Exam Day Tips: Essential Strategies for Your Child’s Success

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

I’m Dr. Lucy Russell, a clinical child psychologist and parent of two teenagers. Guiding your child through exam preparations is challenging yet vital. Equipping them with the right tools not only boosts their chances but amplifies their confidence during an exam period too.

Following these exam day tips has certainly helped my children to be successful in their exams and I regularly recommend them in my clinic, where I regularly work with young people experiencing exam or test anxiety.

Effective time management, realistic expectations, and pre-exam wellness significantly impact outcomes. Using proven tips ensures they’re primed for success during exam season. Isn’t that what we all want for our kids?

But there’s more than just studying. A smooth exam day plays a pivotal role. Organise materials beforehand. Prioritise sleep. Help your child with positive morning habits. This sets an ideal stage for their accomplishments.

On the exam day, a calm mindset aids recall and sharpens critical thinking. Together, we can support them in this journey.

Key Takeaways

  • Preparation and organisation on exam day can lead to a smoother, stress-free exam experience.
  • Ensuring a good night’s sleep and maintaining a healthy routine on the morning of an exam are crucial for success.
  • There are strategies which will help your child remain focused throughout the day to boost memory recall and critical thinking.
exam day quote by Dr Lucy Russell, clinical psychologist

Preparation before Exam Day

As parents, the period leading up to a big test or exam can be as nerve-wracking for us as for our young learners. While we can’t sit in the exam room with them, our role in their preparation process is vital. This guide offers a structured approach to aid your child in their revision journey, making the most of their time and building their confidence.

Study Materials and Methods

Most children and teens need much more help than we think organising their studies. Their brains are still in development. Organisational skills won’t be fully mature until adulthood. On a positive note, from puberty onwards these skills will improve every year.

Start by setting a dedicated workspace for your child, free from distractions. Here, help them compile all their study materials in a structured way. For example, organized folders or binders for notes, separate envelopes or boxes for quizzes, and a dedicated container for flashcards can drastically reduce the time wasted searching for resources.

Encourage your child to regularly declutter their workspace to maintain its efficiency. You may have to physically support them to do this.

Introducing visual aids is another effective method. Did you know that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information? Your child could experiment with mind maps, which may help them organise information but also tap into their visual memory, making recall easier. Charts, diagrams, and color-coded notes can also help with clarity and retention.

Some young people benefit from working in a small study group. They can motivate one another and help each other with specific areas of difficulty. But this only works if everyone in the group is equally motivated, so it’s not always the best option.

At the end of the day, it’s all about what works for your child. My daughter for example, has had a lot of success with flash cards and quizzes. Have fun and play around with what works for your child’s brain!

A teenage girl revising for a test. She is organised with a tidy desk containing her laptop, notebooks and drink.

Mapping Out Study Time

To maximize the effectiveness of study sessions, a well-thought-out plan is indispensable. Here’s a step-by-step guide to make the most of your child’s study time to enhance their exam or test performance:

  1. Assess the Syllabus: Begin by understanding the full scope of the syllabus. This is a great way to get alongside your child and develop a deeper understanding of the topics they are learning about. Identify the topics that are more challenging for your child and allocate more time for those areas.
  2. Create a Study Calendar: Using a physical calendar or digital apps like Google Calendar, block out study sessions. Break the sessions into chunks of 45-50 minutes followed by a 10-minute break to optimize concentration. The study sessions may need to be shorter if your child has ADHD. It can be counter-productive to spend too much time studying and it can lead to burnout for your child. Be sure your child understands this need for balance.
  3. Prioritize Topics: Not all topics carry equal weightage. Understand which sections are crucial and allocate time accordingly. This ensures that even if your child can’t cover everything, they’ve addressed the most important concepts.
  4. Flexible Scheduling: While consistency is important, rigidity can lead to burnout. Make sure there’s flexibility in the schedule to allow for unforeseen events or if your child is particularly struggling with a topic.
  5. Breaks are Essential: Regular breaks can boost productivity. Encourage a short walk, stretch, or even a quick snack during these intervals to recharge.
  6. Diverse Study Methods: Different subjects may require varied approaches. For instance, subjects like history might benefit from storytelling methods, while maths might be better learned through repetition and practice questions.
  7. Seek External Help: Sometimes, despite the best efforts, certain topics remain challenging. In such cases, consider enrolling your child in exam-focused workshops or tutoring sessions that target specific areas of difficulty.
  8. Review and Adjust: At the end of each week, sit with your child to review progress. Adjust the schedule based on what was achieved and what needs more attention.

