How to Successfully Navigate Exam Stress: Insights from a Cognitive Psychotherapist

Understanding the Psychology Behind Exam Preparation

In the midst of exams, whether they are midterms, finals, or crucial assessments, everyone experiences a heightened level of nervous tension. This includes both those who have been actively engaged in the learning process and those who have procrastinated until the last moment. The pivotal moment has arrived. How does one successfully tackle an exam? How can one organize their life during exam days to make the most out of this anxious period, promoting both academic success and personal well-being?

We’ve gathered common beliefs about exam preparation and sought insights from cognitive psychotherapist Yakov Kochetkov.

1. Maximizing Last-Day Information Overload: Myth or Strategy?

The belief that cramming information on the last day is beneficial is not universally applicable. While it may suit those with strong mathematical aptitude, good memory, and logical thinking, it is generally not a recommended approach. Our memory has limitations, and it does not adhere to direct commands.

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Endlessly stuffing your mind with new information in a 24-hour span risks memory overload. The information absorbed last-minute might not surface during the exam, leading to confusion or forgetfulness. Moreover, preventing burnout is crucial for exam success.

Kochetkov emphasizes the importance of not overexerting yourself during preparation. Limit study sessions to three to four hours a day, focusing not only on new material but also on reviewing previously acquired knowledge.

2. The Last-Day Study Ban: Allowing Your Brain to “Cool Down”

While taking a break from studying on the last day can be a good strategy for those who have consistently engaged in learning throughout the year, a complete halt might not be ideal for everyone. For individuals who have practiced problem-solving and topic revisiting, taking a few hours to review can be beneficial.

Kochetkov acknowledges the value of a study break but cautions against complete disengagement. Denying oneself the opportunity to review for a couple of hours before an exam may hinder performance.

3. The Need for Stress: Myth or Reality?

The belief that inducing stress enhances memory and concentration is a common misconception. Some attribute successful exams to pre-exam nerves, assuming that heightened stress levels lead to better focus and memory retention.

However, Kochetkov suggests a more accurate analysis: success often results from thorough preparation rather than induced stress. While short bursts of healthy stress can enhance concentration, prolonged and unhealthy stress can have adverse effects on overall well-being.

Stress management is key. Rather than artificially heightening stress levels, individuals should focus on reducing stress through mindfulness and relaxation techniques. A healthy, brief stress is more beneficial than prolonged, detrimental stress.

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Conclusion: Striking a Balance for Exam Success

In the quest for exam success, it’s crucial to dispel common myths and adopt strategies grounded in cognitive science. Kochetkov’s insights provide a foundation for a balanced approach to exam preparation, emphasizing the importance of effective study habits, strategic breaks, and stress management.

As you navigate the challenges of exams, remember that success is not solely dependent on last-minute cramming or induced stress. Rather, it stems from consistent, well-paced preparation and a holistic approach to mental well-being.


How can I best prepare for an exam without overloading my memory?

Answer: Limit study sessions to three to four hours a day, focusing on both new material and reviewing previously acquired knowledge. Avoid cramming on the last day, as excessive information can lead to memory overload.

Where should I strike a balance between studying and taking breaks on the last day?

Answer: While a study break is beneficial, complete disengagement is not recommended. Spend a few hours reviewing material to refresh your memory and ensure optimal performance during the exam.

What is the significance of stress in enhancing exam performance?

Answer: Short bursts of healthy stress can enhance concentration, but inducing prolonged, unhealthy stress is counterproductive. Stress management techniques, such as mindfulness and relaxation, contribute to overall well-being and exam success.

When is the most effective time to review information before an exam?

Answer: Reviewing information a couple of hours before the exam strikes a balance between allowing the brain to “cool down” and ensuring that relevant material is fresh in your memory.

To what extent does last-minute information cramming contribute to exam success?

Answer: Last-minute cramming is not universally beneficial. Memory has limitations, and overloading it with new information can lead to confusion and forgetfulness during the exam.

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