Never forget that many of the most accomplished people got to the top by taking a detour first, writes Tom Stewart. The ASCEND trainer and consultant has these words of wisdom ahead of the start of final-year exams across South Australia next week.


Exam time is a source of stress for many people, but keep in mind there are steps that you can take to reduce your stress to a manageable level and get on top of your revision. Also remember that some anxiety is normal and may actually help you to perform more effectively if channelled in the right direction.

Here’s some tips to get you started:

  • Eat well, drink water

Seems kind of obvious, I know, but what you put in your body has a big impact on how well you feel and perform. You may be tempted to binge on fast food and stay up all night revising before that big maths exam, but you’re much better off having a light meal and going to bed early. Make sure you are drinking at least two litres of water every day (more if you’re exercising regularly) and snack on brain-boosting foods, such as blueberries and unsalted nuts instead of chocolate biscuits.

  • Sleep

Aim for at least 8 hours every night during the exam period, more if you can get it. Make sure you set an alarm and get up with enough time to prepare yourself mentally, and eat a healthy breakfast before you leave for that next test.

  • Move

Use your down time during revision to get away from your desk and move around. A few laps of the oval or a quick trip to the gym should be fine but even just taking the dog for a walk or having a good stretch will make a big difference.

  • Pace Yourself

Research demonstrates that all-night revision sessions just don’t work, and may actually harm your performance on the big day. Try breaking your revision down into bite-sized chunks. Do 20-40 minutes of reading at a time and then take a short break. Use your break time to move away from your desk and do some deep breathing.

  • Deep Breathing

If you’re feeling panicked or overwhelmed you might be hyperventilating without realising it. Try taking slow deep even breaths where you draw in air through your nose and hold it in your lungs for a few seconds before breathing it out again. Taking five minutes to do this, even at the start of an exam, is a more effective use of your time than 15 minutes spent overwhelmed by panicky thoughts.

  • Avoid the Debrief

Once your exam is done, give your classmates a high five and get the heck out of there! Don’t stick around to compare answers, this has never helped anyone reduce their stress levels and will be particularly harmful to your self-esteem if you happen to have another exam on the same day. Go for a walk instead and clear your head.

  • Talk it Out

Whilst it may not be a good idea to conduct an exam postmortem with your fellow students, it can be good to talk about your experiences with a loved one or a neutral third party. Reach out for advice and support if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your studies and keep in mind that exams don’t last forever.

  • Options

Keep in mind that there are so many pathways through life and into the next stage of study. If you’re working towards your SACE and unsure what next year holds, you have options. If you’re working towards that undergraduate degree and unsure if you’ll have a high enough GPA to go for that Masters, you have options. There is life after exams, and never forget that many of the most accomplished people got to the top by taking a detour first. If you don’t quite get the ATAR you wanted, take a deep breath and start figuring out what other pathways are available to you – you have options!

  • Avoid Judgement

Easier said than done, of course, but whilst we’re on the subject of ATARs and GPAs, always remember that the best way to judge your exam success is by looking at how far you’ve come rather than comparing yourself with others. If you’ve been struggling in a certain subject all year and have clawed your way up to the middle of the class, that’s an amazing achievement. Judge progress by what you’ve achieved compared to yesterday, not what others are doing.

  • Steer Clear of Distractions

Yes, it’s tempting to spend an hour scrolling instead of knuckling down and working through that last bit of revision, but try to avoid doing this. Hand your phone to someone else for safe keeping if you need to take that distraction out of the picture for a few days. Keep in mind that you’ve spent 12+ years of time studying for this moment and a few days off of your phone is not the end of the world.