By methodically mapping out study time, you not only ensure structured preparation but also alleviate some of the anxiety associated with looming exams.

list: how to map out study time in preparation for an exam day

Practice Tests and Revision

Practice tests simulate the exam environment. Encourage your child to do frequent practice tests to familiarize them with test questions and structure. This will reduce their anxiety on the day and will ultimately help them secure good grades.

Sleep

Try to work on healthy sleep patterns in the days and weeks leading up to the exam. Sleep is crucial for optimal functioning of your child’s brain including focus and memory retention. There is no set number of hours of sleep your child should have the in the night before an exam or the time leading up to it. However, on average teens should get 8-10 hours and pre-teens 9-10 hours. You can find a plethora of practical advice in my article about sleep and sleep habits.

Having said this, help your child not to panic even if they don’t sleep well the night before an exam. Their body will still get them through it.

The Morning of the Exam

Waking up and Morning Routine

The day of the big exam can be nerve-wracking, but a calm morning can make all the difference. Encourage your child to rise early, so they aren’t hurrying through their routine.

Early in the day, help your child to calm their body through 3-5 minutes of deep, slow breathing. Effectively this tells the brain, “I am safe and calm”. This can help in setting a positive tone for the day and alleviating any pre-exam jitters.

Hydration plays a subtle yet crucial role in your child’s cognitive performance. Being dehydrated by just 2% can impair brain functioning. Motivate them to drink a glass of water when they wake up, and keep a bottle of water handy, ensuring they remain hydrated and alert throughout the exam day.

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Breakfast for Energy and Focus

Help your child start their day with a healthy breakfast to fuel their body and mind for the challenging day ahead. Even if they are not normally a “breakfast person”, it’s vital that they eat well for balanced blood sugar, mood and concentration.

Opt for nutritious foods that provide long-lasting energy, such as whole grains, protein-rich items like peanut butter, and a serving of fruits or vegetables. Avoid processed sugary foods (including some breakfast cereals) that may cause an energy crash later in the day.

Did you know that what your child eats might also actively improve their exam performance? Research suggests that blueberries can have an acute positive effect on certain cognitive tasks within hours of consumption.

The immediate benefits to brain functions are believed to be due to the high flavonoid content in blueberries. These compounds may enhance neuronal function, improve blood flow to the brain, and increase the efficiency of neural communication.

Other foods believed to have similar immediate cognitive-enhancing effects include dark chocolate, due to its flavanol content, and green tea, rich in the amino acid L-theanine. Both have been associated with improved attention, reaction time, and short-term memory during tasks.

It’s an intriguing prospect for those looking for an extra edge on exam day or during other mentally demanding activities. A handful of blueberries or a square of dark chocolate might just offer your child a quick cognitive boost when they need it most. Of course, this is a short-term result and it’s important to maintain a balanced diet throughout their study period as well.

A bowl of fruit, yoghurt and seeds.

Gearing up for the Day

Attention to small details can really boost your child’s confidence and keep them calm.

  1. Dress for Success: Comfort is key. Opt for layered outfits that can easily adjust to fluctuating room temperatures, ensuring your child remains focused on the task at hand rather than on feeling too hot or cold. If they have to wear a school uniform, choose soft, comfortable undergarments which will help them feel relaxed, and make sure they have removable layers with them, like a blazer, sweater or cardigan.
  2. Essentials Checklist: Create a checklist of must-have items for the exam. This might include stationery, ID, specific materials like calculators or textbooks, and a clear water bottle. Preparing this the night before can alleviate morning panic. In the morning all you have to do is run through the checklist and this reduces so much stress.
  3. Exam Day Folder: Consider organizing an ‘exam day’ folder or pouch with all required documents and materials. This minimizes the chances of forgetting something crucial.
  4. Route Planning: If the exam centre is unfamiliar, consider doing a dry run a few days before. If they’re travelling alone, ensure your child knows the best route, accounting for potential traffic or public transportation delays.
  5. Mindset Matters: Before heading out, take a few moments with your child for a brief pep talk or a calming breathing exercise. Reinforce their preparation and your belief in their abilities.

