How I Study Smarter Not Harder For Exams

I'm going to be touching on the mental models that I use on the night before an exam or big test to help me overcome nerves and do the best I can when it matters.

Active recall, encoding, flow state, time blocking. These are the ingredients for effective learning. But what if I told you there were some even more effective mental models that if mastered will help you to become a top one percent learner and get top grades without any stress?

Overcoming nerves is tricky and being a little bit anxious around exam time is completely normal. But if you let nerves overcome you, it can lead to lower exam scores and just make you feel shaky coming out of any sort of exam or test.

I'm going to break things down into my five top mental models for overcoming pre exam nerves and give you some practical advice on what you should do the night before an exam to make sure you get some good rest and you wake up ready to go and ready to attack it and do your best when it matters.

The Exam Nerves Are Normal Model

So my first top tip of overcoming pre exam nerves is simply to acknowledge that nerves are completely normal and part of any pre night ritual before you head into a big exam or test, or in fact, anything. I still get nervous on occasion if I'm presenting to large groups of people and I've given talks to huge audiences in the past and even then, even though I've been fully prepared, I still get a little bit nervous and that's absolutely fine.

For me, I always think that nerves actually help focus me and keep me on the straight and narrow to ensure that I perform at my best. Now despite what you think, there is not a single one of your peers who won't be equally nervous before an exam. And really, it's all down to how we actually manage our nerves.

One of the big mistakes that I see people make, particularly the night before an exam or test, is that they get a little bit nervous and then they start to overthink and overanalyse their nerves and that leads to lack of sleep and really starts to make the problem worse than it needs to be. Now, when we're talking about nerves, I'm talking about that little sinking feeling in your stomach or just feeling some apprehension.

If you are affected by actual clinical anxiety or you're getting things like heart palpitations, that can be a little bit nerve wracking. and possibly means that you need to pop along and see your family doctor or GP to get a little bit of help with managing your stress and anxiety. But for the most part, episodic stress around exam time is entirely normal.

And it's something that you can manage by yourself. After first acknowledging it, you then want to have a plan of attack. to how you can calm yourself down and focus your mind so that you can get rest, you can get a good night's sleep, and when you wake up the following morning, you're ready to attack that exam.

The Anxiety Control Mental Model

So my next top tip, after simply allowing yourself to acknowledge that nerves are part of the process, and are entirely normal is to really attack them head on and to think how you can tackle them.

What I tend to do is switch on my calm app or meditate around exam time. If I find that things are becoming a little bit overwhelming or I'm becoming stressed, or particularly the night before exams when I want to get a good night's sleep, I'll make a concerted effort. to do some mindful meditation for even just five or 10 minutes, practicing breathing exercises and body scans to relax me and reduce any nerves or anxiety that might be playing on my mind.

One of the most important parts of mindfulness is that if you can focus your brain on concentrating on different parts of your body, like your breathing. Or how your arms feel when you're lying down. It really removes your brain from thinking about the anxiety and making it worse. Things like calm or headspace or even just jumping on YouTube into some study with me videos or into some calm relaxing soundscapes will help to relax you the night before any exam or test.

And you might also want to put on your AirPods. and listen to the music if you're waiting to go into an exam hall or any testing environment to just kind of calm you down and make you feel much more relaxed. If you don't have access to Spotify or any way you can get hold of mindfulness material, my other top tip here is simply to concentrate on your breathing.

Breathing in, holding your breath, and then breathing out. And practicing this regularly will build up this mindfulness habit and help relax you when it matters. Even in times where you're really, really anxious about things just before you're about to go into an exam, you can practice mindful breathing and then that will help to calm you down and focus you on the task at hand.

The Relaxation Mental Model

Top tip number three is really all about getting a good night's sleep before an exam. Now your stress, anxiety, and lack of sleep can lead to you doing worse than if you were waking up feeling refreshed. And so one of the key things here... is to make sure you've got a solid wind down routine the night before an exam.

