You’ve put a huge amount of effort into preparing for your exam. It would be so unfair if it all fell apart on the day. So, check out these ten brilliant ways to beat exam nerves. This is the final post in a series of three on foreign language exams but the tips here should help you with any kind of exam.
Of course, some people suffer from anxiety which needs professional help. This article isn’t intended to replace that. Rather, these are tips that will help those of us with milder nerves as that exam date looms.
The core ways to beat the butterflies are three “legs” on what I’ll call your “quiet confidence” tripod.
1. Quiet confidence leg one: Make sure you’ve chosen the right level
There’s a lot to be said for aiming high in life….but there’s a fine line between stretching yourself and setting yourself up to fail.
Do yourself a favour, then, and start your exam preparations with a big fat reality check.
Get an objective assessment of your current competence against the yardstick used by your exam board (most in Europe use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages with its scale from A0 to C2). Another well-known scale is the HSK (for Mandarin).
The best way to do this is by means of a face-to-face meeting with an experienced teacher, via online interview or, better still, in person.
Otherwise, see whether there’s an automated online assessment you can do.
Once you’ve been assessed, you can discuss with your teacher the amount of work it’ll take you realistically to move up a notch or two.
Factor in the time available and how experienced a language learner you are.
Also build in some slack for the inevitable unexpected events that life has a knack of throwing at us.
2. Quiet confidence leg two: Prepare well
Competence breads confidence. After an assessment you know your current level. Your know your attainable level. Now you have to get to it.
Do study grammar and patterns so far as these are dragging you down or you feel you want to understand better.
However, they key thing to remember is that success requires you to master not the abstract theory but the four core practical language skills.
You must be able to read, write, speak and understand at the requisite level.
Speaking and writing are the two skills that require active production.
Then get corrective feedback from a competent teacher or exchange partner.
Again, and again, and again.
You need to have had enough passive exposure to listening and reading.
Really try to bring an active element into your listening and reading though, too. Practice summarising orally or in writing what you’ve read or heard, for example.
This “active passive” is to make sure you’re not kidding yourself that you understand and to increase how much you notice in detail of how language is used.
3. Quiet confidence leg three: Know the format and tactics
You can be as good as you like at the language but if you mess up the exam format, you probably won’t do as well as you could.
In short: master the medium.
Study past papers.
Discuss examiners’ requirements with your teacher.
Check out any books aimed at people doing your exam.
That’s your tripod. For more details on all three, see the second article in this series: How to pass a foreign language exam.
Now to the easier practical tips to make sure that your super pro preparation isn’t thrown away on the day.
4. Know the venue….and how to get to it
Where is your exam? You have the address?
I do mean “where?”, though.
If you don’t know how to get to the location, scope out the route and the joint well before exam day.
May be that isn’t practical. If not, make sure you can find the building on the map on your phone.
Safer still, go old school and have a map on paper. The good thing I find about paper is that its batteries never go flat.
Work out how long it’ll take you to get from your accommodation to the venue.
If you’re coming on public transport, know which busses or trains you’ll need.
If you’re coming by car or bike, where will you park?
Knowing exactly where your exam is going to take place is the only way you can knock the next point on the head:
5. Arrive in good time
Double check the date and time of your exam.
Put it in your calendar, because the memory can play tricks.
Build in some extra travelling time in case the metro isn’t working or the bus gets a flat tyre….or the weather takes a turn for the worse. You be late leaving the house because it;s taken you fifteen minutes to find your wellies.
There’s nothing more flustering than arriving late for your exam.
That said, once you have arrived, you don’t have to wait at the door with a bunch of other candidates. You could just end up making each other nervous.
If it it’s a nice day and you’re in good time, you may like to sit on a bench in that park next to the venue or go for a stroll once round the block instead.
6. Know what you can take in…and be well supplied
Check what you need with you and what you’re allowed to take into the exam room with you.
You’ll often be required to bring a passport or some other identity.
Do you have to use blue or black ink? If so, don’t turn up with a red or green pen!
For example, you may be allowed a bilingual or a monolingual dictionary, even if time pressures could well mean you won’t have much time to use it.
Take your favourite pen, plus a back-up or two. Take a pencil and eraser as well just in case.
You’ll probably be given special answer sheets on which to write and scrap paper for notes or planning, too.
Take a bottle of water, in case there isn’t water in the exam room.
I usually take some sore throat pastilles just in case I start to cough. I don’t like chewing gum, but it does seem to help some people concentrate.
Don’t be shy about taking your fluffy toy mascot if it keeps you smiling. Stick it on the desk.
