8 Ways to Keep a Positive Mindset During Exams

Image shows someone in red shoes jumping for joy.For many people, exams are almost custom-designed to be unpleasant.

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You’re under heaps of pressure. You need to relax in order to focus on doing as well as you can. But being under pressure makes relaxing a challenge. Stress is making it hard to sleep, but sleeping well is vital if you’re going to succeed. Knowing that is keeping you up at night. And if you haven’t slept, the pressure just feels all the worse in the morning…
Does this seem familiar? If so, this article is for you. We’re going to run through 8 ways that will help you keep in a good frame of mind for revision – ones that we’ve tried and tested, and that we know to work.

1. Treat your revision timetable like a Ryanair schedule

Image shows a Ryanair plane.
Don’t charge yourself for drinks and loo breaks, though.

If you’ve flown with the discount airline, Ryanair, you’ve probably been aggravated by their on-time jingle – last year, 95% of their flights arrived on time, they tell you. Gosh. How do they achieve that remarkable on-time record, you might have wondered. Well, much as we would not wish to insult the good people at Ryanair, it may not be exclusively down to the brilliance of their pilots, crews, etc. Take Ryanair’s flights from London Gatwick to Dublin; they’re usually scheduled to take an hour and 35 minutes. Now take the flights run from London Gatwick to Dublin by their competitor, Aer Lingus: they take an hour and 20 minutes. Either Ryanair pilots are oddly disinclined to step on the gas, or their schedule gives them an extra 15 minutes to be sure of getting that statistic-friendly on time landing. We’ll let you decide which one is more likely.
How does this relate to you avoiding stress in your revision? It’s pretty simple. If you think that going through that chapter is going to take you three hours, be kind to yourself and allocate three and a half. Then, just as Ryanair’s schedules give you a better shot at being on time for your connecting train, you’ll have a better shot of getting your work done in the time you’ve allowed for it, and you won’t be stressing out over it.

2. Pretend revision time occurs in a parallel world

Image shows a plate of burgers.
Pictured: an excellent exam-season meal.

How successful this is for you may depend on just how much you are capable of fooling yourself, as well as how much your lifestyle allows. But it’s simple: revision time does not exist in the normal world. It exists in a strange parallel revision world, where whatever you need to do to enable your own success is OK.
It’s generally considered sensible to eat well and sleep well and exercise properly when you have exams coming up, to maintain your general health, but if keeping up those things is already stressful to you, here is your permission to abandon them while revision is happening. If you spend a day not revising, then yes, you have to take the stairs and eat your broccoli and get 8 hours’ sleep. But when you are revising and the stress is crowding in, maintaining your mental health is much more important. And if that means substituting chocolate for broccoli a little more than you usually would – well, you can be good once the exams are over.

3. Reward yourself, lots

Image shows strawberries dipped in chocolate.
Whatever keeps you going.

You already knew this one, right? The point is to make the rewards good, and to put as much thought and effort into them as into the revision you did to earn them. Don’t reward yourself with a half-hour hoovering break or a documentary that’s related to your course. Indulge yourself in some way that you would never normally allow yourself to do. Listen to that song you like 20 times, on a volume that makes the windows shake. Use an entire bottle of bubble bath. See if you can, in fact, consume an entire family pizza on your own.
Or whatever your preferred equivalent of these things might be.
The problem many students encounter with the work + reward system is that they feel guilty about the rewards and end up just stressing out even more. It’s hard to get over this. We recommend overloading your relaxation systems until you chase your guilt away with sheer brute force.

4. Indulge silly alternatives

Image shows someone walking on a beach.
If taking a moment to daydream about this keeps the exam panic from getting too bad, then go for it.

There is an excellent tool on the MoneySavingExpert website, called FlightChecker. It was presumably designed as a sensible way to help people save money on flights within Europe, using all the usual price comparison options. Where it stands out is that it has an option that says ‘I’ll go anywhere’. You can enter the dates you’d like to travel, your departure airport and how much you are willing to spend, and the FlightChecker will tell you all the places in Europe that you could affordably fly to.
Obviously, we are not advocating that you abandon your revision in favour of a wild jaunt to Oslo, Zagreb or Marseille, tempting and relatively inexpensive as it might be. But many a student, deep in the panic of revision guides and drowning in towering piles of past papers, has found comfort in the knowledge that there is a budget flight to Brussels or Faro that they could be on, and that the decision to continue studying instead is an informed and noble one. Property websites and social media pages of animal rescue shelters provide a similar form of rapid pick-me up.

5. Use mental tricks to keep yourself distracted

Image shows an assortment of crisps.
Stuck in a painful thought-spiral? Sort these into your order of preference.

