Understanding exam stress
Exams can come with a lot of pressure and make us feel really stressed.
If you're struggling to cope, you're not alone. We're here to help you manage your feelings around exams.
I like to have a routine after school. I may dedicate like an hour or so to revising and in another hour to self-care – Shiloh, 16
Lots of us know what it's like to feel stressed, but it's not easy to describe what stress is.
There's no single definition of stress, and it might feel different for you than it does for someone else. How we experience stress can feel different at different times. It can also depend on what's causing it.
Feeling stressed, worried, or under pressure around exams can be difficult to manage. But there are things that can help – it's about finding what's right for you.
Young people we spoke to described exam stress as:
Like a weight placed on top of you. While you want to succeed, I find it really difficult to because of the pressure.
Knowing you have so much to do in so little time. Imagining how you know you're going to fail and feeling so stupid because you simply can't remember anything.
Where I'm constantly feeling overwhelmed by the idea of studying or doing the exams and it causes me to lose focus. This lack of focus leads to me feeling like I'm going to fail and adds to the stress – like a snowball effect.
Exams can be stressful on their own, but other things might cause you to feel worse. These might include:
- Feeling like you're not ready or prepared for exams, like leaving revision too late.
- Worrying about how you'll feel and perform during the exam, especially when you don't know what will be in it.
- Pressure from others, like parents, carers or teachers.
- Pressure from yourself to get certain grades.
- Comparing yourself to others, like believing you have to get the same results as your friends.
- Worrying about the future, like getting into university or getting a job.
- Coping with life changes, like moving from secondary school to college.
- Having difficulties at home or in your relationships with family, friends or partners.
- Having caring responsibilities for a family member or someone you live with.
- Coping with physical or mental health problems, which could include worries about arranging reasonable adjustments for your exams.
You may also feel stressed for reasons that aren't listed here. We're all different and that's okay.
Exam stress for me came from a fear about my future. For me it felt like there were multiple sources placing pressure on me.
Emotions or feelings
- Anxious, worried, overwhelmed
- Upset, teary
- Defeated, bored, uninterested, fed up
- Frustrated, angry
- Embarrassed, silly, stupid
- Easily annoyed
- Feeling sick
- Headaches and dizziness
- Stomach pain
- Changes in eating habits
- Struggling to concentrate
- Feeling tense in your body
- Changes in breathing, breathing very quickly
- Sweating a lot
- Feeling tired
- Fear of failure
- Fear of disappointing yourself or others
- Comparing yourself to others
- Talking badly to yourself
- Feeling like you can't cope
- Feeling things are pointless
- Doubting yourself
- Believing everything is wrong or bad
- Avoiding things like revision and exam planning
- Struggling to manage day-to-day life
- Lack of motivation
- Not doing things you usually enjoy
- Working too much without taking breaks
For me exam stress is mainly about worrying, but it's also a whole variety of emotions – a sort of mood swing.
You may feel like other people are putting a lot of pressure on you. Or you may be putting pressure on yourself.
Expectations and pressure can be hard to manage. If you're struggling, try thinking about the following:
- Where is the pressure is coming from? It might be from yourself, a parent, family member, or carer. Maybe your school is putting pressure on you to do well.
- What could others do to help? Let them know how you're feeling and what you'd like from them, like help with managing revision.
- Am I comparing myself to others? People around us can influence the way we feel about ourselves. Focus on what you can do and believe in your own abilities. For more information, see our page on confidence and self-esteem.
Exam stress can feel like a lot to cope with, but there are things you can do to improve your wellbeing. We have tips and ideas to help you cope at different times.
Looking after yourself during exam period:
- Make time for things you enjoy
- Talk to others about how you feel
- Try to find balance
- Take care of your physical health
- Focus on yourself
Looking after yourself while preparing for an exam:
- Find a study group
- Make a revision timetable
- Work in the best way for you
- Revise in the best place for you
Looking after yourself on the day of your exam:
- Prepare your items the night before
- Start your day the best you can
- Try to ground yourself with a breathing exercise
- Take your time
- Remind yourself that it'll be over soon
Looking after yourself after your exam:
- Try not to compare your answers to others
- Reward yourself
- Focus on next steps
- Relax before your next exam
Tips for coping with exam stress
We have more detailed tips for coping with exam stress and feelings around exams.
Your teachers might be able to offer support to help with your exams. You could ask for help with:
- How to revise and any tips they have
- Topics you're struggling with
- Preparing for exams
- Balancing different subjects and topics
- How to take care of yourself
Your school might be able to offer you more support, such as a counselling service.
If you have a mental health problem that counts as a disability, you may also be entitled to something called reasonable adjustments. For more information about reasonable adjustments, see our page on diagnosis.
If you're not sure what's available, ask a trusted adult like a teacher or school nurse what support they can offer.
I have asked for help at school from teachers, and they have been an excellent source of help. Some subjects also have after-school revision sessions, which I find really helpful.
Other types of support
Not all of us can find the support we need from school or college. If you feel like things are getting too much, you could:
- Talk to someone you trust, like a family member, partner or friend. For ideas on how to start the conversation, see our page on opening up to others.
- Find further types of support on our page on finding support.
- Speak to someone confidentially, like Childline or The Mix.
- Visit our useful contacts page for a list of other organisations who can help. Some offer text or instant messaging services for extra privacy.
Everyone has value and lots of people who don't do well in exams can add value to society and the world.
- talk through a problem or situation that is negatively affecting your mental health
- recognise how it affects you
- work out positive coping strategies or ways to make the situation better.
It may be face-to-face, over the phone or over video call.Visit our full treatment and support glossary
This information was published in April 2023. We will revise it in 2025.
The quotes on this page are from young people we spoke to while making this information. They've given us their consent to use their quotes in our information. The words, experiences and opinions in the quotes are not related to the young people shown in any of the photographs we use.
References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.