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Student Insights

How to stay resilient during exams

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 04 Jan 2024

young asian woman green shirt studying book reading office study room cup of coffee

Managing your health and wellbeing in times of heightened stress is vital. Paul Guess of caba offers five tips to help boost your confidence ahead of your next exam.

Studying for exams is often among the most stressful times of our lives. Building resilience helps us to manage the process of revising for and sitting the exam, as well as preparing for and receiving results. “When you’re revising, a great deal of weight is being pressed upon you,” says Paul Guess, a mental health expert at caba, the occupational charity supporting ACA students, ICAEW members and their families. “Building resilience can feel like a tough thing to do. It takes practice, as with all things. You can’t expect to decide to be resilient and thereafter you are untouchable. You need to cultivate robustness. It means learning from our successes and our failures, recovering when we have knockbacks, and seeing them as a challenge rather than a defeat.”

ICAEW and caba are here to support you at every step of your ACA journey. Here Paul outlines his tips for building resilience.

You’ve got to be responsible with your time and approach, just as you would in your job

1 Set realistic goals

Be honest with yourself about what you can achieve, and realistic about the time you have available. “So many people leave revision until the very last minute and end up not performing as well as they might have done,” Paul says. Work out your timeframe and what you want to achieve. Create a revision timetable. “Ask a friend who’s particularly good at this how they do it,” Paul advises. “You’ve got to be responsible with your time and approach, just as you would in your job.” 

2 Learn actively

Identify your learning style. “Some people just need to read a book to remember something. Others find it easier by speaking to people and having a discussion about a particular topic or theme,” Paul says. “Don’t passively sit and read if it doesn’t work for you. Write flashcards, summarise what you’ve learned.” It’s worth replicating exam conditions and completing practice questions to get some insight into how it feels and what you might need to do differently before the exam.

“If you’ve got to a point where nothing is sinking in during revision, stop,” adds Paul. “Go for a walk, engage a different part of your brain, listen to music, do some cooking, or exercise. Just do something to change the way your brain is working. It’s like pressing reset. When you sit down again to study, you should be able to approach it fresh.”

If you get restful sleep regularly, you’re more likely to get that kind of sleep the night before the exam

3 Look after your physical and mental health

Good sleep helps you to be resilient. “It’s easy to say, ‘Get good sleep before the day,’ but you can never guarantee that you will,” Paul says. “A good way to build up to it is by developing an evening routine before your exam period.” Be strict with yourself: avoid alcohol and caffeine, screens and studying too late. Go to bed at the same time every night and relax before bed. “It can be easy to think, ‘If I just do another half hour’s study, I can cover another subject,’ but that’s not doing you any good in the long run. If you work on the routine before the exam and get restful sleep regularly, you’re more likely to get that kind of sleep the night before the exam.”

Looking after your physical health will help, too. Eat well – search on the internet for foods that help to relieve stress by nourishing your body and mind. Do an exercise you enjoy. “If you don’t enjoy running, going running won’t do you any good,” Paul says. “But don’t neglect physical or mental health in pursuit of revision.”

4 Be kind to yourself

Resilience is about having a positive mindset, but it’s also about being realistic and perhaps even sceptical. “Resilient people have had to employ strategies to deal with challenges. And a positive mindset is a way of lifting people beyond that – going from surviving to thriving,” Paul says.

If you say things to yourself like, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’ll never manage to get this done,’ that might be the outcome. And denying that things might be going wrong will not lead to resilience, either. “What remains within our control is how we react to situations. We can let ourselves be carried away or we can take a step back and work out what we need to do.” 

Always be kind to yourself, even when you don’t achieve the desired result. “When we fail at something, it’s very easy to call ourselves all sorts of names,” Paul says. “You’d never call other people the names you call yourself. Remember that it’s not acceptable to treat yourself that way.”

“The exam is not the sum of who you are,” he adds. “You need to take some time to rebuild your confidence.” Look back over the things you’ve done, the challenges you’ve overcome, talk to others about your feelings. “If you keep it all to yourself, you’re carrying all that weight on your shoulders.” 

Whatever the outcome, reward yourself. “You’ve put a lot of work in and it’s important that you acknowledge this,” Paul says.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, upset or just need a bit of a wellbeing boost, we’re here to help

5 Make the most of caba and ICAEW support networks

The Student Support Hub on the caba website features information and resources to help you manage your mental and financial health. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, upset or just need a bit of a wellbeing boost, we’re here to help,” Paul says. “We’ve got lots of videos, podcasts and articles on things like dealing with exam failure and looking after your health, as well as fun student hacks to help you make the most of your studies.” 

Other caba services include a means-tested grant to help with energy payments. “That can really take some of the pressure off so students aren’t worrying about finances at exam time,” Paul says. 

For those who need extra support, a range of therapy pathways are also available. caba can offer access to Qwell, a widely reaching online mental health platform, free to use with no need for a referral. Alternatively, it can make referrals to one-to-one counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, or even a psychologist. “We're also increasing our neurodivergent support services. So if a student needs assistive technologies or workplace applications, we can help move those along,” Paul adds.

ICAEW offers a range of exam resources and support videos, and its student support team can put you in touch with your student network. As Paul says: “It can feel very much like you’re alone when you’re revising, but you’re not. You have other students on the course with you, your training provider, student networks, ICAEW and caba.”

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