Exams and the pressure to do well

Exams are already super stressful, and that's without the added pressure from parents, teachers or friends to do well. If the pressure to do well is stressing you out, we've got some must-read advice.

A young person working on a computer and reading

Exam pressure is horrible and heavy whether you’re taking SATs, GCSEs, A-levels or degree exams. The pressure to perform can feel like exams are the be all and end all of EVERYTHING EVER, but it’s important to look beyond that sweaty, exam-revision bubble. Take breaks, manage expectations and offer yourself some kind words – after all your mental health is at stake.

My friends are all doing better than me 

Everyone has one of those friends who comes out of an exam believing they failed, only to find out they got the highest grade in the year. Some people have whole friendship groups like that. Sure, that’s kind of annoying, but try not to compare yourself too much. After all, everybody has different strengths. You may not have got the highest grade in the year, but you have other strengths that others don’t.

Social media can play a big part in the pressure to perform well or to revise harder. Seeing photos of friends revising can make us feel guilty about our own revision but remember, just because someone has posted a picture of their colour-coded notepads and pens, it doesn’t mean they’re revising all the time.

If you’re feeling pressured because of friends, remember:

  • Take a break from social media. Feeling guilty isn’t going to make you any better in the exam.
  • Stop comparing yourself. If you start beating yourself up because you haven’t done as well as a friend, recognise this as an unhealthy thought. Replace these thoughts with a reminder of all the things you’re great at – a bit of self-love never went amiss.
  • Ask your friends for help. There is no shame in asking for help. Perhaps you want to organise a study group outside of school where you and your friends can revise together and share revision tips.
  • Get some tips on calming breathing exercises from this Student Space article.

I don’t want to let my parents down

Parents are a tricky one. They want the best for you and your future but sometimes this can lead to intense pressure to perform. Perhaps they have aspirations for your future that you don’t agree with or perhaps they are high achievers themselves.

Most parents won’t even notice they are pressuring you. This is why it’s important to let them know – in a calm and serious manner. When talking to your parents remember to make it a discussion rather than an argument.

If you need to talk to your parents about the pressure they’re putting you under, remember:

  • Choose a time when you are both relaxed and won’t be interrupted. Don’t bring it up in an argument.
  • Explain to your parents that the pressure you’re under is making you feel rubbish.
  • Give reasons. Perhaps you want to drop a subject but explain that it will give more time to focus on other subjects.
  • If you’re not comfortable talking to your parents alone, you can ask a teacher or a school counsellor to help talk to them.

My teacher is asking too much of me

If a teacher predicts you a higher grade than expected or moves you into a higher set, it can feel great. This is often a reason to celebrate and self-congratulate. On other occasions, it can feel overwhelming and like you’re out of your depth.

Remember it is positive to aim high but if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your work load, you can always talk to your teacher. With the help of your teacher, you might want to:

  • Express your worries about upcoming exams. Talking about your problems is often the first step to feeling better.
  • Work with your teacher to set realistic goals.
  • Talk about your pre-exam options. If you’re thinking about dropping a subject or swapping subjects, your teacher will be able to advise on the next best step.
  • Discuss your post-exam options, including re-takes and career aspirations.

I’m putting pressure on myself 

Classic. You’re your own worst enemy. Everyone around you is probably saying you can only do your best, while you’re telling yourself to work harder, revise longer, do better.

There is nothing wrong with having high expectations for yourself. Just remember to cut yourself some slack if things don’t go as planned. If you find you’re pushing yourself to extremes, remember:

  • Working to extremes isn’t productive. It has been proven that breaks when revising are necessary for a fully functioning brain. Leave your computer, go outside, watch a film – anything that will distract you for a short while from your work.
  • Congratulate yourself. If you’ve done a really great stint of revision or have done well in a mock exam, give yourself a treat.
  • Make a plan B. If things don’t go to plan, remember it’s not the end of the world. You can retake your exams or decide on a completely different life plan – it’s all quite exciting really.

Student Minds is the UK’s student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research and to see how you could get involved or explore Student Space for support through the pandemic.

For revision tips, head to this Student Minds article.

Check out this Student Minds resource on exam stress

Next Steps

  • Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research, and to see how you could get involved.
  • The Mix's Stresshead tool was designed by young people to help relax and distract you when it all gets too much. It also has great stress-relief advice.
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.



By Holly Turner

Updated on 25-May-2021