Dealing with the unexpected during an exam

by | Feb 26, 2024 | 0 comments

Exam success has a lot to do with you how you deal with an unexpected curve ball an exam paper can throw at you. “What if there is a question I don’t know how to answer”. “What if something I haven’t studied comes up”.

Your own curve balls might also show up on the day of the exam. “What if I forget everything”. “What if I am too stressed out to focus”. “What if I haven’t studied hard enough”.

Here are some of my tips to deal with the unexpected during an exam.

Prepare for the unexpected

No matter how well prepared you feel, there can always be something that will catch you off guard in an exam. Given the type of exams you are sitting, this is to be expected.  Once you have prepared yourself for some uncertainty going into the exam, when it then happens it won’t feel so over whelming. It is what you do next that counts.


No matter what happens in the exam, you are always in control of your own breath. Use it to regulate and re-focus. If you are stressed by something unexpected in the exam, it can have a physiological effect on our body. One such side effects it that your breathing gets shallower. When your breathing becomes shallow and quick, there is not enough oxygen getting into your blood stream and in turn there is not enough oxygen going to your brain. This can impact your cognitive ability which can have a knock-on effect to your overall exam performance.

When this happens, give yourself a few moments. Recognise what is happening, place your hand on your belly and take some deep abdominal breaths. A breathing technique I use when I get into a sticky situation is the 7/11 breath. Breathe in for 7 seconds and breathe out for 11 breaths. Do this a few times. When the out-breath is longer than the in-breath, it is helping our body go from a stressed state to a calmer state.

Even when you are feeling confident with a particular exam requirement, I always recommend students to take a breath before tackling any question or requirement. This will help you get clarity of thought before you continue answering. An effective breathing technique I recommend before answering questions is the square breath. It will only take you 16 seconds. Breath in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds and hold for your breath for 4 seconds.

A word of warning though, try not to wait until the exam day to start practicing your breathing. While it will help you even without any practice, it is much more effective with practice. Incorporate breathwork into your study routine. At the start of every study session, start with some breathing exercises. Before you tackle past exam questions, do a square breath.

Another technique you can use to help calm you in an exam is to place your hand on your heart. This can give you a soothing feeling. Alternatively, you can rub your hands together until you feel heat from the friction. This will help you ground back into the present moment.

Answering Unexpected Questions

When faced with an unexpected question in the exam, it can be easy to misread it, overlook an important piece of information or mis-interpret it entirely.

Use the following five step approach to keep you on track.

Breathe: Start with your breathing to help clear your mind and self-regulate.

Read: Take your time reading the question or case!! If think you are reading too fast, SLOW DOWN. The faster you read, the fewer words your eye will focus on. If you feel panicky and read too fast, you might miss key words.

Key words: Highlight key words, like analyse, compare, describe, and look out for the word “AND”. There might be a second part to the question that you miss if you read the question too fast.

Ask – Ask yourself, are you answering exactly what the examiner is looking for, or are you wishful thinking? (this means answering a question that you would like to answer but not asked by the examiner!!)

Plan – Take a few moments to plan your answer.

Focus on your circle of control!

When you are feeling pressure in an exam, it is useful to focus on what is within your control. Start with the questions that will give you confidence. If it is possible, keep the very difficult questions to the end ensuring you have left enough time to answer them.

Remember, you are also always in control of your breath! Slow down, take a breath, regulate and you can tackle whatever comes your way.