Some of the most gifted students fail to do their best on exams because they become excessively nervous just before the test. On the other hand, a good student may also perform below par because he fails to get nervous enough!
When you're too nervous, you tend to freeze. Your mental processes become blocked; things that you normally would remember easily simply won't come to mind; creativity disappears; and panic frequently sets in, thus making the situation even worse.
At the other end of the spectrum, a tired, lethargic, bored, depressed or negative-thinking student may seem to lack nerves at all. But that's not because he's relaxed. Rather, he's given up before he even enters the examination room! Lacking the competitive edge required to do his best on a test, he also ends up performing far below his capacities.
So what's needed is a feeling of nerves that lies somewhere between these two extremes. I know many top students who worry if they're not feeling edgy or having butterflies in the stomach before a test. On the other hand, they've learned to manage this pre-exam anxiety so that it doesn't get out of hand and begin to paralyze them and inhibit superior performance.
How do these students manage their nerves before an exam? Here are some practical tips we've gleaned from evaluating their approach:
Avoid answering questions of other students during the day before the test. That's not to say that you should become antisocial, or refuse to interact to some extent with your classmates in an effort to pick up points you may have missed. But the best students generally find it's counterproductive to try to verbalize in-depth answers to questions in the minutes or hours just before the test.
One reason is that many people tend to fixate on a last-minute concept or question that's posed to them. In other words, that particular issue may loom so large that it becomes difficult or impossible to draw on other material studied.
Also, trying to answer last-minute questions from classmates, especially when the queries require a great deal of thought, may actually make it more difficult to respond to a similar question on the test. The student seems to exhaust his ability to deal with a particular question or issue when he focuses on it too much just prior to the exam.
Finally, trying to answer questions at the last minute can trigger panic. Almost any other student is capable of posing some question to you that you feel you can't answer adequately. When this happens, a typical response is, "Oh, no, I don't know this material at all! These other guys are much better prepared than I am."
In fact, though, the questions that other students put to you just before the exam are not likely to be on the test, at least not in the form that the classmate has chosen. Furthermore, responding off the cuff as you're talking to someone outside a test situation doesn't provide you with an opportunity to put your best foot forward. After all, most people put out their best effort when they know it counts. In addition, you'll almost always do better when you're able to see the questions on paper in front of you, rather than when you're trying to deal with an issue off the top of your head.
But be sure to keep this piece of advice in perspective. As I've indicated earlier, it is a good idea to try to anticipate questions that your teacher will pose on the test and also to do some trial runs in trying to answer those questions. This practice testing, however, should be done well in advance of the test, or at least several days ahead of time, so that you'll have an opportunity to work through all the possible answers for potential questions and have a day or so to sit back, review the entire course, and be certain you have the big picture in mind.
Admit to yourself that you may not know all the answers to the test. This confession of one's limitations can be a truly freeing experience. So many of us, either consciously or subconsciously, assume that we have to know everything for an exam. Then, when we find, as we almost always do, that we don't know everything, we experience panic or despondency, and test performance declines.
So it's best to approach a test with this thought in mind: "Some of the things on the test I'll know, and some I won't know. But everyone is going to be in my situation, so what I have to do is just try my best and trust that what I do know will far outweigh what I don't know."
Continue normal, healthy daily habits on the last couple of days before the test. If you think about it, most of your life is probably relatively relaxed or at least characterized by a certain emotional evenness. High anxiety is not the typical emotional status for most people.
To manage the normal feelings of nervousness and worry that accompany examination periods at school, you should find it helpful to continue to do what you normally do on a typical day—provided that these activities are healthy.
Suppose you usually devote some time each day to exercise, chatting on non-school topics with friends, watching the news on television or perhaps praying or meditating. If such are your habits, continue with them right up through the last day before the test.
Also, it's extremely important to eat a normal, healthy diet. Too many students either disrupt their normal eating habits or skip key meals, such as the breakfast before the exam, with the result that they run out of energy just before or during the test. Others may decide to coddle themselves by splurging on rich or fatty foods. As a consequence, their digestive tract has to work overtime, and a mental sluggishness sets in. Both extremes are to be avoided.
A familiar routine, in itself, can help calm the mind and contain excessive test anxiety. But whatever you do, the goal should be relaxation and reduction of unnecessary stress. A movie on the evening before a test may even be a good idea for some people.
On the other hand, it's not a good idea to stay up too late, take drugs or get drunk on the day or night before the test —even if those are part of your normal routine. Those activities will just dull your mental faculties, make you feel guilty or irresponsible, and aggravate feelings of anxiety or inadequacy. In general, during the twenty-four hours preceding the exam, stay away from any activities that make you depressed, put you in a negative frame of mind or in any way have the potential to upset you.
Finally, get up early enough on the day of the exam so that you can get dressed, eat and walk to the test site without rushing. Plan on getting to the site ten to fifteen minutes before the time when the exam is scheduled. Any earlier may make you nervous anticipating the test; but any later can also increase anxiety.
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