I have collected these ideas to deal with stress in exams under the headings of Think Ahead, Think Physical, Think Positive and Think beyond IELTS. If they have one thing in common, it is that they involve slowing down and not speeding up. My most general observation is that exam candidates rate the ability to do things quickly too highly. If you want to do well, you want to think in an ordered way – a quite different concept.
Test your exam skills
Best exam practice
Think ahead – be a man (or woman) with a plan
The main idea with all these ideas is that you want to feel in control.
1. Get there on time – don’t be early, don’t be late – remember to find out where the exam is
You rush into the test centre in a hot sticky mess because you lost your way. Clearly a bad idea. Nor do I suggest is getting there hours early – that just leaves you too much time to worry about things. All you have to do is figure out the difference between being on time and in time and to do the obvious thing and not just know where the test centre is, but work out how you are going to get there.
2. Have a plan for the exam and stick to it
One of the problems with exams is that you have to deal with time pressure. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you should know before the exam what amount of time you need for each type of question. You may want to be a little flexible in how you decide to spend your time, but the idea is not just to make a plan, but stick to that plan.
3. Simulate the exam – turn off your phone and ignore your boyfriend for an hour or so
If this is the first time around, how about trying to simulate the test. One way in which the exam often goes wrong is that 3 papers are fine but one is just worse – you lost concentration
To do this need an environment to work in where you will not be disturbed: no music or no telephone calls. It may help to try and do this away from where you normally study – a quiet library would be good.
4. Match your study habits to the test – build your concentration skills
This is a similar idea. Exams often go wrong, not because you don’t know what to do, you just don’t do it: you lose concentration and panic sets in. That’s bad, you want to block out the world and concentrate on the test – do that and you should come close to performing your best. One solution is to learn to concentrate for a specific amount of time – the time of each paper in the exam.
The obvious way to do this is to study for the same amount of time as the test. This means, for example, practising your writing in a block of 60 minutes, it does not necessarily mean you have to write a part 1 and part 2 in that time. The idea is that you are training yourself to concentrate for a set period of time to prepare for the exam.
5. Taper down – get there in the mental shape of your life – no last minute cramming
The temptation is to study right up to the last minute. What if they give you a question you’ve never seen before? If you had sat up the night before, you may have been able to study for it. This is the wrong attitude as far as I’m concerned. Do that and you may tire yourself out – waste mental energy. You may not want to take the day before the exam off, but I do suggest that you should take it easy. One idea is to spend the day before making a plan for the exam – how long you will spend on each part of the paper – that way you will feel in control on the big day.
Don’t believe me? You won’t find world class athletes in full training before the Olympics – they “taper down”. What that means is that as the competition becomes closer, they do less and less. It is particularly relevant for endurance events – and IELTS does require stamina.
You’re probably aware of the saying mens sana in corpore sano; in my experience, it translates into most languages. Perhaps the reason for that is it contains a universal truth – there is a strong connection between the mental and physical. Exams are a mental exercise and to excel in them, it doesn’t harm to think physical.
1. Don’t do caffeine before exams – certainly not in excess
Caffeine may stimulate you, but it can also make you anxious – put you on edge, as we say. In an exam, you need to focus of course, but in a calm way. The best advice seems to be that you should avoid caffeine if you are prone to stress – and exam time is stress central! I’d add here that caffeine doesn’t just mean coffee, energy drinks often contain it too.
2. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out
This time a positive piece of advice. Deep breathing really does work: it can calm the soul and bring your heart rate down. There are a number of different deep-breathing techniques that you may care to try out – but as lying down isn’t really practical in an exam centre, perhaps you should focus on the breath counting exercise here.
If you don’t think that’s practical – then it’s possible just to take a little break in the test – this works for reading and writing. After each section of the test just close your eyes for 15 seconds or so and relax. It’s very, very hard to concentrate full on for an hour. Give your brain a little rest and start again.
