Study Skills


July 6, 2016 How to become an exam superhero

This article is part of a series called Technology by Compass.

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So, I’m a bit of a pro at sitting exams. I know that seems like a dumb thing to brag about, but hey, a guy’s got to know his strengths, right?

It was inevitable, really. I mean, after seven years of primary education, six years of secondary education and nine years of tertiary education (!?), I’ve certainly had enough time to develop a bit of a knack for it. In fact, you might even say that sitting exams is my very mild superpower. Watch out, evil!

However, what if doing exams isn’t your superpower? What if, instead of starting exams with a sense of ease and hair-tossing sprezzatura (that’s Italian for “studied nonchalance”, if you’re wondering), you are crippled by a near-terminal case of the jitters? What if, as you enter the exam room, you start to sweat, your bowels turn to water, and you feel an overwhelming urge to run for the nearest window?

That is why I am here, Dear Reader. Because I have a secret: exam anxiety can be conquered.

Trust me: I started out just like you. Exams weren’t always my superpower. Batman didn’t start out as Batman, did he? Not on your life. It took literally years of preparation for Bruce Wayne to transform from the scion of a wealthy industrialist into the cosplaying avatar of vengeance we all know and love.

Unfortunately, we haven’t got years to transform you. Fortunately, it won’t take anywhere near that long. All you need to do is follow a few simple rules…


Don’t panic

This is the big one. Don’t panic. Panicking never helped anyone. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single occasion in the entire history of the human species when one person turned to another and said, “Man, good thing that so-and-so panicked back there; otherwise we would have been goners!” Never happened. Never will happen.

With that in mind, if you feel yourself started to get yourself into a state, you need to know how to get yourself out of that state. So what to do?

Well, first thing you do is put down the pen, or the book, or the computer that’s causing you to panic. No, listen to me: I said put it down. It’ll still be right there waiting for you when you come back. Then, go outside and sit in the sunshine for a little while, perhaps accompanied by a cold drink. Pay attention to those sensations: the heat of the sun, the coldness of the drink. Enjoy them for a moment, and breathe deeply.

If you’re feeling ready to face the beast again, then you can go back inside and recommence studying. But if you’re not, you should try and do some exercise: jogging, swimming, weight-training. Concentrate on doing something physical that won’t permit you to worry about your impending exam.

Then, after you’re feeling all relaxed, go back and continue studying. Don’t use taking a break as an excuse to not go back to it; it will just hurt you in the long run.

Study smart

Don’t just read the textbook from start to finish. Trust me – I tried it in my HSC chemistry exam, and I bombed. Instead, take the time to sit a couple of practice exams from prior years. Don’t prepare for them; just sit them based upon memory.

Once you’ve done that, mark the exams you forced yourself yourself to sit, and work out where your weaknesses are. There’s no point studying the entire chemistry syllabus, for example, if all you really need help with is equilibrium reactions.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try and revise everything. But try and make yourself aware of any holes in your knowledge, and get help with that first.

The other thing you should do when sitting practice papers is working out exactly what the questions are asking. HSC exam questions – and indeed, exam questions in general – tend to be very explicit in their instructions. So, if the question asks you to “analyse” something, it is not asking you to describe that thing. Or, if you are asked to “compare” two things, actually talk about those two things in your answer. You’d be amazed how often students simply fail to answer the question.

Finally, give your brain time to rest between study breaks. If you’ve studied for four hours straight, reward yourself by taking a couple of hours off to recharge your batteries. The longer you study without a break, the more you suffer diminishing returns on your effort.

Be prepared

And I’m not just talking about making sure you know all the information. I mean: check the exam time and location, make sure you have a calculator (if relevant), make sure your water bottle meets exam requirements, eat a good breakfast, etcetera.

I would also advise that you avoid any caffeinated drinks like coffee or cola: not because they aren’t delicious (they are), but the stimulant nature of caffeine is only going to make your exam anxiety worse.

Finally, do everything you can to get a good night’s sleep before you sit any exam. Cramming the night before should only be an option in the most dire circumstances.

Get help

Finally, if you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can ask your teachers, parents, or friends – you could even start a study group, if you think you would find that helpful.

Conversely, if you’re a little bit shy, or would like some feedback on an essay or some other work that you’re doing, why don’t you log in to YourTutor and have a chat? It’s fast and totally anonymous.


Furthermore, if you are enrolled at one of the schools on the NSW Educational Access Scheme list (pdf), or identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you are eligible for a free account! So if you’re one of those people, you should definitely give it a go.

This article is part of a series called Technology by Compass.

Read the series >

Ryan Wittingslow
is the editor of A•STAR, and has probably spent more time at school than you've spent being alive