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‘Trust your process’: Expert advice on how to beat exam anxiety

As the Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert draws near, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed - but therapists and teachers have top tips on how to turn stress into success

'When we get anxious we overestimate the challenge and underestimate our own ability', says Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

We’re down to final days. As State exam D-Day draws closer, nerves and panic can take over. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about what is an already stressful situation.

But, fear not, we have spoken to experts in the field who offer their best tips to students – and their parents – for getting through the next few days and weeks.

The power of self-belief

“When we get anxious we overestimate the challenge and underestimate our own ability,” says Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist.

He advises that students counter the anxiety they may be feeling by “putting the challenge in perspective – the Leaving Cert isn’t life or death”.


“Nurture your own self-belief. Remind yourself of the work you’ve done and trust your process,” he continues.


The temptation to pull all-nighters and cram may be real, but sleep is vital to the learning process, Dr Noctor explains.

“Your brain is a muscle and like any muscle it needs rest to grow. Sleep is key to consolidating your learning, so reassure yourself that downtime is crucially important, not only for mental wellbeing, but also for better retention.”

Recognise your pressure points

In our school we find our students tell us that it’s not parents or teachers generally piling on the pressure – it’s students themselves. And often inadvertently, the students around them,” Craig Petrie, principal of East Glendalough School explains.

“Try to detach yourself from what others are doing,” he recommends. “Stick to your plan. Cover your topics. Prepare in a way that suits you best. And try to block out the noise.”

Find your rhythm

Which you will very quickly, Petrie says. “The first day is the toughest, as it’s the most unknown. Do what you can to find out beforehand where you’ll be sitting, what time you need to be there and how you’ll get in.”

Know the reality

The stress students feel is often caused by worries about “the grades they might achieve” and how ultimately, if they don’t get the grades they want, it may lead to not getting “the course on the CAO that they want”, says guidance counsellor Donnchadh O’Mahony.

This is something parents need to be aware of also, O’Mahony says.

“Because sometimes, unbeknown to the parent, the stress can come from them, because they want them [the student] to do well, so badly.”

“Parents need to know that . . . there are so many more [choices] than there was when they were doing the Leaving Cert and when they were doing their CAO.”

Focus on the effort, not the outcome

Following on from the comfort of that knowledge, O’Mahony recommends focusing on the “effort in the lead up to the Leaving Cert”.

Focusing on “the exam” itself, rather than “the outcome”, he says. “This can often help reduce pressure and make the learning process even a bit more enjoyable.”

Know when to seek help

O’Mahony recommends having a chat with your guidance counsellor, deputy principal, principal or parents if you are finding the “stress and anxiety of the exams is outside the norm. It’s an extraordinary stress.

“Ask for some advice. Tell them what you’re going through,” he says. “You’ll be able to get the necessary help. Guidance counsellors in school would be very good at that.”

Guidance counsellor Donnchadh O’Mahony says there are lots of options outside the CAO such as new tertiary degrees, PLCs and brand new apprenticeships. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Comparison is the thief of joy

So says teacher Sonya Macken from Brandon Grammar School. And it’s something for both students and parents to remember.

“No two students write the same answers – even if it was open book. It’s like baking,” she says. “We all have the same recipe and ingredients in front of us but not all cakes end up the same.” Students need to be “as methodical as possible in the moment and not worry about how anyone else is preparing”.

“Those who study longest often lie and say they’re doing very little,” she cautions.

“Parents are at a huge disadvantage as they don’t really know how to navigate it at all. [They] see what Mary and Jonny is doing for their son, and try the same with their own.”

Focus on the positives

Macken recommends that students focus on the “knowledge and skills they do have rather than panicking about what they don’t”.

“Focus on the positive – what subjects they have confidence in” and “what subjects they know well”.

Study smart

State examiner and teacher Audrey McSweeney who runs the Instragram account Excel in French recommends that students consider the specific areas of subjects they may be struggling with, examine the places they tend to lose marks, and approach their teacher for advice.

“Ask them ‘How can I revise this area? How can I improve on this area over the next few weeks? What things can I start practising myself at home that would help me improve in this area and ultimately, hopefully, bring up my mark?’”

McSweeney says it is far better to approach the teacher than ask friends for advice.

“They are the ones who have been teaching the Leaving Cert for many, many years and they will be best placed to give you advice and a plan.”

Back to basics

“If you’re flustered in the exam, go back to basics,” says Martina McGrath Daly, editor of

“Most of the marks are always for the basics. You could be thinking ‘oh God there’s one fact, one titbit, one nugget of information that I was really proud that I knew. But now I’ve forgotten it and I feel so bad’. But forget about it – the majority of the marks are for the basics,” she reiterates.

Check the little things

In the panic about the exams, it’s easy to forget about the essentials like making sure students have pens, pencils, calculators, log tables, etc, says Aisling O’Connor, parenting and child psychologist.

Getting on top of that same panic can be aided by using visualisation as a tool.

“Visualise yourself walking into the exam, sitting down, turning over the paper and really visualising yourself going ‘oh my gosh this is going so well. This is fantastic’. That can really help settle those nerves,” she says.

'Visualise yourself walking into the exam, sitting down, turning over the paper and going ‘oh my gosh this is going so well’,' says Aisling O’Connor, parenting and child psychologist. Photograph: iStock

Get outside

O’Connell says getting outside for 15 minutes a day is hugely beneficial.

“When you’re out in nature, it calms the whole nervous system down,” she says.

O’Connell recommends parents ask students to go outside for short periods, rather than an hour, because students can manage that without worrying that it’s too much time to spend away from their study.

“Just give yourself a chance to relax every day,” she says.

Do what you can – yes, parents, I’m looking at you

This one’s from me, as a parent who’s been there. We can’t do it for them (and would we want to really?) but we can keep the parents’ nerves at bay, too, by doing what we can.

That might be making their favourite dinner, or bringing them to the exam centre on the first day. It could be providing endless cups of tea, letting them off household chores, biting our tongues a little bit more, distracting them from exam postmortems, watching a favourite comedy with them in the evening, or even – horror of horrors – tackling a teenage bedroom so they have a tidy and comfortable space to unwind and rest.

It may not help them recall theorems or important historical dates, but at least they’ll know we have their backs.