Three Practical Mental Health Tips for Exam Season

Exam season does not need to be detrimental to your health. Follow this three step plan.

By Ceanna Hayes Daniels — March 28, 2023


Three Practical Mental Health Tips for Exam Season

As the semester's midpoint draws nearer, it can be all too easy for hardworking students-especially high-achievers or perfectionists-to decide to do whatever it takes to survive midterms and papers, even if it means putting their mental and physical health on the back burner. For these students, things like all-nighters, the abrupt death of your social life, and caffeine dependency seem just part of the price you must pay for good grades. But does exam season have to be this detrimental to your mental health? Quite to the contrary, a few changes can make midterms a survivable and rewarding time of the academic year.

One: Use Your Fall-Term Insights to Improve This Exam Season

Applying what you learned about yourself and your test-taking strategies over the fall semester can help you to prepare more effectively for midterms and finals this semester. Maybe you realized that you over-prepare for tests and need to schedule intentional breaks this time around so that you don't feel guilty when ending your studies for the day. Maybe you realized that study guides take longer to fill out than you expected, so you're planning to allocate more time to that assignment this semester. Maybe you realized that your nerves wake you up early every morning for a week before a big test, so you plan to head back to the dorm early each night to still get the rest you need. Intentionally engage with whatever you learned about yourself over the fall and implement new strategies based on that knowledge so that you can improve your exam experience this semester.

Two: Plan a Study Schedule that Will Prevent All-Nighters

Although they're a stereotypical part of exam season, all-nighters are preventable—not inevitable.

While the circumstances leading up to an individual all-nighter vary from person to person, the cause will generally fall into one of two categories: lack of confidence or lack of preparation. A lack of confidence might lead struggling students to stay up all night trying to make progress in difficult classes, or it might motivate perfectionistic students to frenetically review their notes until the very moment the exam begins. Meanwhile, a lack of preparation might force a student to pull an all-nighter to cram for back-to-back exams or complete multiple papers they hadn't realized were all due during the same week. Breaking down the cause of an all-nighter into simple categories like this can improve students' lives by making all-nighters seem less threatening and more manageable.

Adding one of two events to your schedule can dramatically help both causes. If you think that a lack of confidence is more likely to affect you during exam season, set yourself up for success by either scheduling a few group study sessions or asking a tutor to quiz you on a practice exam. For those struggling with a class and feeling underprepared, meetings like these provide the opportunity to approach the subject in new ways, which can help the ideas “click” in a way they hadn't previously. These meetings also help by providing external accountability to begin studying in advance, preventing students from leaving all the prep work to the night before the exam due to stress.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the same tricks work for those who tend to over-prepare for exams due to anxiety; drilling potential test questions with a tutor provides external confirmation that you truly are prepared for the exam, reducing the urge to study an excessive amount and leaving more time for other studies and pursuits. Similarly, scheduling a set number of hours to study with classmates can help perfectionistic students to see that they've devoted a reasonable amount of time to studying, reducing the worry that they haven't done enough to prepare for exams.

If a lack of preparation is more likely to hold you back than a lack of confidence is, scheduling may still be the solution. The first step is compiling a list of all your exam-week deadlines — every essay, test, and study session — several weeks in advance so that nothing surprises you the day it's due. Next, add these deadlines to your calendar or planner so that you can divide and conquer. For some students, a few hours of reviewing notes and study guides is enough to feel ready for the test, while others prefer to devote a short period of time to each subject every day for a week or more leading up to the exam. Whatever your style is, allocate that time in your plan so you can construct an exam-season schedule that will allow you to thrive rather than react to deadlines as they arise.

Three: Remember that Physical Health Is Key to Mental Health

Prioritizing your physical health is the best way to set yourself up for success during exams — not only because it means you're less likely to fall sick but also because it gives your mental health a better starting point than malnutrition or sleep deprivation could. If you try to work all night on an essay, you'll be too exhausted the next day to fully grasp the material presented in class. Similarly, if you spend exam season living on instant ramen (or, worse, skipping meals entirely), your mind and body won't have the necessary fuel to get through long weeks and big tests.

Running on empty creates feelings of anxiety or depression or exacerbates existing mental health conditions, reducing students' overall well-being and subjecting them to unnecessary stressors. To reduce the likelihood that this will happen to you during exam season, prioritize your physical health with steps like getting consistent sleep each night and eating healthy meals. Although being rested and well-nourished won't cure mental illness, it will put you in a better headspace to live well despite it.

Even if going to sleep or heading into the dining hall feels like a waste of time you could use to study, taking care of your body and brain will lead to more long-term success than a few additional minutes of reviewing your notes. Remind yourself — especially during exam season — that you're investing in your success and mental health by choosing to sleep and eat well.

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels is freelance writer and editor. In 2022, she graduated Hillsdale College summa cum laude with a degree in politics. In her free time, she continues to enjoy studying philosophy, political theory, and literature. She and her husband live in Michigan, where the two enjoy perusing bookstores together for new books and old records.
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