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Incorporate a Short Walk

Driving to the exam? Perhaps park a few minutes away and allow your child to walk the remaining distance. (Be sure to allow extra travel time though.) Why? Well, there are multiple benefits to walking before an exam.

Exercise stimulates the production of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that supports brain health and enhances cognitive function.

A brisk walk before an exam provides several other benefits for your child:

  1. Stress Reduction: Walking helps reduce stress and anxiety, regulating cortisol levels (the hormone associated with stress). The physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, which act as natural mood elevators and deliver a sense of overall well-being, helping your child feel calmer and more focused.
  2. Improved Blood Flow: Physical movement increases blood circulation, including to the brain. This enhanced blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, enhancing their efficiency and supporting optimal brain function during the exam.
  3. Enhanced Mood: Walking outdoors, especially in natural settings, can improve your child’s mood and overall outlook. A positive mood can give your child a more optimistic attitude towards the exam.
  4. Attention Restoration: Do you ever feel energised by a walk in the fresh air? Taking a walk in nature allows a child’s brain to enter a state of “restorative attention.” This state is characterized by increased mental energy and an increased ability to concentrate.

Ensuring a Smooth Start

Ensuring that your child starts their exam day without hitches is half the battle won. Here’s how you can guide them:

  1. Early Arrival: Encourage your child to reach the exam venue well ahead of time. Aiming to be there 30 minutes early provides a buffer against any unforeseen delays and helps ease any last-minute nerves.
  2. Venue Walkthrough: Is your child familiar with where they will be sitting their exam? Prior familiarity with the testing room can greatly help your child’s nerves. If possible, consider visiting the school or testing centre a few days before the exam. This allows your child to become accustomed to the environment and know where essentials, such as restrooms and water sources, are located. If a prior visit isn’t feasible, exploring the venue’s website together can be helpful.
  3. Key Instructions: Remind them to take note of any exam-specific instructions displayed around the venue. This not only ensures your child knows the rules but can also provide a reassuring recap of the exam format.
  4. Journey Mindfulness: The journey to the exam venue is a great time for calming nerves. Consider playing soft music or guiding your child through some simple breathing exercises. This is the time to focus on calmness and positivity, so steer clear of last-minute study or exam discussions.

With these steps, you’re not just prepping your child for an exam but teaching them life-long skills of preparedness and calmness under pressure.

A teenage girl in an exam.

During the Exam

Maintaining Positivity During the Exam

It’s inevitable that sometimes, despite all preparation, our children might hit a snag during the exam. Whether it’s a challenging question, a mind blank, or the ticking clock amplifying their nerves, it’s essential they know how to navigate these moments.

Guide your child with the following strategies:

Time Management Skills in Exams

Ensuring your child masters time management during exams could be the difference between passing and failing, or a good grade and a bad grade. Encourage them to practise keeping an eye on the clock and to strategically allocate time for each question. It’s a good idea for them to quickly scan the entire exam paper first to gauge the questions’ difficulty and length. This also helps them identify difficult questions that might take longer, so they can plan their time wisely.

Help them understand the importance of evenly dividing their time among questions and reserving some moments at the end for a final double check. As they go through the exam, being conscious of the time can allow them to adjust their pace. If they’re stuck on a particular question, advise them to move ahead and return to it later if there’s time left.

After the Exam

Review and Reflection

After completing your exam, take some time to review and reflect on the experience with your child. This is especially important if it’s the first in a series of exams.

Think about the parts they felt confident in, and areas where they need to make changes for future exams.

It’s important that they don’t dwell too much on any perceived failures, but rather focus on how they can learn and grow from them.

