Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Dear Katie column / Life

Dear Katie column – Exam Stress

What are some tips for managing stress around exams and assignments? – Exam stressed, 23 


I have 1000 words here and I could give 1000 tips, but instead I will give one. Well, one with bits attached.

Let me start by saying that there are a bunch of obvious things that reduce stress: eating more vegetables and less sugar, ensuring you get eight hours sleep, doing exercise and spending time with trees. Not having anxiety or emotion dysregulation issues is also useful. These things are unquestionably rewarding and will make life easier if you do them. 

But some of those things are not within everyone’s capacity or control, especially during heightened stress times. So let’s focus on something that might be.


The thing about stress

The thing about study in general, and exams and assignments in particular, is that they are inherently stressful. You are placing yourself first in a context where you know less than other people and are made acutely aware of that (studying), and then you put your work in front of the experts to literally be judged and graded. Humans are deeply wired for social contexts, and we are sensitive to any threat that might get us thrown out of the groups we are in. Judgement is innately threatening.

However, if you want to do important things like get degrees and progress in a career, you have to invite judgement into your life. That is stressful, but it’s not necessarily bad. Stress is a part of all meaningful and important work. It is a part of all growth. Avoiding stress would mean melting into a puddle of idle nothingness, which would in itself attract stress of a different kind. 

So really, what we are talking about is not so much reducing stress as expecting it and accounting for it, and stopping it ballooning so much that it paralyses us.

As with any kind of management technique, we’re looking for the bits that are within our control. It would be nice if we could control what grades we got or what questions were on the exams, but we can’t. We know those things too late. What we have a hope of controlling, however, are things like mindsets and behaviours. 

So let’s look at one mindset and behaviour coupling that might help manage the stress that comes specifically from studying, doing assignments, and preparing for exams. There are others, but even if you only go all in on this technique, your stress will likely reduce and your productivity will increase.


The “I deserve this” mindset

The mindset I would love for you to take on is the idea that you deserve to feel accomplished and proud of yourself. Not in terms of grades or end of term achievements, but in terms of your day to day experience of life. As a student, trying your hardest, you deserve the chance to feel like you are doing well every day, or at least most days. 

I like this mindset because it comes from a place of love and championing rather than fear and punishment. With this mindset you do your study and preparation because you deserve to feel good about yourself that day, not because you are terrified of feeling something else or because you are trying to make up for some deficit. It also removes the spectre of grades, which are beyond your control.


The technique: a specific kind of scheduled work

Next, we couple that mindset with a reasonable schedule of behaviour that you keep to. This bypasses two psychological barriers to study: forcing yourself to make a repeated choice to do a hard thing, and the presence or absence of willpower. 

You might be thinking at this point that I am going to recommend studying all day every day during peak periods in order to feel good, but you would be wrong. That would be a terrible idea. To effectively learn things and make connections in your brain you need to give your brain time off doing idle and fun things. And that time should really be off, not worrying or feeling guilty that you haven’t studied enough. Assuming your schedule reasonably accounts for how much work you need to do, this technique offers both a sense of accomplishment in your day and the chance to really rest and  enjoy fun things, even during times of high stress. 

The starting point for my technique is to:

  1. Assess how much time you need to work. Multiply your estimate by 1.5 because we are all dumb dumbs who overestimate how long things comfortably take.
  2. Schedule your time in increments no longer than one hour and no longer than five hours per day.
  3. Commit to keeping to the schedule no matter how you feel at the time.
  4. Once the work is done for the day, do things that feel good and restore you in some way, guilt free.

This is a very bland, obvious suggestion, and when I was studying I read many versions of it that I completely ignored. So this is just a starting template, not the final idea.


Personalising your system

The actual technique I recommend is to take the basic idea of “scheduled, focused study + guilt free other time” and design your own best version. In doing so you pay attention to when you work best, how you work best, what your limitations are foibles are, and where your super powers lie. Your schedule might include rising early and doing two hours study on your bed before 8am, whereas someone else’s will be working in the library between 10pm and midnight. For some, music will be necessary, for others music will interfere. 

The point is that a study technique that reduces someone else’s stress might amplify yours, and you are completely free to design your own. Figuring out how you best work is one of the most important and useful things you can learn at university. 


Where to start

While I will always defer to you, dear reader, on what works best for you, I would suggest that in designing your system you remember the following:

  1. As a student, you deserve a clear and doable way to feel accomplished and prepared every day.
  2. Your everyday behaviours are cumulative and therefore much more likely to determine your success and preparedness than any one big push. Little bits done over time add up, and have the added benefit of being more effective and less stressful.
  3. You deserve the chance for true leisure and fun, even during stressful periods. More than that, your brain will remember more and make better connections if it has some fun and rest in the middle of stress.
  4. The brain responds to contexts. The more you create a context in which study and writing happen, the more your brain will show up for you when you put yourself in that context. This is why best practice includes doing a scheduled session every day, even if you don’t have work due. You can do class readings or creative work if you don’t have academic work due.  
  5. The brain takes a while to settle into a focused place, but no time at all to come out of that place. To give it the best chance to get there, you need to deliberately remove all distractions for the work periods.
  6. Scheduling the work does not eliminate the possibility that doing the work will still feel stressful. It helps to expect feelings of stress and discomfort to come up, and let them do so. Try not to suppress them, but just allow them to be there while turning your attention back to the work.
  7. You get to judge yourself on your behaviour in sticking to the schedule, as opposed to whether or not it was a “good” study day or not. There will be good days and bad days, but there will probably be more good days the more you do this.

If you want to start from an existing technique, you could look into the Pomodoro Technique (which I hate because the tiny five minute breaks were so short as to be super stressful), or the Kitchen Timer technique (which I love and for which I owe Lauren Graham a debt of thanks). There is no “right” way to study, and a method that accounts for your own peculiarities and actually gets you working will always beat out a famous method that only works half the time. 


In conclusion

Stress is big and amorphous. No one technique will reduce it for everyone and nothing will get rid of it entirely. But if you can be kind to yourself and schedule your work in a reasonable way, chances are things will feel better. 

And if all else fails, get a big bag of carrots and go see some trees. 





If you have a query, please email, with your first name (or a pen name) and your age – these details, as well as information provided as part of your query may be published. Submissions will go directly to Katie at Symphony Law, who will review and select queries for future posts. Please keep in mind that unfortunately, Katie cannot answer every question, correspond directly with readers, or give professional advice.


Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at Check out her website for more details at: Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.

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