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Nine tips to manage your nerves during U of T exam season

(photo by Stephen Dagg)

After weeks of assignments, group projects and everything else, they’re here: finals. They are the last hurdle before summer and can often induce anxiety that hinders performance. 

So what can students do to keep a cool head during the exam period and give it their best?

While different methods work for different people, U of T News asked a psychology professor, master's student and registered nurse at U of T for their tips. Zindel Segal is in the psychology department at U of T Scarborough and specializes in psychotherapy and mindfulness, while Danielle Lum is doing a master's in information studies after graduating from U of T in English and women and gender studies. She’s also a senior researcher at the Innovation Hub in the division of Student Life. Elsa Kiosses is a health promotion nurse at U of T Scarborough. 

Here are their tips:

1. Find your stress signature: There’s no way around it: exams are stressful. But each person experiences and copes with stress differently. The first step is to identify your own stress symptoms, which Segals calls a “personal stress signature,” so you can respond appropriately.

Do exams make you distracted? Lose sleep? Worry? “You move from the recognition that you’re living in a stressful ecosystem to the personal signature of stress in your mind and body,” he says. “Once you have that, then you can start taking action.”

2. Self-care is key: At exam time, a little kindness to yourself goes a long way, Segal says. “This attitude of ‘Be stoic, push through it, what's the big deal?’ – that isn’t helpful,” he says. If exams make you restless, try going for a half-hour walk around campus or in nature, he says. For others, it may help to listen to relaxation or mindfulness meditation practices for 20 or 30 minutes. 

3. Hug your animal: When the going got tough in exam season, Lum sought out some furry companionship. She took out her dogs Rosie and Sully, a mixed-breed rescue dog and a Doberman, or she cuddled her cat Amigo. Those who don’t live with animals can catch Bella the long-eared therapy dog on certain days at Gerstein library, and therapy dogs make occasional visits to other spots on campus, too. One study suggests therapy dogs reduce levels of cortisol, the biological marker of stress.

Students play with Bella the therapy dog’s ears at Gerstein library (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

4. A chunk of wisdom: Instead of studying non-stop, Lum broke up her time into two- or three- hour chunks, with time to decompress in between. She worked backwards from each exam date to plan her study time, prioritizing earlier exams and those in subjects that she felt were harder.

Although some students cram in the hallways before an exam, that never worked for Lum. “I tend to listen to music and try to chill out and not be too overwhelmed,” she says.

5. Surround yourself with healthy snacks: While studying, it’s tempting to grab food on the go to maximize your time in the library. Kiosses, at the Health & Wellness Centre at U of T Scarborough, suggests keeping healthy snacks on hand. “Try brain foods such as multi-grain crackers, fruits, nuts, veggies and milk,” she says.

6. Get some shut eye: While Lum admits it was difficult to find the time to sleep as much she was used to during exams, she rarely went with less than six hours. She’s pulled all-nighters to finish assignments, but not to study for a test. “What I’m able to retain over a period of cramming doesn’t make up for the deficit of writing an exam on little sleep,” she says.

7. During the exam, pause and breathe: Even hours upon hours of studying won’t prepare you for every question you might face on an exam. If a question throws you for a loop, it’s natural to worry. But try not to panic. “The mind is getting over-heated, and that’s not going to help you,” Segal says. 

“What’s possible in those moments is to step back from the mind and focus on sensations and being in the moment,” he adds. “For example, feeling the pressure in the soles of your feet as you press into the floor, feel the weight of your body in your chair. Maybe take four conscious in breaths and four conscious out breaths.”

8. If you didn’t do well, ask why – and learn from it: If the exam didn’t go your way, look back on what went wrong, Segal says. Talk to classmates, a TA or your professor to understand what happened and don’t be too hard on yourself. “If the Leafs get turfed out of the playoffs in the first round, some people might say that’s really bad,” he says. “But a good coach would say that this is a learning experience for a young team and we’re going to do better next year.”

9. Celebrate your achievements: Whenever you reach an important milestone, take the time to pat yourself on the back before taking up the next challenge, Kiosses says. “Take the time to enjoy the feeling when you are getting through each task, exam, assignment and feel good about yourself,” she says. “Positive thinking can positively impact your motivation and performance.”

Want more advice? Learn how to bring your A-game to exams with tips from U of T sports psychologist Katherine Tamminen


Feeling distressed? Find someone to talk to right now – and if there is an immediate risk, call 911.

The following are some of the mental health services available to students on all three campuses:

Downtown Toronto: Health and Wellness Centre (416-978-8030), located at Koffler Student Services

U of T Scarborough: Health & Wellness Centre 416-287-7065 

U of T Mississauga: Health & Counselling Centre 905-828-5255

Round-the-clock support

Free 24/7 support is available outside the university. Students, staff and faculty can speak to a trained crisis worker at any hour of the day.

Good 2 Talk 1-866-925-5454

Gerstein Crisis Centre 416-929-5200 

Distress Centres of Greater Toronto 416-408-HELP (4357)

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at 250 College Street

Anishnawbe Health Toronto Mental Health Crisis Line 416-360-0486

My SSP for U of T  Students 1-844-451-9700. Immediate support is available in 35 languages and ongoing support in 146 languages.

Appointed faculty and staff have access to the Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP), offered through Homewood Health, online and by phone at 1-800-663-1142.