exam anxiety

Exam Anxiety: Interview with Lisa Pfau

This week we will be interviewing Lisa Pfau, the founder and CEO of Pfau Academic Writing, about the stress caused by assignments and exams. We thought this topic would be helpful to our listeners who are about to enter the final exam season. Exam anxiety is a real and serious problem that can hinder students’ academic performance.

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As you may know, Lisa has over 20 years of experience supporting students through academic challenges. I first met Lisa three years ago as a first-year International student at the University of Toronto. Lisa has helped me with the transition from high school to university, giving me lots of great tips about how to deal with the pressures of university.


What are some symptoms of exam anxiety?

Before I start, I should preface this with a disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist. I am a writing coach and I am basing my responses on 20 years of experience dealing with students, as well as my own research and readings on the topics. We do provide some links to mental health resources at the end of this post though.


Physical symptoms of anxiety: sweating, shakiness, increased heart rate, dry mouth, nausea, loss of appetite, crying, shortness of breath and dizziness. In some cases, some folks may even get physically ill, experiencing vomiting and diarrhea. I threw up one before my first provincial exam in Grade 12 because I was so nervous. Exam anxiety can be debilitating.

Cognitive symptoms of anxiety: procrastination/avoidance, addictive behaviors, inability to focus, loss of memory, lack of concentration, negative self-talk, easily distracted, lots of thoughts bouncing around in your head. I can usually tell when a student is anxious because I have to ask them the same question repeatedly and I get a distracted response. Or, oftentimes they fail to do their work in-between sessions because they are so worried about failing the assignment that it is better to completely avoid it, than try and make a mistake.


How does exam anxiety impact performance?

For me, I used to blank out at the beginning of the exam. For the first few minutes after sitting in the exam room, I would not be able to recall anything. However, after taking a few deep breaths and ritualistically setting up my exam table, my memory would start to come back and I could write the exam. Developing awareness about this response to exam stress helped me not to get overwhelmed by it. 


Another major impact is procrastination. When we are scared about something, we tend to avoid it, and that can mean avoid even starting an assignment or studying for an exam because we are afraid to fail, in the end creating the outcome that we were scared of, and validating our original fears.


Anxiety also makes it hard to focus and plan ahead, so we may think we studied, but since we were anxious our thoughts are all over the place and we likely are not hitting on or absorbing the key concepts. This is usually what happens when someone appears to have logged a bunch of hours in the library, but can’t seem to get a good grade on their work or exams. They are not sitting down to make a plan, note key information, memorize it, review it, and reflect on their mistakes, so that they can improve in the future. This is because when you are anxious you cannot access the part of your brain that deals with long-term planning and long-term memory. Your body is focused on fighting off the threat, which doesn’t require you to recall theoretical concepts or historical dates. It just requires you to know how you use your legs and run like the wind…or, hid under your bedspread watching Netflix.


What are some practices or strategies to relieve stress?

Anxiety affects everyone differently, and so we all deal with it differently and some strategies that work for me, may not work for everyone, but here are a few that I like:

  • Deep breathing: 7/11 breathing – breath in for 7 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds and breath out for 11 seconds

  • Journaling – Writing things down really helps me to get clear on why I am feeling a certain way, so that I can make a plan to resolve those stressors. It also can help me to identify and combat negative thought patterns.

  • Exercise – I find that I collect a lot of stress in my body throughout the day. If I don’t get at least an hour of intense exercise (weights or cardio) each day, it will build up over a few days and I will eventually find it hard to focus and want to start avoiding my desk.

  • Healthy eating – Sugar in-take really impacts my mood, so I tried to avoid sugary treats as much as I love them. I try my best to eat more fruit or bake treats out of natural ingredients or increase the fiber content to balance out the sugar. This is definitely a tricky one for me though because I baked goods.

  • Making lists – making a to-do list and setting intentions for the day helps me to get back on track when my brain wanders off on a tangent. I also keep a blank page for random thoughts that I pop into my mind throughout the day that I need to deal with, but not at the moment. I can then add them to my list for another day.

