How I managed stress while facing exams

For Susan, overcoming exam stress meant facing her fears, focusing on her future, and envisioning success beyond graduation.

Written by Susan James


I was so overwhelmed in 6th year, I was facing what felt like the most important test throughout my whole education. Every exam up until this point seemed like a walk in the park, but the Leaving Cert was a completely different ball game. 

It came with so many expectations and so much pressure, which ultimately could end up being a lot of disappointment for both myself and my family. I knew how I was feeling was normal, but the sheer amount of time that I spent thinking about everything that could go wrong was consuming me, so I had to make a plan. 

How did I calm my exam nerves?

I had to get to the root of what my stresses were, so I sat down and opened a new note on my phone, making a list of the worst possible things that could happen and also my triggers. 

In school after class tests, I felt so uncomfortable when my other classmates would start discussing answers to certain questions, so I removed myself from the situation. When my mum’s friends would ask what I wanted to do after school, I freaked out a bit because I still didn’t know myself. I had no idea what points I would get. 

How could I have all these answers for people when I didn’t even know myself? So to take some stress off the upcoming exams, I decided to focus on what I wanted from the Leaving Cert specifically. 

What did the Leaving Certificate mean to me?

To me, the Leaving Cert meant everything and nothing at the same time. I would go between the idea of college and a gap year to go interrailing. Ultimately I wanted to go to college; I wanted to have a degree and go on to specialise in a certain area. 

After scouring through CareersPortal, a career guidance website, week after week I decided that I would like to study new media/communications, as it was a broad degree with many different routes to go down afterwards. 

As a safety net I applied to a PLC (Post Leaving Certificate) course also in my hometown in the same area, so if things didn’t go to plan I would still be progressing with my education. 

Focus on the future post exams

No matter what the outcome of the exams was, I tried to stay focused and optimistic about the future. I found this to be a great tool to combat exam stress and anxiety. 

As much as the future was unknown to 18-year-old me, I knew it was going to be bright. I envisioned myself on results day, happy about all the hard work I had put in. 

Hindsight is 20/20

To my surprise, I got offered not one but two courses. First was my level 6/7 and then followed my level 8. I didn’t end up needing to do my interview for my PLC as I accepted my offer for New Media Studies in IADT. 

Looking back, everything is always clearer, but understandably at the time I was my own worst enemy, focused on self-doubt and not envisioning how bright my future would be today!

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