Overcoming Exam Nerves

There are lots of different kinds of exams: sometimes written and open, sometimes multiple choice, or even oral examinations. Depending on the type of exam you are preparing for, various strategies can help to reduce nerves – if you have any that is.

Oral exams – a nightmare for many students. Source: pixabay.com
Oral exams – a nightmare for many students. Source: pixabay.com

The thought of the upcoming exams is enough to raise the pulse rate of even the coolest student. And those who tend towards procrastination now have to start worrying about all the things they still have to do.

The term exam nerves doesn’t necessarily just apply to the exams themselves, but rather to a range of different areas:

A fear of being evaluated, fear of failure, fear of the consequences of failing, fear of a blackout, fear of success and (imagined) future expectations, fear of the future and taking the next step … A fear of exams can manifest itself in a number of different ways and have various causes.

First things first: Being slightly nervous before an exam is normal and can help you to get a good grade. Not having any nerves at all can result in you not achieving your full potential – for example by underestimating the difficulty of the exam – and being too nervous can lead to a drop in performance.

5 Strategies to Help Combat Exam Nerves

Here is a short overview of the strategies:

  1. Correct preparation.
  2. Exam simulation.
  3. Blackouts and how to deal with them.
  4. Talking to other students.
  5. Learning from your mistakes.


1. Correct Preparation

Correct preparation is the most important part of the examination process. But how can you know if you are properly prepared? Before you leap into action, it is worth taking a look at your module handbook and at the exam regulations. This is where you can find out what the learning targets of the module exams are. Lecturers also often tell students which documents and books they should use to prepare for the exam(s).

Learn more effectively by using the right strategies.

Since changing to the Bachelor and Masters system, every grade counts and only a few universities (or academic courses) will allow you to retake an exam in order to improve your grade. So if you think having a good average grade is important then you should start filtering information according to the premise ‘relevant for the exam’ and ‘irrelevant for the exam’. Lecturers are happy to recommend additional literature in order to help you deepen your knowledge, but not all of this is relevant for the exam. And when you don’t have much time anyway – particularly if you also have a job – then it is important to concentrate on the material that will come up in the exam. If you have any time left over then it is definitely a good idea to broaden your horizons – for example by looking at other material that is not necessarily directly relevant for the exam.

2. Exam Simulation

When there’s no time pressure and you can sit nice and relaxed at your desk (or on the couch) you know the course material inside out. It’s only when the exam paper is in front of you that you start to panic and forget things that you knew just a few minutes ago. It’s like a curse. The question is, what might help?

The right strategy can help you learn more effectively. Picture by pixabay.com
The right strategy can help you learn more effectively.
Picture by pixabay.com

A good strategy is to simulate the exam – that means creating similar conditions to those that you will ultimately face during the exam(s). This applies not only to the time constraints, but also to the exam environment. Set a stopwatch when you answer sample papers so that you know how much time you need to answer the questions and what you need to improve upon. And, if possible, familiarize yourself with the room where you will take the exam. This will help you to concentrate on what’s important – namely the exam paper – when it comes to the actual exam…3.

3. Blackouts and How to Deal With Them

A big black hole. Gaping emptiness. You stare at the lecturer in hope that they might come to your rescue, whilst simultaneously searching through your brain for the information you need. But nothing comes. It’s as if everything you know has simply vanished.

This is the absolute worst case scenario that most students can imagine, and even more so in an oral exam than in a written one. What’s the best way to deal with such mental blackouts? It might sound like a paradox, but it really does help: Breathe really deeply. When we are nervous or tense our breathing tends to be more shallow. Drink a sip of water, or if you are in a written exam put down your pen and let you gaze wander, just for a minute or two. When you can breathe more easily and your heart rate slows a little, the material you thought had vanished will start to return. And if this isn’t the case, skip the question that you are stuck on and go on to the next one.

In an oral exam you can use a similar technique, although you will have to tell the examiner that you have lost your train of thought and need a minute to regroup. Ask the examiner to repeat the question, this will give you time to collect your thoughts. And if you still don’t know the answer then ask if the question can be asked again a little later. This gives the examiner a chance to free you from this horrible situation. Most examiners want to help you if they can and they usually recognize that anyone taking an exam is bound to be nervous. However, they can’t help you if you don’t make it clear there is a problem.

4. Talking to Other Students

Depending on your academic course, it is likely that you will meet new people in every semester, but how many of them do you really know? Studying at university is not just about seminars, lessons, lectures and tutorials. Group study is not just there to help you get the best possible grades, it is also a great chance to exchange information without any pressure, to talk, to chat and just simply to interact with other students. Go to the canteen between two lectures and don’t just hide behind your books (or your smartphone).

Why is this so important? You are bound to go through phases where you have little motivation and start questioning the point of your academic course. At such times it is extremely important that you are not isolated and that you have people you can talk to. It can be a huge relief to know you are not alone with your fears and worries. Uni offers a wealth of opportunities for forging contacts that go beyond the

When learning is frustrating. Picture by pixabay.com
When learning is frustrating.
Picture by pixabay.com

boundaries of your chosen academic course: sports, language courses, key skills, workshops on a variety of different subjects …

 5. Learning From Your Mistakes

Okay, so you might have failed an exam or got a bad grade. Even that’s not the end of the world! And whether you spend hours or even days blaming yourself, cursing your exam nerves or tearing your hair out in annoyance, it won’t change the results. What you could do instead is to analyze where it went wrong. Didn’t you prepare well enough? Did you use the wrong revision strategies or were they not enough to adequately prepare you for the exam? Did exam nerves get to you? Or did you find it difficult to concentrate because you had too little sleep the night (or nights) before? Was the exam simply too difficult?

The first step is recognizing what the reason is. The second step is to work on this. For example you can use relaxation or breathing techniques to help combat exam nerves; if preparation was the problem, you can make a realistic study plan but you then have to follow it. Get hold of some sample papers so that you can practice and exchange notes with other students, try to forge contacts with students who have been studying for longer or with student representatives and ask them about their experiences.

It is important to make a start and not to fall back into old habits. Even if it went wrong last time, you can still do it better next time.

A Tip for Exam Preparation

In order to help you to prepare efficiently for your exams, the University of Stuttgart is offering the following workshops during the summer semester:


  • “Passing Exams Successfully

You can sign up by sending an email to the following address: studienberatung@uni-stuttgart.de

What exactly is covered in the workshops?

In the workshop “passing exams successfully” we give you some ‘instructions’ about how to study efficiently and how best to organize your schedule, we find the best way for you to begin your exam preparation and look at how you can successfully organize the entire exam situation.

Furthermore, the Student Counselling Center (ZSB) offers counseling sessions either for individuals or study groups where you can ask questions about your study strategies and study habits.

Good luck with your exam preparation!



PS: If your exam nerves reach exponential proportions, have a negative influence on your everyday life or cause you problems when you are trying to study then you might find it helpful to make an appointment with a psychotherapist.


Liebt Literatur und Psychologie. Hat einen Master in Germanistik und studiert Psychologie im Zweitstudium, um beide Leidenschaften zu vereinen. "Das Leben ist wert, gelebt zu werden, sagt die Kunst, die schönste Verführerin; das Leben ist wert, erkannt zu werden, sagt die Wissenschaft." (F. W. Nietzsche)

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