Tips for Coping With Exam Stress as an International University Student

Stress levels rising during exams? Struggling from being away from home? Whilst exam stress can make you feel lonely, here are a few tips to keep you calm and mindful.

Student looking stressed working on a laptop

Exams are a stressful time. A term’s worth of efforts all pent up to a 1.5h exam that feels like will determine your future. Worst of all, it’s never just one exam in the exam period, but a series of them that all compete for your limited time, energy and attention. Add to that the unique challenges of living abroad and likely not having your friends and family around to support you can make the task feel all the more daunting and lonely

Every year, 1.4 million university students face half-yearly exams, so you’re not alone. Everyone’s response to stress is different, but for me, stuvac (the lecture-free weeks before exams) are filled with feelings of confusion and overwhelm, I’m always fidgeting and biting my nails, and there were days when I lacked motivation to do anything – including seeing my friends. 

But over the years, I’ve also found a few methods and tricks to help me cope. These may not work for everyone, but the more tools and options you have, the more control you will feel over your anxiety.

Exam Stress Buster #1 Be Kind to Yourself

First and foremost – be kind to yourself! During exam prep, self care and self compassion is especially important. It’s easy to become anxious when all you can focus on is the fear of failure or worry over not enough time to prep.

Talk to yourself kindly. Speak to yourself like you are your own best friend and remember to ease up if things get a bit too much.

Above all else, keep an eye on what you need and put yourself first; decline any obligations that you feel won’t serve you – that way you have the energy to commit to what you really need to accomplish. 

Exam Stress Buster #2 Keep it in Perspective

Exams aren’t everything. As an employer, marks are just one component of your qualifications. We look at a variety of other factors too like your attitude, life experiences, and most of all, your willingness to learn and ability to work together with the team and company.  Whatever happens in your exams, you can still be successful in life afterwards. So if you don’t do as well as you’d hoped, try to keep things in perspective.

Most of all, think of how much you’ve achieved already. You’ve done incredibly well to make it into university already – not getting full marks or even failing exams at this point isn’t ‘throwing away’ your past success.

Slow Down Message for Exam Stress

Exam Stress Buster #3 Studying the Right Way

Now let’s get on to the practical stuff. The best way to reduce stress for me is to be prepared. 

Create a timeline between now and your exams. This will help you understand which order to start studying in, as well as better “chunk” your study time so you’re not multitasking, as that doesn’t work. Instead, create a study schedule and create 45 minute “sprints” and leave yourself 15 minutes to relax, refresh and maybe do some breathing exercises.

When creating the study schedule, factor in the best time of day for you. For example, I work best in the evenings, so I sleep in, get my errands for the day done by 3pm and start my study sessions then so I don’t get distracted or tempted to do something else.

If you’re working part time, try to talk to your employer about being more flexible withy our shifts between now and exam period, or review your work schedule accordingly to ensure you give yourself the best chance to focus.

Before you start, make sure you have a study space that works for you, and then put that phone on Do Not Disturb or airplane mode. You don’t need to be tempted with TikTok while you’re trying to remember which DNA codes for which protein.

For a full list of my battle-tested study tips, click here.

Exam Stress Buster #4 Schedule in Breaks as Well as Study Sessions

It’s important to reward yourself for a burst of good work, however small. So schedule in fun things you can look forward to as a reward. For me, it used to be an episode of Friends every time I finished a significant module. It’s 20 minutes of a break and a laugh always helps reduce stress hormones and keep you refresh, ready for the next study sprint. 

Exam Stress Buster #6 Set Realistic Goals and Be Flexible

Creating a study schedule is important, but make sure it’s realistic. Whether you have weeks or days to prepare, be realistic about what you can fit into your study sprints. I tend to use the first week of study to understand what I can realistically achieve and adjust/update my timetable after a few days. Your number one goal here is to avoid burnout, because the last thing you want is to get to the exam feeling overwhelmed and helpless. 

Even when you’re deep into your schedule, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t stick to it. For example, if you accidentally over-sleep one day or a subject took longer to revise than you expected, don’t write the day off or panic. Focus on progress, not perfection. 

