Exams: Mind over matter!

tumblr_o66xqwxqtd1rqudgzo1_500Yesterday marked the first exams of summer for NUI Galway students. Yes, that’s right – it is officially exam season! Luckily for me, I am not scheduled to start until next week, so I have plenty of extra time for some additional study.

Seeing as myself, other universities and not to forget the poor creaturs who are sitting the dreaded Leaving Cert this summer are yet to start the exams, I thought this would be a perfect time for a blog post focusing on exam preparation – with a difference.

This isn’t going to be advice about note making and writing in five different pen colours to remember the structure of a plant cell. I instead want to focus on how to keep your head in a good place while you study and hopefully in turn, teach you how to remain calm in the exam hall. I’ll also include tips for looking after your general well-being and health during exams and hopefully this will help you in some small way. I’ve a feeling this will be a long read but I will try not to ramble on and keep everything as simple as possible (wouldn’t want to keep you away from the books for too long!)

So first things first, it is no secret that studying for exams can be a stressful business. You can struggle with actually sitting down to start and then when you do, a million different distractions can swirl around your head. You can feel like nothing is going in even though you’ve sat reading notes for hours and highlighted EVERYTHING! You are left feeling swamped and all at sea – time to build yourself a life raft, sailor!

  • To-do list: Outline what topics you want to cover in the morning each day and have the pleasure of crossing them off one by one.
  • Timetable: Breakfast-study-break-study-lunch-study-dinner-study-relax. That’s just a sample – do what works for you. Give your study some structure. That way you won’t be guilty of taking prolonged study breaks and end up staying up half the night to make up for it. As you can see from my example, your day should revolve around re-fueling (… okay, around food.) Keep reading for some brain food ideas later on.
  • Past-exam papers: I was never given better exam advice than to practise old exam questions. In Leaving Cert, my Home Economics teacher made us do every year of old questions and by the time the Leaving came around, it had gone from being one of my worst subjects to one of my best! You can use any notes you have and then little by little, test yourself to do it without them. In college, I still use this study technique as I feel it always gives me an idea of what style of questions have come up and helps me perfect my answering style.

For me, doing these three things help me do my most beneficial study and leave me feeling much more focused and confident than when I first sit down to begin the long hours of revision.

Next up – staying calm! Exam time can unfortunately awaken self-doubt and get you into a negative mind set. It is true not everyone gets that way but honestly, so many people do and so chances are if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with things others around you are too.

  • Ignore everyone: Okay, so that sounds drastic. I simply mean don’t listen to the person who says they’ve done ten hours study today or the person who says they’ve done none – particularly the people who say they’ve done none. An old teacher of mine used to warn us about it – the girls in Greenhills (my old school) who said they’d done nothing always walked out with an A, grinning like the cat that got the cream. She wasn’t wrong.

The Thought Challenges I have mentioned before can also be really helpful. Last semester, I was not in a great place leading up to exams. Studying added to my stress as I felt I was going to struggle to do well. However, using the Thought Challenges helped greatly.

  • There was no use in me thinking, “I don’t know anything. I am doomed. This is all my own fault. I am so stupid.”
  •  I challenged my thoughts and said, “Is this a thought or a fact?”
  • Answer: A thought. The fact was I still had time to learn. I could always just do my best.

Whether it’s just a small bit of help you need to silence a few doubts or a really massive bit, Thought Challenges could be key to your success. Check out a previous post of mine CBT: Thought Challenges for more. Additionally, things like deep breathing and listening to music in your time off can also help.

Lastly, the use of looking after yourself in general during exams can not be over-estimated. It is paramount. Here’s a quick-fire round up of how to mind yourself:

  • Eat well: Breakfast is king when it comes to exams. I know it can be hard to fit it in when you have to be at the exam for nine but come on, one week of early rising won’t do anyone any harm. Prepare some porridge the night before and enjoy with some banana or berries (or both!) and even some cashew nuts the next morning. All you have to do is heat up the oats and scoff it back. An egg to have with some toast is also ideal. Try it with some avacado if you’re into that (I’m not but I do know it is a highly beneficial brain food!)
  • Hydrate: Long hours of studying can dry out your skin and brain. You need to have water to keep going – do I really need to explain this one? Also before you head into an exam, check if you can bring in a clear bottle of water with the label removed. Your mouth might feel dry from a few nerves. It’s also a nice distraction to have when the answer won’t come to you – or am I the only one who likes to imagine the water has super powers that inspire A-grade answers?
  • Relax: In the exam, if you feel nervous remember to breathe. Jot down what you remember for each question and go from there. After your exam, go get a coffee and a yummy lunch with your friends or do something that you enjoy. Don’t over-analyze the exam. Simply take an hour to recover with your friends and then back at it prepping for the next paper.
  • Sleep: Set the alarm on your phone quadruple times and then put it on the bedside locker for the night. Do this before you’re ready for bed – your mind will disengage from social media and all the things that prevent sleep. Read a book, count sheep or practise deep breathing to help drifting off. I know it is not always easy to do but do you’re best – and lying there resting can even help a little!
  • TLC: During study and exams my skin tends to get a bit dry (probably from not following my own advice and hydrating enough!) My scalp can be a problem area and my elbows. Take the time to moisturise. I recently discovered a DIY honey-and- olive oil hair mask (microwave the two ingredients quickly, mix together, apply to your hair and wash out as normal.) My hair felt amazing afterwards so I definitely will be trying this again when the exams start – because even if they don’t go great, my hair will look fabulous! (Just kidding, Mam & Dad, I’m going to ace them all!)

Phew, what a lot of words. If I can write this much on exam day I’ll be sorted! Anyway, best of luck to everyone doing exams. I’d offer one of my usual cheesy motivational quotes but, let’s face it, you’ve probably gotten enough of them secretly screenshot on your phone already!

You’ve got this,


Image from the brilliant Twisted Doodles!




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