It is very easy to get a mental block about a certain paper especially if you have taken the exam a few times and the result in one paper refuses to get better. It really does help to have a “I can” attitude. This is true of life too, but is especially true for language exams: there is a strong connection between self-confidence and the ability to communicate – and language is all about communication.
1. Visualise your answer
This is another idea borrowed from athletics. A very common technique used by professional athletes is visualisation. The essential idea is that if you can see yourself doing something, that helps you to actually achieve it. Problems often happen because candidates get lost in the detail and forget to look at the big picture of what they are trying to achieve.
How can this help you in exams? One way is to “see” your complete essay just as Usain Bolt sees himself breaking the tape first. See a complete essay in your head and you are much more likely to write it.
2. Get off to a good start – work your way into the exam
As someone who has done more than his fair share of oral examining, I can tell you that it really helps to get off to a good confident start. Candidates who start well almost always go on to complete the test well.
How does this apply to IELTS? Do NOT learn answers to part 1 speaking: examiners can always tell if you are doing this and they will be very UNIMPRESSED: this is a bad start. Rather just listen to the question and give it a short and simple response – the first questions are designed to be easy. Do that and you have the confidence to move on to the tougher questions later.
In writing, most candidates have a preference for either task 1 or 2. How about starting with the one you feel better about – even if it is task 2? All you need to do is remember to leave the correct amount of time for the other task.
3. You get marks for doing well too – remember your strengths
A common mistake is to think that IELTS scores are calculated by seeing how few mistakes you make and you can stress in an exam because you become obsessed by the idea of avoiding mistakes. You make a mistake and think: “Oh @$%&”. Don’t. Try and remember that you are rewarded for things you get right too: if you have a strength, concentrate on that too.
One application here is in the speaking exam. We all make mistakes when we speak – native speakers too. If you hear yourself saying something incorrectly, don’t panic. It often works to go right ahead – be fluent. Fluency and coherence are as important as grammatical accuracy.
4. You don’t need 100% – make a mistake and move on
This is a related idea. Quite often candidates go wrong because they mismanage their time by spending too much time on a question they can’t answer. IELTS is a strange exam because it is one test for people at all levels: the only people expected to get “100%” are educated native speakers. Put another way, the test is designed so that almost everyone will make a few mistakes.
In practice, this means that you should allow a certain amount of time for each question. If you can’t do it, move on to the next question and relax.
Think beyond IELTS
IELTS is an exam that can make all the difference to your life. One reason why you may perform badly and become tense is that it all means too much. Here are two, slightly contradictory, thoughts for you.
1. IELTS is absurd sometimes – you can go again
Recently I have been contacted by two separate candidates who got 9.0 in three papers but failed to get the overall score they needed. This is frankly absurd. 9.0 is a sensational result in one paper: in three…!!!! I also have a long-term correspondent who has completed a masters degree in Australia, but who still cannot get the right result for immigration/work. Again, silly.
And, well, I think it helps to remember that it is still just a silly test, not a moral judgement on who you are. More practically, you can take the test again or apply for a re-mark – it isn’t the end of the world. Even more practically, why not book two tests at once. I very much doubt you will ask for your money back if you get the score first time around.
2. Maybe you’re not ready yet
Don’t worry about getting the wrong result, that may not be a bad thing. IELTS can be silly, but it mostly works quite well. If you get a score that is less than you need, that may mean that you are not ready yet to go where you want to go. The very worst IELTS stories I know relate to people who got the correct score and then found that 5.5/6.0/6.5/7.0 in IELTS didn’t equip them for life on the other side.
Time pressure can cause stress – that’s one of the big ideas here. One suggestion is that you make a time management strategy that fits you and your language skills. In this reading lesson I suggest some practical and quite detailed ideas that you use to help you manage time in reading. Clue? One and a half minutes per question isn’t quite a sensible as it may sound.
What should you do on the day of the test itself? Practising for the test is not the same as doing it. Take a look at these quick tips for the day itself. They expand on some of the ideas here:
I do of course have lots of tips on this site as well as the detailed lessons. Sometimes a quick tip can make a big difference. less can be more. Try some of these: