Back to the blog

Surviving the pressure of the exam room

By Charlie Hale on 25 July 2018Exam adviceHSCNSWblog

There’s something about those rows of individual desks that really make your stomach drop. ‘Wait, what was that date again’ and ‘Crap, I’ve already forgotten that quote’ are common thoughts whilst walking into the battleground that is the exam hall. We’ve all been there, either silently freaking out or having a complete meltdown.

So to combat the pressure, here are our tried-and-tested tips to surviving ‘D-Day.’

1. Practice the situation beforehand

If you’re thinking ‘but surely once is enough?’ then you’re probably right, but there’s no better recipe for disaster than rocking up unprepared. And we’re not just talking about the content of the exam – obviously that’s important too – but actually practicing the process. Past papers are your saving grace here, but so is making sure you actually do them under exam conditions. So grab a past paper, a clock and a pen, find a strange room if you’re really wanting to dramatise this, and practice working under pressure.

Some of the guys in our office actually used to get dressed in their school uniform when doing practice papers to get as close to a real life exam scenario as possible.

2. Don’t take your notes to the door

If you haven’t learnt it by now, chances are it’s not going to sink in outside the exam room doors amongst a bunch of people frantically swapping dates, quotes and random maths formulas. For the few minutes before your exam, just concentrate on calming your racing mind and don’t get sucked into any of the stress around you. At this point, you’ve done everything you can to prepare yourself and added stress is only going to take away from your hard work, not add to it.

I recommend either finding a nice, quiet area to stand alone and wait or putting in some headphones and just zoning out.

3. If there’s a problem, speak up straight away

Until the exam supervisor announces the start of your exam, you’re free to speak up to ask any questions or point out an issues in the room. If you can’t see the clock, or you need to go to the bathroom, don’t be afraid to ask. Get as comfortable as possible before the timer starts because once that thing gets ticking, it’s going to be a lot harder to sort out your problem. And if your supervisor is grumpy or uncooperative? Just start crying and tell them that they’re ruining you’re HSC. No biggie.

4. Be prepared

As much as it’s okay to speak out if you need the bathroom, or you’ve forgotten to bring in a pen, the best thing you can do is make sure you’re prepared beforehand. This situation is stressful enough without having to make do with dodgy pens and incredibly rushed bathroom breaks.

Sure, there’s not much you can do about that nagging voice inside your head worrying about the content of the exam, but as for the voice panicking about running out of pens, or being so hungry you can’t concentrate – those things can be effectively managed. So be that keen bean that brings 11 pens to one exam, listen to your mum and eat a decent breakfast, go to the bathroom just before you walk in and take a few layers of clothing (for those mid exam chills). Any random thought you’ve had about that exam room, work out a way to prepare for it beforehand so you don’t have to deal with the panic once you’re in there.

5. Take small steps if you start to panic

If you do get in there, keen as a bean with your 11 pens, and you still feel the panic rising, at any point during the exam, that’s okay – we’ve got a game plan for you. The thing you’ve got to remember here is that 5 minutes taken out of your writing time to concentrate on taking some deep breaths, or get some fresh air, is so much more productive than letting that panic get the better of you. 5-minute breather > full blown meltdown.

There are some really easy steps you can take to calm yourself down and ensure you don’t lose much time. Different things are going to work for different people but once the timer has started, maybe you could try something like this:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Pinpoint the stressful thoughts (getting a certain mark, impressing/disappointing your parents, getting a certain ATAR) and instead, focus on just finishing the exam.
  3. Go through the exam and find a question that you are comfortable with and actually finish that question.
  4. By the time you have finished a couple of questions you are comfortable with, you might find that you’ve gained enough momentum to tackle the harder ones with some more confidence.
  5. Go back to the beginning of the exam, work your way through the questions and if anything is too hard, move on and come back later if you have time.


Our brains work in wonderful and bizarre ways and sometimes it’s easy to let pressure get the best of us, but stress is just an emotion like any other and the exam room is just a room. Don’t let your mind prioritise worries that (our guess) aren’t rooted in any truth. Instead, channel that energy into staying calm and focused on your work and – most importantly – take our advice by practicing, preparing, speaking out and managing any exam room panic.

Try Atomi for free and receive regular updates from our blog.

Learn More