Imperial College Health Centre

Central London Clinical Commissioning Group

Sitting the Exam

What if I get a mental block during an exam?

  • Give yourself a couple of minutes to try to remember or puzzle out the answer. If you are still blocked, move on to the next question. If ideas for dealing with the question pop up while working on another one, jot them down before you forget them.
  • With mathematical questions it pays to stick with the problem a bit longer – say 10 minutes. Try thinking back to first principles or representing the problem diagrammatically or more concretely – or think laterally about related issues.
  • Adjust your timetable and still attempt all the required questions.

What if I PANIC during an exam ?

If you start panicking in the exam, and you find that the harder you try to work the worse you feel, practise “Stop the Wasp”:

  • STOP – the self-defeating thoughts that are buzzing around like wasps – tell yourself instead that you are going to survive this experience, come what may. Go through the following “W-A-SP” squashing procedure, which you’ll need to practise during milder forms of anxiety in the revision period (so you can learn to recognize the early stages of panic, which are easier to neutralize).
  • Familiarity with the procedure, through practice and mental rehearsal is essential emotional preparation.
  • WAIT – switch off and unwind for a few moments. Focus on breathing and then relax with eyes closed. This will help you return to the task afterwards with a calmer, clearer mind and a more constructive perspective.
  • ABSORB – taking in the relaxation, flood your mind with constructive self-talk (ideally from a repertoire of previously prepared and practised phrases); then slowly open your eyes and calmly bring yourself to face the exam situation.
  • SLOWLY PROCEED – get going again with the paper, as best you can, calmly, a step at a time…

Keep in mind:

  • When focusing on your breathing, take a long, slow, deep breath, and allow the air to flow out slowly and smoothly. Sit back comfortably, dangling your arms by your side, and imagine any tension flowing out through your hands and feet. Try any relaxation strategy that works for you.
  • If your breathing pattern has been rapid and shallow, you may be at risk of hyperventilating. Instead, pause after long exhalations, and breathe you’re stomach, rather than upper chest, movements. If you continue to hyperventilate, breathe into cupped hands (or even a paper or plastic bag – take one along if you think you’ll need it).
  • It may help to reframe your attitude towards the examiner. Instead of some sadistic, persecuting figure, imagine him or her as a friend, or someone who just wants some help with the question.

Repeat “Stop the Wasp” if necessary – you may have rushed back too soon the first time. Stay longer “waiting” and “absorbing”.  If the panic continues or escalates, tell the invigilator without delay.

After the exam

Don’t indulge in post-mortems and comparisons with others!

Review what went well in your overall approach – including how you handled anxiety – and aim to improve upon it in your next exam.