  • Professional help: Finally, I’m a big believer in psychotherapy. I think we spend some much and time working on my physical appearance, why not invest in your mind and mental health as well. Good friends are wonderful, but a therapist provides you with insight you often cannot get from others in your life unless you happen to be best friends with a trained therapist.

Recommended Resources

Presence by Amy Cuddy

School Counsellors



Student Care





Thank you, Lisa, for sharing the excellent advice with us and our readers! 

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Both the written, visual, audio, and audiovisual content of this post has been created by and is the intellectual property of Lisa Pfau and PFAU Academic Writing. Please do not replicate any of the above content without our consent. However, please do feel free to share this post and its authorship widely.

Overcoming Scary Standardized Exams by Lisa Pfau & Patricia Huang
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Overcome exam stress and excel.

I remember when I wrote my GRE. It was the most stressful exam of my life. The first time I took it, I wasn’t worried at all since I had no idea what to expect. I was smart and I was sure that I would score decently. Wow! I totally misjudged the exam.  First, you need  your passport, you go into a little cubicle, you can’t go to the bathroom for hours, you can’t bring anything in, and the questions start and disappear once the time is up, there’s no time to think…. The second time around I literally was crying in the hallway floor before heading down to the exam centre. So much stress!!!

Eventually, I did master the stress and exam though. There are a few things you can do to help yourself too:

Give yourself 3-6 Months to Prepare:

Unlike most exams in high school or university, you can’t just memorize all of the material in a short period of time. You need to understand how the exam works, identify different types of questions, and know the content so that you can answer everything quickly without the stress of the situation getting to you.

Use the Library:

There are numerous exam prep books out there. Instead of buying them all, check them out from the library and do as many practice questions as you can. You can also find lots of resources online. The best bet is to go to official test sites for practice tests, as well as well-known exam prep companies for books. Make sure that you have the most updated versions for practice tests, but you don’t necessarily need the most updated exam texts for practice unless there has been a major change in the exam. The majority of the questions remain the same, so don’t worry too much about using older editions for drills, as long as you have a few up-to-date practice exams from the official website that you can use for a full practice.

Create Flashcards:

There’s a ton of material to memorize in order to score well on the exam, particularly if there is a vocabulary section or math section. The best way to deal with it is to create flashcards and work on memorizing terms and equations while you’re riding the transit, working out at the gym, or waiting for an appointment. It is a good idea to keep track of what you remember and what you still need to work on by putting the flashcards aside that you feel you’ve already mastered and replacing them with others that you aren’t fully confident about. You can also find several free apps that generate flashcards and quizzes to help your review.

Do Short Drills:

Speed is a key element of succeeding on standardized exams. There’s no time to think about your answer, you just need to know it. Practicing sections of the exam under time pressure allows you focus on mastering certain types of questions while increasing your speed and accuracy. Different sections tend to require different skills sets, so once you feel comfortable with one section, you can move onto the next. By mastering one section at a time, it makes doing the full exam under time pressure a lot less daunting.

Note Your Mistakes:

Every time you get a question wrong, go to the back of the workbook and read the explanation. You will likely start to see patterns in your errors and certain types of questions that you struggle with. If you can identify those patterns, then you can slowly recognize the correct response in different cases. Don’t beat yourself up about making any mistakes, but take this as an opportunity to learn and improve. These exams don’t test your intelligence, but you’re ability to master the exam.

Cracking standardized exams isn’t easy, but it is possible. There is no secret weapon to getting a good score, but hard work, lots of practice, and understanding what the exam is all about sure does help.  And remember, if you need extra help, don’t hesitate to reach out to us to set up a free 30 minute consultation with a qualified exam prep tutor.

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Pfau-pfau gets frustrated with her LSAT practice.

The content of this post is created by Lisa Pfau & Patricia Huang. You are welcome to share this post, but please do not replicate any of this material without our permission. Thanks!