For me, I try not to revise the night before an exam or on the morning of an exam, and I simply try and do things that I enjoy and keep myself as relaxed as possible. Before an exam, I'll wake up, go to the gym, I might read a book, I might listen to some music, and most importantly, the night before, I'll have a really good meal, I'll relax, I'll watch something on TV, or I'll read a book.

And I'll try to completely switch off from that exam as best I can. I'll then get my head down onto the pillow at my regular time of going to sleep, having done some exercise during the day which makes me a little bit tired and sleepy. And then I'll try not to overthink getting to sleep. I've been in that situation, as I'm sure many of you have, where I've been trying to get to sleep so hard that my mind just won't switch off and then it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy where you need to get in some sleep hours before an exam but your mind just won't switch off or let you go to sleep. And it can be super frustrating.

Other quick hacks here are things like having a hot shower or a warm bath the night before to help further relax you and really making sure that your room is set up for sleep.

I've got a great article on how to build strong sleep habits, like having things like blackout blinds, switching off any electronic equipment before you go to bed, and making sure that your bedroom is really set up as a sleep temple.

The Overthinking Mental Model

My fourth top tip is really all about your mindset.

Remember that panic comes from the apprehension of thinking how you might do at the exam or test itself. If you prepared thoroughly, chances are you're going to do really, really well at the exam. And even if you haven't, remember that being stressed about things is actually counterintuitive. So you need to switch up your brain and your mindset to thinking... I'm going to absolutely nail this exam. I've put in the work, I've put in the effort, and this is my chance to shine and get a really, really good exam score. If you're a little bit crazy like me and you've gamified your learning revision, you might even see the exam or test as a bit of a game where you're learning something, you're working through the questions like you've done in your active recall practice, and you're actually enjoying going through the exam once you're in there.

For me, when I actually opened an exam paper or had to do a face to face exam, I actually got into the swing of things. quite quickly and found it a little bit enjoyable. Although probably not as enjoyable as playing Elden Ring or any of the latest video games that are out at that time.

The Control Mental Model

My final top tip here is again another really powerful mindset one and that is you really can't do anything to impact things the night before an exam or on the day of an exam.

There's very little that you're going to do in terms of revision that's going to massively impact your exam results or your test results and so it's a little bit of being over controlling. You need to let things be. Relinquish control, and just really understand that the exam is the next thing that's coming up for you.

Remember, you can't control everything. And even if you wake up early, or your alarm doesn't go off, or anything happens that disrupts your sleep, it's out of your control, and you just need to roll the punches and deal with focusing on that exam and doing your best when you open the paper.

Don't overthink things. Don't worry about things that are out of your control. And just go back to my previous tip, which is you put in the exam revision work and on the day it's your time to shine and everything else is very much out of your control. So as a bonus and sick tip for you, again, another mindset one, and that is to really remove any outcome dependence from the exam.

You might be overthinking things. and putting more weight on the exam or test results than is needed. Remember, passing an exam is not life or death, and adding some perspective to the situation really adds in an element of realism. If you fail the exam, it's not the end of the world. If you get a test result that's not quite up to your perfectionist standard, again, it's not going to hurt or kill you in the long term.

You're probably overthinking things and putting that exam or test result on a pedestal, and that's really adding to any stress or anxiety, and again, it's counterintuitive. Again, you just want to think back and say to yourself, I'm going to do my best in this situation and anything else really is outside of my control.

I'm not going to overthink things. I'm not going to put too much outcome dependence on this exam. And I'm really just going to focus down on me as an individual. Controlling my nerves, recalling all of the work that I've done when I open that exam paper, and then when I walk out of the exam hall, all the tests, or switch off your computer, or whatever you're doing, it's done, it's over, you don't need to overthink things, you don't need to speak to other candidates who've been through the exam to analyze how they have done, and you just need to switch off and get back to your normal life.

Not worrying too much about the exam results. From personal experience, I've passed exams, I've failed exams, I've done graded exams, I've done not so graded exams, and to be perfectly honest, I can't really remember any exams that I've done in any specific detail. And what you've got to remember is that whether you've done well, or whether you've had a bit of a failure, in six months time you'll be on to the next thing and it will all be forgotten.