Rewards

It’s lovely to have a reward lined up after their hard work and dedication. Celebrate their achievements in getting through the exam regardless of the outcome.

A group of girls having burgers at a restaurant to celebrate finishing an exam

Continuing Self-Care and Relaxation

Maintaining a healthy balance between studying and self-care is essential when preparing for an important set of exams. The next day and beyond, continue to stay on top of your child’s wellbeing as best you can. Structure in some exercise, time in nature, breathing or mindfulness, or good old escapism like a good book or movie.

Case Study: Emanuelle, age 16

Emanuelle is a 16-year-old student who is preparing for an important exam. Her parents have been instrumental in supporting her exam preparation journey during her high school career.

To begin with, Emanuelle’s parents have encouraged her to develop good study habits. They helped her to create a study plan that allocates sufficient time to cover each topic thoroughly. They also emphasized the importance of reviewing her notes daily and completing homework assignments to ensure she doesn’t fall behind in her learning. Emanuelle’s understanding and retention of the material have significantly improved with these methods.

Recognising that every student’s study routine is unique, Emanuelle’s parents have supported her in personalizing her study approach. They encouraged her to tailor her study routine to what works best for her. With their guidance, Emanuelle decided to study new material in the afternoon, take short breaks every hour, and then revisit what she has learned in the evening. By adjusting her study timings to her productivity levels and commitments, Emanuelle has been able to keep more focus and efficiency in her exam preparation.

teen girl aged 16 outdoors

Emanuelle’s parents also helped her prepare for the different types of exam questions she may encounter. They looked at past papers together and talked through different exam question formats. This allowed Emanuelle to adapt her preparation strategies, equipping her with the skills needed to approach multiple-choice, essay, and problem-solving questions effectively.

To keep Emanuelle organised and stress-free on the day of the exam, her parents helped her to gather all her materials – pens, ruler, calculator, water bottle and snacks – the night before the exam.

Lastly, Emanuelle’s parents supported her to establish a pre-exam routine. They encouraged her to stick to her usual morning routine and have a healthy breakfast to boost her energy. They wisely advised her not to attempt to learn new information on the day of the exam, but instead, to revise a few keywords and phrases to reinforce her knowledge. She took her flashcards with her on the journey to help with this. They made sure she had ample time to get to school, and provided emotional support to keep her calm and composed.

Thanks to her parents’ guidance and assistance, Emanuelle was well-prepared to face the exam with confidence.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to prepare for an exam in 1 day?

If your child has just one day left to prepare for an exam, focus on reviewing the most important topics and key concepts. Help them create a study schedule, break down time into small sessions, and take breaks in between to prevent burnouts. You can also use the protΓ©gΓ© method by explaining concepts to someone else, which helps reinforce your understanding.

What to do before an exam?

Before an exam, eat a healthy, slow release breakfast to maintain your energy levels. For example, peanut butter on wholemeal toast. Assemble what you will need, such as a clear water bottle and pen. Arrive early to school to avoid feeling rushed. It’s also a good idea to visit the toilet beforehand to minimise distractions during the exam. As you enter the exam, take some slow, deep breaths to keep you calm and focused.

What not to do on exam day?

On the day of your exam, do not skip breakfast. Make sure you’re not late. Pace yourself, don’t rush. Move on from difficult questions. Do your best to stay composed; don’t panic if one or more questions are tricky or are not going your way.

A boy revising at night in front of his laptop. He looks tired and stressed.

What to eat on exam day?

On exam day, you should eat a balanced breakfast or lunch containing complex carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats. Foods such as whole grains, fruits, and nuts will provide you with sustained energy. Always avoid energy drinks, sugary drinks and junk food, which will give a brief energy high followed by a crash. Staying hydrated is essential for maintaining focus.

Study on the day of exam?

Studying on the day of the exam should be done with caution. It is important to avoid overloading your brain with new information, as this may increase stress levels. Instead, the best thing to do is briefly review key points, key words or flashcards to reinforce concepts and boost your confidence.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

To learn more tips for helping your child manage stress, join my Facebook group, Parent Tips For Positive Child Mental health UK.

parent tips for positive mental health facebook group