Thoughtful Quote to follow During Exams

Exam Stress Buster #7 Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness-based stress reduction, the practice of being aware of your mind and body, is scientifically proven to reduce stress. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but here are a couple that I used to schedule into my study breaks:

  1. Lie down on a yoga mat or a comfortable spot on the floor. With your back on the floor, start with your feet and clench them for 5 seconds and then relax. Do this three times. Then move up to your calves. Tense them for 5 seconds and then relax. Move up your body through each part and end on the top of your head. 
  2. Sit or lie down comfortably on the floor. Take a deep breath while mentally count to 5, drawing into your breath all the way into your belly. Gently hold your breath for 5 seconds. Exhale completely over another count of 5. Now repeat, with each stage lasting 6 counts. Repeat 4 more times until you count each stage for 10 and notice how differently you feel.

Another great tool I’ve learnt recently is to start the day with 5 pages of journalling. The only rule is that you have to fill the 5 pages with handwritten notes. That’s it! Just writing down your thoughts and anxieties has been proven to help reduce your stress and clear your head before a day’s worth of study. 

Exam Stress Buster #8 Listen to Quiet, Non-Distracting Music

Tune out your exam stress and help drown out the outside world with some soothing, mid-tempo music. Music has been well-established as an effective stress management tool, and also helps induce a state of flow to help you concentrate and engage with the study material. 

To help get you started, check out some of my favourite lo-fi study music here.

Exam Stress Buster #9 Get Moving

Another great thing to do during your study breaks is to exercise. Moderate to high intensity exercise like running and cycling are easy to schedule in. They’ve also been proven to improve your mood, reverse your body’s stress response, and make you more alert and productive when you get back to revising. 

Aside from moderate to high intensity exercise, it’s also good to get outdoors and get your daily dose of fresh air and vitamin D. Studies have shown that just 7 minutes is all you need in the sun and the burst in vitamin D helps combat anxiety and depression.

For me, it was a great way to also keep active and combat some of the junk food I was snacking on. 

Exam Stress Uplifting Quote

Exam Stress Buster #10 Eat and Drink Well

It’s easy to slip into bad habits or stress-eat junk food when you’re in an extended study session. “Anything to help me feel better and concentrate on studying”, right? Well, no. Junk food and complex carbohydrates like chips and fatty foods actually require more energy to digest, reducing your mental clarity and puts you in a “food coma”. Eat a well-balanced diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, cereals, grains, nuts and proteins instead. They’re all good for the brain and energy levels. 

While we’re on energy levels, avoid energy drinks. They may keep you up, but it’s unfocused, distracted energy and may actually cause nerves and interrupt sleep and rest patterns. The same goes for drugs and alcohol – these make it harder to study and are more likely to throw your plans out the window and disrupt your revisions, so be mindful and party in moderation. They’re be plenty of time to properly blow off steam after your exams without the niggling guilt ruining your fun anyway!

Exam Stress Buster #11 Find What Works With Your Friends

Maintaining relationships are important during this time, but they can also be tricky to navigate when you’re all under stress. The key is to find what works for your.

If you learn better by teaching others, find friends who are similar and start a study group.  That said, don’t psych yourself out. When studying in a group, it can be easy to compare your progress with others, or worry that they are further ahead than you. Remember everyone is on a different journey, they might have demonstrated some things, but you know others that they haven’t revised yet. Stick to your own study plan.

If you’re more effective working alone, then don’t be afraid to take a little break for your friends. Most of all, be aware of Stress Contagion, where you and your friends’ stress rub off on and amplify each other. Take notice of how you are your friends are speaking to each other. If you notice it happening, say something about it. Maybe agree to some ground rules, like days where you’re not going to talk about exams. If that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to take a break from these people. Do your own thing or hang out with another friend group for a while. 

Most of all, be there for each other. The best thing friends can do is to support each other during exam stress. For me, my friends help cam me down and make me feel that we’re all going though the same anxious feeling together. It helps to talk it out and put things in perspective together. 

Exam Stress Buster #12 Talk to Someone

If all this is causing you more stress or you feel overwhelmed, speak to someone. Your friends and family are here for you. For me though, it helps to talk to an impartial third party, so reach out to your university or school; they almost always have councillors and qualified staff that you can talk to. You’d be amazed to know that you aren’t alone in feeling like this and even just feeling heard will do wonders for your mental health and help you cope with exam stress.