Your guide to surviving college exams

Find out how to prepare for college exams and what to expect.

Written by spunout


College exams are a stressful time for most people. If you know what to expect and prepare as much as you can in advance, it can be easier. Remember, if things don’t go as well as you hoped, there are always options. You might even have the opportunity to repeat the exam.

How to prepare for college exams

Exams are an inevitable factor in student life. The weeks before the exam can be stressful so take some time to prepare.

Make a study plan

A study plan can help you to break what you study down into smaller and more manageable chunks. Sometimes you can sit down to put together a timetable and find it difficult to know where to start. It’s okay to spend time planning and putting together a timetable as it will be more helpful in the long run if it is manageable and realistic. Read more about making a study plan.

Develop supportive daily habits

The things you do before, during and after study sessions affect your ability to focus and remember information.

One of the best ways of getting through exam time is to have a good plan for how to study well, look after yourself and manage your time. Read about how your habits can make studying easier.

Avoid comparing yourself to your friends

Everybody has a different way of preparing for exams and what suits someone else might not work for you. You might be able to get ideas or inspiration from classmates, but try not to compare your study approach to theirs.

Be thorough

It is a good idea to cover all of the topics on the course, unless you have been specifically told that you have choices and can leave some out. Those topics might just be the ones that end up on the exam paper.

Know what works for you

Don’t feel obliged to just sit in front of a book with a highlighter – there are many different ways to study. By trying different approaches, you can pick whatever works for you. Different courses and classes require different methods of study.

Be prepared for the first day

Here are some things to make sure you cover before the first day of college exams:

  • Check your timetable for the correct time and location of your exam
  • Make sure you have worked out how you will approach the paper, such as knowing how many questions do you need to answer and how long do you have for each question
  • Set your alarm before going to bed and plan how you will get to the exam venue, with plenty of time to get settled
  • After study, make sure you do something to relax and try to get a good night’s sleep
  • Try to avoid browsing the internet after study; you are most likely using your laptop to study so take a break from staring at the screen
  • Get everything you need for your exam ready (stationery, calculator etc.) the night before

Read more about how to prepare for the first day of exams.

Tips for the day of the exam

There are things you can do to support yourself on the day of your exam.

Before the exam

Being mindful of your wellbeing is crucial before an exam. Consider doing some of the following:

During the Exam

Approaching the exam carefully and calmly can help you to give it your best. Try some of the following:

  • Take a deep breath before opening your paper and use the first few minutes to read each question marking the ones you will attempt
  • If you have questions or concerns about the paper, alert the invigilator
  • Stick to your time allocation for each question
  • Don’t give up – if you find it hard or can’t focus, take a break or start another question
  • Allow time at the end of the exam to review your answers, as key ideas often pop up when re-reading the text that you’ve written 

After the exam

When the exam is over, some of your next steps can include: 

  • Make sure you have handed up everything you need to submit
  • File away your exam paper with your notes
  • Take a short study break; get some downtime before tackling the next module
  • If you are feeling stressed or worried, talk to someone you trust

Avoiding college exam stress

Exam stress can be overwhelming. Preparing well in advance can help you to keep stress levels low. However, if it all seems to be getting on top of you, there are other things you can do.

Focus on what you can control

When it comes to your college exams, focus on what you can control and try to prepare for your exams using that information. Although this is not an easy task, it is the easiest way to try and keep our minds on track and keep motivated.

Mindfulness can be a good way to become aware of our thoughts and keep us focused on the present moment. Read more about mindfulness exercises you can try at home.

Take breaks

Regular breaks are critical for us to be able to process and remember new information. When you do take a break, move away from the space you are studying as much as possible, so you recognise and feel that you have taken a break. Getting out and getting fresh air or doing some exercise, even if it is for a short time, is good for our wellbeing. 

Talk to someone

If you feel you are becoming overwhelmed with feelings of stress around your college exams it’s important that you try to talk to someone. Sharing this with someone else can help you feel better. This could be a trusted friend, family member, lecturer, Student’s Union counsellor or our free text support service 50808.

Read more about how to handle exam stress and six ways to manage stress and prevent burnout.

Common college exam concerns

There are a number of concerns that many people have around college exams.

What if I’m late for the exam?

If you are late, go to the exam room/hall and see if you will be admitted. You can contact your department, the exams office and/or your Students’ Union if you run into difficulty.

What if I miss an exam or I’m too sick to sit the exam?

Every college has a procedure for instances where a student misses an exam. Contact your head teacher, department and your Students’ Union if you are sick. Make sure to keep doctors’ notes, as you may need to submit a copy.

What if I sat the exam but I’m not happy with it?

If there was an issue with the paper, contact the teacher/lecturer responsible as soon as the exam is over.

If you are unhappy with how the exam went for you, wait for the results before taking action. You can then talk to your teacher/Students’ Union about appeals and/or viewing the script. Read more about how to handle exam results anxiety.

Remember, the Students’ Union and the exams office are there to talk and support you with exam results. There is always the option to repeat the exams. Read more about how to deal with disappointing grades.

Need more information?

We are here to answer your questions and talk through your options. Our online chat service is for 16 to 25 year olds and is available Monday to Friday, 4pm to 8pm. Chat to us now about your situation.

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