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  • Youth Mental Health Association

Coping with Standardized Exam Stress

If you’re like me, you may be spending your summer months in the books. Whether you’re studying for the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, PCAT, DAT, or (P)SAT, etc., you may experience a turmoil of emotions as you are “on the grind”.

For disclosure, I am writing the MCAT and some of this advice is taken from sites that emphasize the medical pathway; however, these can also be adapted to your own endeavors.


In a preferable world, we want to prevent a mental breakdown during exam preparation. These steps are (in my opinion) more important than the combatting steps because at that point, the harm is already done!

Cooking your own meals and getting proper nutrition

Here is a list of apps/websites where you can enter what ingredients you have access to, and they will generate recipes for you! Try checking out your local grocery store for meal kits that make it easier for you to cook.

Finding a hobby/sport to fill your free time

Here is a list on Reddit with a bunch of hobbies to take up, along with an online community forum where you can meet others with similar interests.

Set aside time to socialize with friends and family

Even if you can’t see your loved ones, you can set up a video call and play online games! Here is a list of free online games that you can try out. YMHA hosts internal game and movie nights, so if you are a member...come join us!

Plan your study days ahead of time

Using a journal, agenda, or online calendar, work backwards from your exam date and make sure that you have enough time for content review and practice tests!

Whether you’re a high school student or university student, it can be difficult to make time for these smaller habits. I challenge you to practice one of these habits and identify how it improves your life!

Combat tried prevention, you tried to follow the “right steps” and you’re still stressed and feeling doubtful. First, I want you to try and pinpoint why you’re feeling stressed. Yes, you have a big exam coming up, but let’s get to the root cause - unpreparedness, self-doubt, poor practice scores, and lack of support are just some examples of possible reasons.

If it is related to test-taking/studying:

  1. Consider getting a tutor or contact an upper-year student that can provide you with practical studying advice. There is NO shame in asking for help - this is a mistake that many students make!

  2. Change your studying style and experiment with different locations/settings. Sometimes you just need a simple change of scenery. Sometimes you’re not using an optimal studying method for yourself. Studying for a course is not necessarily the same as studying for a standardized exam!

If it is related to self-esteem:

  1. Create a support system that allows you to vent and be vulnerable. This can be a combination of friends, family, mental health practitioners, or your peers. By mitigating some of the stress, you have more mental space to dedicate towards studying!

  2. Critically assess your capabilities and be realistic with your evaluations. As avid students, you may be overly critical about yourself and your abilities. It’s easy to be sucked into a black hole of negativity, which only becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  3. Understand that your scores do not determine your worth. Many amazing professionals and academics have retaken their exams multiple times - if you discover that you are in this position, realize that you will not be the first or last person to retake an exam.

My favourite study habits

  1. I love studying with music, but it can definitely be distracting and too upbeat to focus on important passages and practice exams. Try lofi hip hop or slowed + reverbed remixes to your favourite music instead!

  2. Use an organizational tool/app to keep you on track until exam day! Some apps that students have loved include Notion, Trello, ClickUp, and Google Keep! Or if you are a fan of paper, bullet journaling is booming - all you need is a notebook! You can learn how to start one by clicking here!

  3. Watching “Study With Me” videos on Youtube while I study keeps me pressured to not become distracted from work.

  4. As someone with ADHD, I have A LOT of trouble with focusing on my work. Using productivity techniques such as the Pomodoro method has helped me succeed in studying! You can download apps like Forest or Flora to help you (or you can just use a regular timer).

  5. With respect to COVID-19, I haven’t been able to frequently study with anyone else. If you live with a roommate or have friends within your social circle of 10, try inviting them to work with you.

  6. Break bigger tasks into smaller “chunks” to make it feel less intimidating and more manageable! For example, if your chapter is 100 pages long, break it into 25 page chunks and take a break between each “unit”!

  7. Be productive with your time. Turn off your phone and notifications. Use website blockers like ColdTurkey if you need to! By becoming distracted, it takes time for your brain to readjust itself to the task.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis…

Please contact 911 or a local crisis hotline if you are considering any immediately harmful behaviours.

Academia can be incredibly stressful during busy seasons. There are support systems in place to help you succeed both in school and in your own health.


Anna-Lisa Nguyen

YMHA Ontario

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