Exam stress and exam strategy

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This is another very long note. I think you should read it all. But just in case you don’t, here’s a summary of what I’m going to say. 


(a) A level results and the university you go to (or don’t go to) matter far, far less than you think. Almost no-one cares how you do, and you’ve got through much tougher challenges than this. You’ll be fine. Seriously.

(b) About half a million students get through their A levels and go to university every year. Given that none of my students are actually stupid, why do you think you won’t do so, too? You can do so and you will. (If you really want to.) You just need a plan. I’ll help you put it together.


The most stressful exam I’ve ever taken — by far — was my practical driving test. I've never been more anxious about anything ever. Indeed, I was so stressed about driving that (a) I didn’t take the test until I was 43, and (b) I only learned how to drive an automatic because I couldn't handle the complication of a manual gearbox. Even then it took me 50 hours of driving lessons.

There were two things that made the test so stressful for me.

First, the examiner is actually sitting next to you, watching you, waiting for you to fail. Which I did, the first time. (And, as it turns out, I failed in the first 30 seconds of the test, while I was driving out of the test centre car park. And then again a couple of minutes later when I changed lanes in the middle of a roundabout. And then again when I pulled out for a right-hand turn and the examiner had to slam on the brakes and yell at me for risking both our lives.)

Second, there are no other options if you fail your driving test. If you want to drive your own car on your own you have to pass the test. The driving test is a cliff-edge: it’s pass or fail, with nothing in between. I’d spent literally all of my savings on a car — if I couldn’t pass the test then I’d wasted the money on a useless hunk of metal I’d never be able to use and would have to sell at a loss.

But here’s an interesting fact: (almost?) all of my students have passed their driving test — even the thick ones — and, being spoilt little rich kids, they (almost) all have their own cars now and are having a lovely time driving around.

Yet I’m hearing more concerns from parents about exam stress this year than I ever have before. 

Stress is a response to a (usually false) belief that you are being asked to undertake an impossible task. You are being forced into doing something you (wrongly) believe you can’t do. Even worse, you (wrongly) believe that the consequences of (certain) failure are life-changingly catastrophic.

Let me address those concerns.

Your A level results are far less important than you think. Far, far less. They will not determine the course of the rest of your life. Unlike the driving test, it’s not a cliff-edge: pass or fail. Almost all my students — for as long as I’ve been tutoring — have got into university. Not all of them got into their first choice, but that matters a lot less than you think, too. You will not necessarily be happier or more successful because you went to a ‘prestigious’ university. The social lives at all universities are the same, because social life is about people, not places. And your career prospects are more about you as a person than they are about the specific university you went to.

What about those students who didn’t get into university? Well, they're fine, too. They had options. Some found other routes to get into university. (One student failed all his A levels. Huge disaster: none of you is in this position. Yet a year later — thanks to my superb guidance, ahem — he was starting the course he wanted to do at university. Things can be turned around. It’s never too late.) Meanwhile some went for (and got) apprenticeships.  None of them died or were thrown out of the house by their parents.

But equally, sometimes ‘failure’ is life’s way of telling you that you’re trying to do the wrong thing. None of you will ‘fail’ because you’re not smart enough. But some of you may ‘fail’ because you’re not motivated enough — the thing everyone assumes you want, isn’t actually the thing you want at all. And that’s fine. University isn’t for everyone. That doesn’t mean their lives will be a disaster. And nor does going to university mean your life will be a success cough lives on a council estate cough.

Perhaps you’re worried about what other people will think if you don’t get the grades. Well, you won’t like this but: no-one actually cares. Seriously. People only care about themselves. True story. Your friends won’t like you more or less because of your results. (Well, some bitter ones might if you do way better than them.) Even if they do: who cares? Most of the people you hang out with now you’ll never see again. Your lives are moving on. Your best friends will stay in touch — probably — but then they’re not going to change their opinion of you because of your A level results, good or bad. Or the university you go to. Or whether you even go at all. They’ve already decided what they think about you. As for your parents . . . they’re just worried, that’s all. Try being a parent. It’s a bloody nightmare. That’s why I cleverly didn’t become one. Looking after a dog is hard enough. Oh, they might be disappointed for a while, but they’ll get over it. You’ve spent around 18 years disappointing them already. They’re used to it. Besides, they’re rich: between you and them, you’ll figure something out.

So if you’re worried about UCAS and offers and universities and careers and whatnot: stop it. Nothing is cut out of your life forever because of your A level results this year.


Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting you can slack off and everything will be fine. After all, one of the reasons you wanted to pass your driving test was because mummy and daddy promised you that car that’s nicer and newer than mine, even though I’m nearly three times older than you #notbitter

Getting the A level results you want — and getting into the university you want to get into — feels great. And mummy and daddy will love you more if you do and buy you more stuff and pay for you to go on (more) expensive summer holidays #notbitter

So, yes, you are going to need to do some work. But how? There’s just so much to do! Well, I told you in my revision post what you need to do. Go back and read it again. (It’s about doing past papers and using the mark schemes.)

And remember: you don’t need 100%. Or anywhere near.

But you do need to do some work. And that’s going to require self-discipline. Stop spending your life on Snapchat. Turn your bloody phone off. Plan realistic, sensible blocks of time. Take reasonable breaks. Make sure you make time for fun, too. But remove all other sources of stress: like your bloody phone.

Don’t get into discussions with other people about how stressed you all are. Don’t listen to propaganda about how important it all is. Don’t listen to people who tell you how much work they’re doing. Cut yourself off from any source of negativity. Don’t visit thestudentroom.co.uk – you’ll whip yourself up into a frenzy of panic.

It is going to be hard. I probably worked harder for my A levels than any other exam I’ve taken. But you can do it. People do. Every year. It works out. Believe in yourself. Trust yourself. And get the hell on with it.

One last story. About five years ago I took on a new student in March of his second year of sixth form: in other words, he was where you are now. Back then they had January exams — he’d just got the results. He was doing Maths and Further Maths and had got E’s and U’s. Which was awkward because he’d applied to university to study Maths. I took him on — with less than three months to go. And he ended up with an A* in Maths and and A in Further Maths and got into his first choice, Manchester.

It can be done.