The pressure to do well in exams

Exam pressure is horrible no matter what test you’re taking. The need to perform can feel like exams are the be all and end all of EVERYTHING EVER, but we promise they're not. Take breaks, manage expectations, offer yourself some kind words and you’re guaranteed to do better in your examinations. The Mix breaks down the pressure to do well in exams.

A young person working on a computer and reading

My friends are all doing better than me

Everyone has that friend who comes out of an exam telling you how awful it was, only to find out they got the highest grade in the year... Sure, it can be pretty frustrating or disheartening at times, but try not to compare yourself too much. After all, everybody has different strengths. Your friends might be able to outperform you in exams, but we’re betting you have certain strengths that they’re envious of.

Another thing that needs to be flagged is social media. It can play a big part in the pressure to perform well or to revise harder. For example, seeing photos of friends revising can make us feel guilty about our own revision habits. If you wanna comfort yourself, just think about the amount of time they spent NOT revising while they were trying to organise their notes to get the perfect pic.

If you’re feeling pressured because of what your friends are up to, here are some tips:

  • Take a break from social media. Feeling guilty isn’t going to get you better examination results. But we know that this small sentence alone isn’t going to change your mind. So, take a look at this article on protecting your mental health online as well.
  • Stop comparing yourself. Easier said that done we know. Regardless, you have to try. Whenever 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 is truly a game-changer.
  • Ask your friends for help. There’s no shame in asking for help. Quite the opposite actually, people will think you’re brave. Maybe you could organise a study group outside of school where you and your friends can revise together and share revision tips? Then get on the phone and start doing it!
  • 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 border on vicariously living through you. When it gets to that level of pressure, usually it has more to do with their own childhood dreams than what they actually want for you as an individual.

Unfortunately, most parents won’t even notice they are pressuring you. That’s why it’s important to let them know – in a calm and serious, but non-accusatory, manner. During this chat, you’re gonna have to step-up and lead the conversation. Emphasis on conversation, not argument.

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

  • Choose a time when you’re all relaxed and won’t be interrupted. Don’t bring it up for the first time in the middle of an argument.
  • Give reasons. If you have a solution to the problem, say dropping a subject, make sure to explain why you’re doing it, i.e. it’ll give you more time to focus on other subjects.
  • If you’re not comfortable talking to your parents alone, you can always ask a teacher or a school counsellor to help talk to them.

My teacher is asking too much of me

If a teacher gives you higher-than-expected predicted grades or moves you into a higher set, it can feel great. Usually, this means a pizza night where you get to choose the movie. But sometimes it can feel overwhelming and like you’re out of your depth.

Of course it’s great to aim high but if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your workload, you can always talk to your teacher. With their support, you might want to:

  • Express your worries about upcoming exams. Talking about your problems will help put them into perspective and give you a chance to find ways to cope.
  • Work with your teacher to set realistic goals.
  • Talk about your pre-exam management options. So 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 retakes, which you can read about here, and career aspirations, which we have an article on here.

I’m putting pressure on myself

This is a tale as old as time; 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.

We want to make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with having high expectations for yourself. Just as long as you remember to cut yourself some slack if things don’t go as planned. If you find yourself viewing school as an institution of learning and nothing else, then keep these things in mind: 

  • Working to extremes isn’t productive. It’s been proven that breaks when revising are necessary for a fully functioning brain. If you’re staring at your notes blankly and worrying about how exam day is gonna go down, sometimes the best option is to leave your computer, go outside, watch a film – or do anything that will temporarily distract you from your work.
  • Be kind to yourself – if you find yourself procrastinating or avoiding revision, it doesn’t mean you’re failing. Procrastination can be a sign that you’re feeling overwhelmed the pressure to succeed. Try to take small steps towards your goal – even 10 minutes of revision is a win when you’re struggling to stay focused.
  • Congratulate yourself. If you’ve done a really great stint of revision or had a better round of exams than the last, don’t let it pass by. Take a moment to celebrate and give yourself a treat.
  • Make a plan B. How to do well in exams? Prepare for the unexpected. If things don’t go to plan, that’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. You can retake your exams or decide on a completely different life plan. The future will be good, you’ve just gotta get through this rough patch first.
  • Not everyone learns in the same way. Some people might be able to whizz through their revision without breaking a sweat, but that’s a rare thing. Everyone learns differently and this can be impacted by many things, including having a learning disability such as dyslexia. If you have a learning disability you can get support for this to help you through your exams. Find out more here and get in touch with Dimensions.

More advice for how to do well in exams

Doing well in exams starts with revising properly, which is much more difficult if you’re putting yourself under loads of pressure. So here are some resources to help you out:

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.



By Holly Turner

Updated on 19-Mar-2022