How to Survive Exam Season (the Mentally Healthy Way)

It’s almost that time of year again – students across the world are preparing for exams. Whether it be the SAT, ACT, AP, IB exams, or other variations of stress-inducing acronyms, testing season can take its toll on mental health. Luckily, this stress can be minimized with a proactive and positive mindset. Here are 10 tips that I have learned over the years to improve my performance and mental health when it comes to tests.

  1.  Be realistic. Know your strengths, limitations and what you can most effectively accomplish with the time you have. If your AP Physics teacher plays movies on Netflix during class, and you haven’t begun studying for the test, acknowledge the fact that you probably won’t make a 5 (unless you’re Issac Newton; in that case, kudos to you). That’s okay! Focus on what you can do well. Are you a history whiz? Math? English? Does your university offer credit for a certain score? Once you realize which tests you can and want to score highest on, this will not only motivate you, but also help you strategize how to study.
  2. Create a game plan. How much time do you have each day to review a topic? How many days per week can you study? Once you figure out which tests are your priority, allot an appropriate amount of time for each subject. You don’t have to spend a ton of time – even just 15 minutes a day makes for significant improvement over a month. Remember, spacing out your studies is much more effective than cramming.
  3. Stay organized. One of the reasons why people become overwhelmed during testing season is because they are disorganized, which zaps away energy that could be used for productivity.  Figure out a system that works for you. Personally, I find it difficult to keep up with an agenda, so I use the Chrome extension Momentum, which allows me to keep a to-do list that I can constantly review each time I open up a new tab. Bonus: Momentum has some seriously calming and aesthetically pleasing backgrounds.
  4. Attend review sessions if your school offers them. Now is not the time to be lazy! You’ve already made it this far in the year; you might as well push through and give it all you’ve got for just another couple of weeks. Think about how much you can relax afterwards if you work hard now. I find review sessions particularly helpful because at my school, different teachers run them, allowing students to gain a different perspective and clarity on a topic. There might also be handouts available, which include extra practice problems you can work on.
  5. Use your resources! Why spend $15 on a prep book when you can get the equivalent online for free? Of course, if you prefer writing on a book, then by all means, go ahead and purchase one, but I feel like students frequently don’t realize that they’ve got a plethora of knowledge readily available. For example, the CollegeBoard website (the company in charge of AP tests) provides past AP exam questions (here is a link to past free response sections for Calculus BC). Khan Academy is great if you prefer watching videos. Tumblr is also a trove of resources. If you google something like “World War 2 APUSH multiple choice questions,” you are bound to come across something good.
  6. Take care of your body! This is extremely important. If your body and brain are not functioning at their peak, then it’s impossible for you to do your best. Set aside at least 20 minutes a day to exercise. This is a necessity. If you hate exercising, then go outside and take a walk. Trust me, you’ll come back feeling so much better. Eat well. Try to cut back on sugar, which hinders your ability to focus. If you normally drink coffee, keep drinking it, but if you don’t, then avoid caffeine (it can amp up anxiety and restlessness in easily stimulated people).
  7. Mental breaks are just as important as studying! Don’t go more than an hour at once working. Preferably every thirty minutes or so, take five minutes off to read a book or check your phone. Once you get back to work, resist the temptation to get off task. Ask someone you trust to hold you accountable. Have them hide your phone for you, if necessary.
  8. Try to work on your weakest areas. It’ll do you no good to just take practice tests if you keep on making the same mistakes. Constantly review questions you got wrong and topics you’re iffy on. Whether it’s asking someone to quiz you, making flashcards, or looking over past tests you took, try to maximize your scoring potential by preventing common mistakes.
  9. Figure out your learning style. Some people like to work in libraries, while others prefer studying in coffee shops. Some people benefit most from study groups because they can learn from their peers, while others have to work alone. Do what works best for you, and try to keep the place and time you study consistent.
  10. Remember, tests aren’t everything. Not even close! You will still get into a good college, even if you don’t do as well on the SAT as you’d like. You will still be intelligent and talented. You will still be an amazing friend, sibling, seasoned Netflix binger, musician, athlete, you name it. At the end of the day, scores are just a number. They give little to no insight into your character, aptitude, or passions, so don’t worry too much. It will all be okay.

I hope these tips will encourage you throughout testing season. Good luck everyone, and always remember, you are awesome! I am rooting for you.

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Lori Woo
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Lori is a junior in high school who believes in advocating for underrepresented voices. She loves music, rain, and good vibes. Her Myers-Briggs personality type is INFJ.

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