Here’s a scenario that many students have faced: you’ve just come out of your History exam. It’s gone badly; you’re not quite sure how badly, but it definitely didn’t go well. Next up is French, which will be challenging but manageable if you can get a solid chunk of revision done before the exam. The only problem is that your brain keeps redirecting to History – every time you try to go through irregular verbs, you land in the 16th century. History is over and dwelling on it will not help, but your stressed brain does not seem to comprehend this.
How can you deal with this? Repeatedly insisting to yourself that you have to think about French now doesn’t usually work. It’s a little bit like trying to get a song out of your head – the easiest way to do it is to replace it with a catchier song. Similarly, if you’re trying to stop yourself getting distracted with a stressful topic, substitute something less stressful. Examples include carefully planning the layout and interior design of your future house, considering how you might fix a particularly dodgy plot hole in the storyline of your favourite TV series, or debating with yourself which flavour of Hula Hoop is best. Then, when your stress about History has departed your brain, you can focus on French. This can work for any intrusive, stressful thoughts – of which most students find they have a surfeit during exam season.

6. Make your exam season strategy clear to friends and family

Image shows someone holding out a cup of tea.
Friends and family can be a help, not a hindrance.

There are few things worse for the stressed student than to have spent a full day revising, only to have a parent come home from work at 6pm, right in the middle of their reward break (see point 3, above), and yell at them for not doing any work.
Not much better is to have had a lie-in and a relaxed morning in preparation for an intensive afternoon and evening of revision, only to get a text from a friend inviting you out for dinner or a movie to unwind – and then have them be annoyed when you can’t make it, because you’re going to be busy revising.
These problems, thankfully, are easily averted. Social media makes it easier than ever before to share excessive details of your daily routine with everyone you know, and revision time needn’t be an exception. At home, a revision timetable stuck to the wall in a prominent place will keep your family up to date with how your revision is going, and should let them know how much you’ve done and when – and that you’re doing plenty. After all, it’s much easier to keep a positive mindset when you and everyone around you knows that you’re on top of your workload and in control.

7. Allow yourself to enjoy revision, if you can

Image shows lots of bouncy balls with smiley faces on them.
Revision doesn’t need to be a chore.

Human psychology is a funny thing. We’re a species that is not only subject to the placebo effect, but subject to a greater effect if the pill given is large and scary rather than small and non-threatening. It should thus come as no surprise that if you’re struggling with revision, you can con yourself into enjoying it.
They best way of doing this will vary from person to person. It might just be as simple as forcing yourself to smile and saying, “I love Maths!” before diving into a large pile of equations. Or it might be a case of doing daft things to amuse yourself, such as replacing ‘Elizabeth Bennett’ and ‘Mr Darcy’ with ‘Kim Kardashian’ and ‘Kanye West’ in all of your writing (provided you won’t accidentally do this in the exam).
This is connected to the fact that many people are subject to the idea that if you’re not suffering, you’re not really working hard enough. Think about it – if your friend emerges from the library with a stack of past papers and says, “I had a great time!”, you’re probably going to assume they were secretly catching up with past episodes of Game of Thrones rather than studying. But for some people, revision can actually be an enjoyable process, provided you let go of the idea that having fun means you’re doing it wrong. After all, pub quizzes are a popular leisure activity and trying to get full marks in Sporcle quizzes is disconcertingly addictive, so the same mindset should be achievable when running through end-of-module tests in revision guides.

8. Remind yourself of the things you do well

Image shows flawlessly painted nails.
Exam season is a good time to take pride in your nail art skills.

Revision can be very dispiriting, especially when you’re working on subjects that you struggle with. When you’re chasing passing marks in practice test after practice test and yet they continue to elude you, the standard advice is something along the lines of, “don’t worry, you won’t know or care what a covalent bond is in ten years’ time anyway.”
This advice – whether it proves to be true or not (and you might yet go on to a PhD in Chemistry) – is not much use, because even if all this knowledge will be useless in ten years’ time, it’s certainly useful now, specifically in the context of the impending exam that you’re trying so hard to pass.
There’s not much you can do to make yourself feel better about struggling with a particular subject, beyond revising that subject like mad and following the seven other tips outlined above. But what you can do is remind yourself that your value does not rest solely on your Chemistry ability. Not in the meaningless clichéd “everyone is beautiful” way, but in the concrete way that you definitely have skills and talents that you can be proud of and that people you know admire you for. You don’t know what a covalent bond is? Well, maybe you make a great cake. Or maybe you’re excellent at producing playlists for parties. Or maybe you’re frighteningly talented at Monopoly. Keep that skill at the ace up your sleeve when it’s all getting to be too much. Irritatingly, sometimes not obsessing too much about the grade on the exam paper can be key to boosting that grade to where you want it to be.
Do you have any great tips for staying upbeat even when exams are grinding you down? Share them in the comments!


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Image credits: banner; Ryanair; burgers; strawberries; beach; crisps; tea; happy; nail art.