How to Get Through Exams

In order to be successful at university it is important to stay healthy during exam time. Getting enough sleep, eating properly, taking time to relax, maintaining an exercise regime, and remembering to breathe will help with your success.

By Student Wellness Centre

Sleep Your Way Through Exams

Getting Enough ZZZs

  • It's a fact: 8 hours of sleep a night improves your academic performance.
  • Thinking of pulling an all-nighter? Think again! Students who pull “all-nighters” won't necessarily improve your grade.
  • A good night sleep before an exam will help you concentrate and recall information more accurately.

Power Naps

  • A power nap can help reduce fatigue and make you feel rejuvenated. Nap before 3pm so that it doesn’t affect falling asleep at night.
  • Keep your naps to 15-30 minutes or less to prevent waking up feeling groggy and tired.
  • If you don't feel comfortable having a nap, try meditation; it gives your body a rest and produces slower brain waves similar to sleep.

Can't Sleep

  • Avoid chocolate and caffeine at least 3-4 hours before you go to bed.
  • Get some sunlight and fresh air every day.
  • Try a glass of warm milk before bed; it induces a restful sleep and you will wake up feeling refreshed.
  • Alcohol may induce sleep but leads to a restless night and you won't wake up refreshed.
  • Take 30-60 minutes before bed to wind down and put your brain into rest mode.
  • Put down your electronics 45 minutes prior to bed.
  • Keep your bed for sleep and romantic purposes only. Studying in bed can reduce your ability to have a restful sleep.
  • Keep your electronics out of reach from your bed; even better is to keep them out of your room.
  • If you really can’t sleep. Get out of bed and study for a bit. Go back to bed when you are sleepy.

Eat Your Way Through Exams

Quick Tips

  • Use “Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide” found at Health Canada’s website.
  • Plan and prepare your meals for a week; it saves time and money.
  • Breakfast is the best study buddy. Eat from at least 3 food groups for breakfast (e.g., whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, banana, and glass of milk).
  • Keep meals simple (e.g., scrambled eggs with toast, cheese and salsa, or a chef's salad).
  • Stay away from high sugar foods. A short term boost will be followed by a long-term slump.

Feed Your Brain

  • Have a snack or meal every 3-4 hours.
  • Go with whole grain foods for sustained energy and better memory (e.g., whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and oatmeal).
  • Protein improves mental performance. You need 2-3 servings a day. Easy choices include nuts, beans, cheese, canned fish, and eggs.
  • Omega-3 fats improve memory so go for tuna, salmon, nuts, and seeds.

Eat Your Veggies and Fruit

  • The darker the colour, the higher the concentration of nutrients. Great choices include spinach, bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, blueberries, oranges and grapefruits.
  • Buy and prepare veggies and fruit ahead of time so they are ready to eat.

Thirst for Knowledge!

  • Stay hydrated! Water is essential for concentration and mental alertness. Refill your water bottle a couple of times a day. Limit high sugar drinks.
  • Drink low-fat milk.

Relax Your Way Through Exams

Take a Break

  • Take a short 10-minute break for every hour of studying.
  • Watch a bit of TV or Netflix.
  • Socialize with friends and family.
  • Play with your pet(s).
  • Read something light.
  • Listen to music.
  • Have a hot bath or shower to relax your muscles.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Make an appointment for a massage at Student Wellness Centre.

Monitor Your Thinking

  • Expecting the worst causes more anxiety.
  • Remind yourself that “you can do it.”
  • Imagine how you would like things to go.
  • Focus and concentrate on a positive thought or object which helps to clear your mind of stress and worries.
  • Imagine yourself succeeding rather than failing.

Learn to Relax

  • Practice Breathing Techniques for relaxation
  • Drinking non-caffeinated tea relaxes the brain and induces mental alertness.
  • Practicing yoga and mindful breathing during exams can help relax the mind and body, relieve stress, and sharpen your attention. Try yoga at the PAC and meditation for relaxing ideas.
  • Laughter is the best medicine and a great stress reliever. Watch a comedy show or play a board game. Schedule some fun into each day.
  • Use aromatherapy or light a scented candle. Try lavender or vanilla as they are relaxing scents.

Exercise Your Way through Exams


  • Although it can be tempting, don't stop your regular exercise routine during exam time. Try to keep up with the Canadian minimum recommendations: 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week.
  • Give your brain a rest and go for a walk on your study breaks.
  • Get off the bus three stops ahead of your stop and walk the rest of the way.
  • Take the stairs.
  • Stand when you meet with friends instead of sitting.

Use the PAC

  • The PAC is open Monday-Friday from 6:30 am to 10:30 pm and weekends from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm.
  • Fit centre, Lane swim and exercise classes are available.


  • Improves concentration.
  • Improves your memory.
  • Reduces stress and anxiety.
  • Helps you sleep better.
  • Helps you live longer.

Breathe Your Way Through Exams

Learning to relax during exam time will increase your ability to focus and get more out of studying.

Try a Breathing Box 

Slowing down your breathing will help your mind to relax and reduce your anxiety. Choose any square object (e.g., a window) and use it as your breathing box. Starting in the bottom left, inhale through your nose as your eyes move up the box. Hold your breath as your eyes move along the box and then exhale as you move your eyes down the box.

