts about your ability to perform in exams is a very useful technique in becoming confident for exams. The way in which you think about the exam will affect the way you feel about the exam. For example, if you think you are going to do well in the exam, then it will not be surprising to find that you will feel confident.

Engage in positive visual imagery

Picture yourself in the exam, where are you sitting, the paper in front of you, answering the questions in an efficient way. Experience yourself as a positive and successful student. Think positively and you will feel positive.

Directly challenge any negative thoughts about exams

If you have any negative thoughts about sitting exams, you can choose to think differently about it. Firstly you need to become conscious of your negative thoughts in relation to exams. These thoughts are sometimes referred to as self-talk. There is a process for changing negative thoughts, and this includes:

  • identifying your negative thoughts, eg, my life will be ruined if I fail this exam!
  • challenging negative beliefs, eg, will my life be ruined if I fail this exam? NO IT WILL NOT! I will be disappointed if I fail, but I can attempt it again next year or choose another unit.
  • replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts, eg, I am well prepared for this exam and I will try my best. If I pass I will be very proud of myself; if I fail I know I at least gave it a go.

Only talk positively to your peers about your exams

Focus on how well you are prepared for the exam, and the fact that you are quietly confident. Do not become caught up with other people's negative thoughts.

Keeping calm in the exam

Well, it is exam day and you are feeling relaxed, positive and confident. Here are some ideas to help you remain calm whilst you are in the exam:

  • Periodically close your eyes and take a comfortable deep breath and then let the air out slowly and quietly.
  • As you breathe out say the word relax to yourself and feel any tension flowing from your body.
  • While relaxing during the deep breath, allow your hands and arms to dangle at your sides. Feel the warmth of your blood flow into your hands. Imagine the tensions flowing out through your fingertips.
  • Flex and relax your finger muscles several times to promote blood flow.
  • Change your body position slightly to allow more blood flow to your thighs, buttocks and back.
  • Stretch your arms, legs and back.
  • Take another slow and deep breath and say relax and then return to your work on the examination.

If you find your mind going blank in the exam, or you are having trouble concentrating, try this:

  • Look at something in the exam room, eg, a chair or a clock. Study it in minute detail; look at the colour, texture, shape and particular markings. Do this for approximately 3-5 minutes, and then return to your exam.
  • Test the validity of your thoughts. For example, if you feel 'I cannot think straight', or 'I cannot understand a single thing', test the validity of this. Read one sentence and write a brief summary. You will discover you can actually understand it.
  • Write down anything related to the question and look for links. Paraphrase the question in your own words.
  • Leave a difficult question and go onto one you know better.

Exam confidence is healthy. It works for you and provides you with heightened awareness, which will enhance your ability to do well in exams. The key factors are to be prepared, to practise relaxation daily (so that your body can relax on demand) and to think positively.

Taking it further

Getting help

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