It’s nearing the end of the year, and once again, another cycle of exhausted high school and university students must brave their final examinations.

Cue ominous sound effects… Badoom…Badoom…

Hey, cut out that music! It just makes the stress worse!

So, how can we reduce our stress during high-stakes situations like final exams and obtain the best result that I can? Read on for a few great pieces of advice on how to beat exam stress and stay on top of it!

Know yourself

One afternoon, we were practising free throws at the local park. Jim took his time to perfectly lineup his toes along the white painted line. As he spun the basketball in his hands again and again, an intense concentration consumed his face, scrunching it into the charming texture of a shrivelled avocado. He took a deep breath, brought the ball up to his head, and just as he was about to release it with perfect execution and form, John blurted:

“Jim, you suck under pressure.”

Jim dropped the ball. “Why do you do that to me? Now you’ve jinxed me, dammit!” Jim replied with palpable disgust.

Silence resumed. This time no one spoke. My sister, John and I stood around the key, solemnly waiting for the swish of the net. But the swish never came. Only the sound of the ball bouncing off the metal ring -  the jarring sound of defeat.

At the time, I couldn’t understand how someone could be aware of their vulnerability under pressure, let alone want to acknowledge their own weakness! Having negative thoughts would just make it worse.

Interestingly, knowing your own weaknesses is incredibly important to our success, because it helps you watch out for unconscious, insidious influences that may subtly deteriorate your performance (for example, in exams).

If performing under pressure is a difficult task for you, the first step is to recognise it. You can’t improve your performance in exams if you don’t even acknowledge that there is a problem lurking in your mind in the first place. Having this mindset will help you use the next 4 tips!

Eat lots of food

This is probably the most important ‘piece’ of advice (excuse the pun!). Exams take a tonne of energy, so it makes sense to stock up on those Joules before you walk into the exam room. I know that sleep is another really important one, but let’s be honest, getting enough sleep these days, especially before exams, is like an unreachable ideal that only the most disciplined gods can obtain - I don’t like giving unpractical advice that even I cannot follow!

Here’s some good stuff to jolt those lovely brain cells before an exam:

  • Juice - high sugar, good stuff
  • Fruit - even better
  • Eggs and toast - very filling, lots of carbs to get you through the ordeal
  • Lots of water during the exam - prevents neurons from drying out and dying (just kidding!)
  • Meat - I need to eat some meat like bacon or ham or chicken in the morning, but that’s just me. My ‘engine’ I guess just runs less efficiently than others :/ But that’s justification for eating more food, so… :)

Stay away from your (bad) friends

I don’t mean to be anti-social. Definitely talk to them. Definitely go to that Taylor Swift concert with them. Definitely have that sleep over or Skype for 5 hours because Game of Throne is such an awesome series, and gee… Khaleesi is just on fire in Season 5 (did I mention that I love puns)!

But there is a time and place for all of those social activities which humans enjoy partaking in. However, these times and places strictly do not include a) before exams, and b) outside the exam room.

Again, this comes back to our Zen idea of ‘knowing thyself’. If you get nervous and aren’t totally confident about the exam, then don’t hang around all your nervous friends while you all cry in fear and suffocate each other with your growing hysteria just before the exam! It totally destroys your attitude and emotional/mental fortitude - both of which are incredibly important to exam success.

Instead, stick to yourself. Or if you are lucky, stick to a confident friend. That means NOT the one who facebooked you last night at 12am asking about every little detail that should have been mastered weeks prior. Exam success is about 20% performance on the day and 80% prior preparation.

Stay positive and stay away from people who will make you panic. #honesttipswithjackson

DISCLAIMER: This piece of advice also makes me look like a massive loser who hates people. Of course, it’s best to be a team player and support your friends before exams, bungee jumps and weddings. The world would be perfect if everyone could get along and work together. But, the whole team thing might not be the best idea if you get really nervous because other people get really nervous. Otherwise if you don’t easily catch other people’s nerves, then just forget about this point :)

Be superstitious

Having my own little exam calm-down procedure was super helpful. I used it whenever I was feeling too many heart palpitations exploding from my chest, or when my hands shook so violently that I was more afraid of a neurological disorder than excessive stress.

The ones that I like to use are:

  • Breathing exercises: Breathe in, breathe out. Straightforward, effective. Try it out. Think about your stomach as your do this. It puts the focus on something and helps you concentrate.
  • Hand clenches: This one’s weird. I don’t know if it actually worked, but the important thing here is to believe that it does work. Like faith. This tip is about being superstitious. Technically you could comb your hair with your fingers exactly 12 times to calm yourself down, as long as you delude yourself into believing that it will calm you down. It’s all psychological.
  • I’m sure there are heaps of other life-hacks like closing your eyes and imaging the melody of Nordic bamboo flutes playing Metal in the background just for you. That’s why Google was invented.

You aren’t Dr Who

Get on top of the time management in exams. Please. Dr Who can go back in time, but you can’t.

Having a plan is probably the best way of doing things. Constantly check the time with an obsessive and unhealthy frequency. Map out a rough guide beforehand, and check back to the clock or your watch every few minutes to ensure that you are on-track. Otherwise, you get lost amongst the esoteric equations and indecipherable walls of text. Be smart and slap yourself out of it.

Here’s a good mantra for you to remember.

When in doubt, slap yo self.

- Jackson Huang

Revise smart

Wait… this is the, what, 6th tip!? Such benevolence! Such knowledge! Yes, I am feeling particularly benevolent and wise tonight, to enjoy this last piece of advice on effective revision.

Mistake: Most people skim through the textbook. This is passive revision and you retain very little of the content.

What’s effective revision? Effective revision is active revision. This involves:

  • Creating mind-maps to visually see how different pieces of content relate together
  • Recalling everything you know about a topic and making sure you remember everything
  • Drawing diagrams

All of these activities require active engagement of your critical thinking and your mental faculties. You are actually remembering, drawing, writing, recalling, creating… instead of just reading/skimming like a zombie with a dead brain.

So the next time you revise, do some of this stuff! It will surprise you with how much you already know (or don’t know)!