Exam Anxiety

Highly anxious students tend to receive lower grades than do less anxious students, even when ability and preparation are the same.

Exams are among the most important and stressful aspects of University life. Exam anxiety is a common and normal stress reaction experienced before, during and sometimes following exams. It can become problematic when it is intense, persists over time and interferes with academic performance.

What Are the Symptoms of Exam Anxiety?

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feeling fearful of exams
  • Feeling nervous, worried, panicky, overwhelmed

Physical Symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Racing heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tense muscles
  • Stomach upset

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Difficulty concentrating/ recalling key concepts
  • “Blanking”
  • Thoughts of failing
  • Focusing on how others are doing
  • Remembering answers after the exam is over

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Restlessness
  • “Cramming”
  • Procrastinating
  • Missing exams
  • Performing below potential

What Causes Exam Anxiety?

A significant proportion of exam anxiety is attributable to lack of preparation.

It may also be related to:

  • Poor self-confidence, low self-esteem
  • Family expectations
  • Self-imposed pressure to achieve
  • Strong fear of failure
  • Another anxiety problem 

What Can I Do to Master Exam Anxiety?

Remember, no one is a perfect student. Some exams are going to go well and others not as well. Striving for perfection will work against you.

It is normal to experience anxiety about exams. A certain degree of tension is necessary to fuel motivation and enhance performance. Try to face and accept anxiety as a legitimate part of your student experience.

There are MANY things that students can do to reduce exam anxiety. Choose a few key strategies from the lists below:

What Should I Do BEFORE the Exam?

  1. Expect that you will experience some anxiety and accept it as a normal part of your student experience.
  2. Learn to recognize your anxiety symptoms (e.g., I’m feeling kind of shaky inside. I must be nervous about this exam.”).
  3. Let a friend or family member know that you are anxious.
  4. Make time to enjoy your life. Having fun and feeling happy will help reduce anxiety.
  5. Engage in regular exercise.
  6. Eat well. Resist the temptation to skip meals and live on coffee and snacks.
  7. Avoid too much caffeine. Coffee is a stimulant and tends to make you feel anxious.
  8. Get enough rest (i.e., avoid staying up all night to study).
  9. “Thought stop” your anxiety-provoking self-statements. Tell yourself, “STOP” when you notice negative thinking. Divert your attention to positive self-statements (e.g., “I can do this.”).
  10. Avoid thinking about poor performance on past exams.
  11. Generate BELIEVABLE, confidence-building thoughts (e.g., “I will try my best.” “I know the material pretty well.”).
  12. Remind yourself that this is only one of many exams you will write over your University career.
  13. Set realistic goals. If you were a below-average student throughout high school, expecting 90s might be unrealistic.
  14. Practice a relaxation technique (e.g., abdominal breathing, meditation).
  15. Learn your course material thoroughly. Studying everyday (i.e. “a little and often”) is an effective way to enhance learning.
  16. Develop good study skills (e.g., time management, note-taking).
  17. Arrange a study group or find a tutor.
  18. Ask the professor what type of questions will be on the exam and what topics will be emphasized.
  19. Review old exams.
  20. Double-check the time and location of the exam.
  21. Avoid rushing to the exam. Be on time.
  22. Don’t study on the way to the exam. Instead, focus on calming down.
  23. Immediately before the exam, avoid talking with classmates if it confuses what you’ve studied or increases your anxiety.
  24. Bring what you need to the exam (e.g., several pencils and pens, calculator, etc.).
  25. Choose where to sit in the exam room so you feel comfortable and won’t be distracted.

What Should I Do DURING the Exam?

  1. Accept your anxiety (e.g.,  I’m feeling nervous. That’s ok. I’m going to do my best anyway.”).
  2. Use encouraging self-statements (e.g., “I can do this even though I’m anxious.”) and write one on your exam booklet where you can see it.
  3. Try to find a comfortable position in your chair and remain still (i.e. avoid finger tapping, leg bouncing).
  4. Remember the people in your life who are cheering you on.
  5. Imagine yourself doing well.
  6. As soon as the exam begins, write down important points to remember on the exam booklet.
  7. Read the exam directions carefully.
  8. Budget your time so you don’t have to rush.
  9. Take the time to make an outline and organize your thoughts.
  10. If you go “blank” skip to another question or simply start writing something. In reality, you have not forgotten what you have studied. Acknowledge your anxiety and keep writing. Feeling “blank” will pass.
  11. If the exam is more difficult than you thought it would be, stay focused and record what you do know.
  12. Try every question.  Always show what you know even if you don’t have a complete answer.
  13. If you don’t know an answer, guess (but only if you won’t be penalized for incorrect answers).
  14. Always ask for clarification if you don’t understand a question.
  15. Don’t focus on how quickly others are handing in their exams.

What Should I Do AFTER the Exam?

  1. Acknowledge and accept your anxiety.
  2. Engage in relaxing activity.
  3. Treat yourself.
  4. Remind yourself of your effort.
  5. Dwell on the successful parts.
  6. Remember that your anxiety level and grades are not reflections of your self-worth. Failing an exam does not make you a failure as a person.
  7. Take an honest look at your exam performance. Analyze how you are doing and plan a new strategy if you need to.
  8. Read about study skills and exam anxiety.
  9. If you need to, seek the assistance of a tutor before you write your next exam.