Nervousness during exams is a problem for many students, especially when faced with the task of writing multiple full length essays under a time limit. However, it is definitely possible to evade those pesky exam nerves through these practical solutions, which I personally found useful during my A-Level English Literature exams.
When first encountering unseen extracts and a blank page, it is easy to panic and feel that you suddenly can’t remember any of your revised material. However, it is worth noting that the ‘perfect exam question’ is a rare, even mythical phenomenon, and that you almost definitely remember more than you think. Some people find that highlighting key terms in the question or parts of the extract grounds them when in a flurry of exam nerves, and if you are really struggling with blank mind to match your blank answer booklet, I have found that it helps to get the ball rolling by taking a couple of seconds to jot down a few quick ideas in no particular order. This could mean your initial reaction to the author’s tone, any wider reading that it might remind you of or quick notes about interesting uses of structure. Remember to cross your brief ramblings out thoroughly though, and to write a more structured plan before you begin your essay! Find out what works best for you, and breathe.
Planning your essay is crucial to a good exam answer, and it is worth investing a decent amount of time in assembling your ideas and any wider reading/ supportive material. Planning will also help you to calm your nerves and focus your thoughts. Whilst different people have different preferences regarding the level of detail in their essay plans, it is generally a good idea to sequence your ideas into paragraphs, with an introduction, conclusion and 3-5 solid points, with some idea of how these points might ‘flow’ into each other. It is also OK to allow yourself a degree of flexibility regarding your plan: if halfway through writing you feel that the essay would flow better if the points were slightly rearranged or you have additional ideas you want to include, do not allow this to cause you stress. The plan is something you create for yourself as a structural guide, and so long as you keep the time constraints in mind you can feel free to make small amendments.
Getting your introduction out of the way and writing your juicy comparison points can seem difficult when suffering with exam nerves, and it is important to not spend too long on this part of your essay. Luckily, there are ways to make your introduction as painless as possible. It certainly is not a good idea to try to memorise sections of your previous essays and attempt to regurgitate them in exam conditions, but there are certain features of essays which are universally useful to begin with. For example, if asked to compare two extracts, you might begin by observing that whilst they are written in different contexts by different authors, they share similarities concerning ‘x’ theme. It also is a good idea to introduce each extract with a very brief, one line synoptic summation, perhaps hinting at the main comparisons you will be making. This way, you can quickly move on to the bulk of your essay with a calmer thought process, having quickly set down a solid introduction.
When writing in exam conditions it is vitally important to stay aware of how much time you have left, and to leave a few minutes for rereading your paper to check for grammar errors or spelling mistakes. By planning in advance how long you need to spend on each question or paragraph of your essay you can avoid nasty surprises and stay calmer throughout your exam.
One of the best ways to avoid nervousness before or during an exam is to practise planning and writing responses to past papers. Writing your responses under exam conditions is certainly a good idea if you are worried about exam nerves, and sometimes it helps to examine past papers together with friends to compare approaches and thought processes, or simply to help motivate each other.
Ultimately, everyone responds differently to exam pressure, and thus develops different approaches to dealing with it. I hope that this guide is useful for anyone struggling with exam nerves as I often did and still do, and would be very glad to help nervous students to find a coping strategy which helps with their individual anxieties. Remember that it’s perfectly OK to be nervous before or during an exam, and the important thing is that you don’t let it stand between you and the success that you deserve!