You may not be into cuddly toys, but, once you’re in the exam room do spread your stuff out on the desk and lean back and survey the scene.
Sitting and acting confident can help put you in the right frame of mind.
Take some deep, consciously slower breaths.
7. Take the day before off and get a good night’s sleep on the eve
Often, a complete break from preparations for twenty-four hours before your exam can help things settle and clear your mind of “noise”.
Ok, you could “cram” a few items of vocab at the last-minute but, really, language is a skill, it’s not facts.
If anything really hangs on whatever you could conceivably still do in the last twenty-four hours, it’s probably long been too late.
The day before, take any opportunity you can to break your routine a bit – get out into the countryside or go for a jog in the park.
Do try to get a good night’s sleep on the eve of the exam.
If you’re a light sleeper, it makes sense to try to get a few early nights in the final days earlier. That way you’ll have something in reserve if you don’t sleep so well the night before.
Set the alarm clock. If you don’t have anybody to check you’ve woken, set a second, back-up alarm for five minutes later.
Stick to your usual breakfast routine (but see the next point).
8. No stimulants before the exam
Make sure you’re eating healthily in the run-up to the exam.
I don’t like energy drinks myself, but if you do, lay off them in the days just before the exam, so that you’re rested and grounded.
What I do love is a strong double espresso or two per day.
That said, I hold back just before an exam. I don’t mean going cold turkey. That gives me headaches (I find the second day after I stop the worst).
No, I mean moderation the day before. Then, if it’s a morning exam, no strong coffee allowed beforehand on the day. If it’s an afternoon sitting, no more after my eleven o’clock cup.
I’ll be wired enough as it is.
Plus, coffee makes you want the toilet.
On that subject: some people say that a full bladder enhances focus. The research does not agree.
Check out the “facilities” before you go into the exam room.
The final two tips are to do with your attitude to the exam itself.
9. Reframe the exam as an information gathering exercise
Everybody enters and exam wanting to pass it.
You may need to pass it, for example for career reasons or to meet residency or citizenship requirements.
Otherwise, though, there’s a sense in which all that’s at stake is your pride.
The first time I took my Third Certificate (advanced) Russian exam, I passed the grammar/vocab, listening, reading and oral exams first time round. I failed the writing and had to re-do it the following year.
Despite the irritation and disappointment of failure, I reframed what had happened in a positive way.
Ok, so the certificate would be a nice to have for its own sake.
Mainly, though, I use exams a tool to keep me focussed for a few months on really improving my skills.
OK, so you’d be disappointed too if you’d invested a lot of time and effort – and probably money in the whole process and things didn’t go quite as hoped.
Still, effective preparation is never wasted.
Just as my Russian skills did improve a lot in advance of my first, doomed attempt at the Russian Third Certificate, so your level will have improved in the weeks and months before exam day.
As you’re going into the exam hall, tell yourself this: the exam is nothing more than a really thorough information-gathering exercise.
When your marks breakdown arrives on your doormat or in your inbox, it will provide you with an invaluable, objective snapshot of where you are at the moment (and a basis on which to evaluate your preparation methods).
You can’t lose.
10. Reframe the exam as an exciting occasion
Ok, so you feel nervous…..
No. You feel excited.
That’s the sort of positive self-talk that successful sportsmen and women practice in their battle with themselves before a key match or race.
Exam day is the culmination of a whole lot of work.
It’s an important occasion.
There’d be something wrong if you didn’t feel that bit of excitement. A bit of adrenaline will enhance your performance.
Remind yourself the you have the three legs of the success tripod in place.
You know where you’re going (literally) ….and when you’re going to get there.
You have the gear you need, right down to a spare pen, a bottle of water and your mascot.
You’ve had a good night’s sleep, a solid breakfast….and a pee.
Now for the stage.
Unless you took an exam at your pre-existing level, you’ll have been working quite hard to raise your game for several months in the run up to the big day.
Sure, you’ll feel relieved when it’s over. But then you might start to feel a bit deflated.
Fill that void by planning yourself a treat for soon after the exam.
Maybe it’ll be something bigger that has helped you with motivation through the revision period, like a weekend away.
Or it could just be something relatively small-scale to relax you. For example: a massage or meal with your partner some of the friends you’ve been neglecting as you ramped up your preparation.
Let me know in the comments below what treats you’ve lined up and whether there are other tricks you find helpful in the battle against nerves.
When it comes to treats, do as I say in this, not as I do.
My Russian writing re-take was on a Saturday morning, I spent the rest of the weekend drafting a legal document for my day job 🙁
Tell you what, though. When I came out of the Russian Language Centre, the first thing I did was stop by the cafe…..to order a double espresso 🙂