Do you remember that nasty feeling of sweaty palms? A wave of nausea coming over you? I’m talking about waiting at the door of an exam room, convinced that you know nothing…



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By Jo Bertrand

Do you remember that nasty feeling of sweaty palms? A wave of nausea coming over you? The sudden inability to talk your mouth is so dry? No, it’s not the first meeting with the dreaded in-laws, although some parallels could easily be made. I’m talking about waiting at the door of an exam room, convinced that you know nothing and that there’s no way you will get through this experience alive.

We’ve all been there at some point of our lives, whether it be for the 11+, the G.C.S.E French oral exam, university finals, the FCE exam… the list is endless. Somehow though we get through it. We survive to see another day. But what has always baffled me is how people react so differently when faced with the prospect of taking an exam.

I don’t know about you but I’ve always been insanely jealous of those people who party all year round, then the night before the exam flick through my course book, (theirs is empty because they didn’t go to any lectures), and then somehow manage to sail through the exam with flying colours. In the meantime I’m there, present and correct at most of my lectures, panicking for weeks before my finals, and the night before, not only am I trying to cram like mad everything my clever friend points out is missing from my file as he flicks through my text books and observes that I’ve missed out a whole chapter of essential work that is bound to come up in the exam, (draw for breath!), but I’m also panicking about packing my school bag.

Once you’re in the exam room there is the obligatory ritual of snacks and refreshments to be organised. It’s essential that you line them up in edible order so as not to have to think too much whilst writing. The idea is also not to make too much noise during the exam. There’s nothing worse than popcorn rustling in a cinema. The exam room is no exception. So it’s vitally important that the aforementioned sweets are opened and ready to go. Your packet of Polos should be completely opened. These should be sucked and not crunched at the time of consumption otherwise it defeats the whole object of trying to avoid noise pollution. Finally, no cans or cartons should be taken into the exams as both are far too noisy.

Next up is the bulging pencil case. You should of course have at least 2 pencils and 6 pens. 2 black, 2 blue, 2 red. If you want to go for the novelty points then choose a purple, or green scented pen. Any attempt to make the examiner smile can’t be wrong, can it? Don’t forget your highlighter pens, one of each colour, Tipp-ex, Blu-tack, glue. You never know what might happen. You need a personal clock, although the space on the table is becoming relatively limited at this point, so a watch is an acceptable option.

As you turn your paper over, your mind inevitably goes blank for at least the first ten minutes and you start thinking back to the days when you had a life, in the pre-revision era. Suddenly though, fear takes over. You jab your forehead incessantly with a pen in the hope that this will encourage some sort of intelligent thought to flow from your brain to the paper via your biro. And miracles of miracles, it does. For the next three hours you write constantly, not even pausing for breath, let alone pausing to pick up a polo. In any case their destiny is to get sticky at the bottom of your bag because you stupidly opened the whole packet. But none of that matters anymore because you’re on fire. Nothing can stop you now. And three hours later you’re mentally exhausted and your arm wants to drop off. But you’ve got through it, or at least you think you have…

The post-exam ritual involves everyone saying; ‘Ok lets talk about anything other than the exam because that was absolutely awful.’, and then you all proceed to talk about nothing else but the exam for the next hour. Where you thought you’d done well, now after having listened to what everyone else put, well there’s just no way you could have passed. I wouldn’t even pass myself if I were marking it; the answers I put were so irrelevant. Quality not quantity is what we’ve always been told and I forgot that golden rule. I have an aching arm for nothing.

Now comes the wait. Why can’t examining boards devise a wonderful marking system that can put you out of your misery within the next couple of days. Two months is an obscene amount of time if you ask me. Eventually the envelope arrives. A hot tip: when asked for your address you should always give your parents’ address to avoid having to rush to the door for a week around the results day and then actually having to open the dreaded envelope once it eventually arrives two days late, a sadistic delay intended so that you sweat it out some more. In any case your mum is scared enough as it is and is only too happy to pass on the good news when it arrives on her doorstep. Lo and behold the day when I fail an exam! I’m touching lots of wood as I write this.

Anyway, the upshot of all the stress and anxiety is that the hard work has paid off and even though you don’t quite get the A++ that your jammy friend got, you’re ecstatic with your well-earned B+.

Though one thing I haven’t quite worked out yet is what the attraction of exams is. There must be something addictive about the stress related to them. I spent last summer doing a teaching course followed by a horribly stress-inducing exam in December. Nobody forced me to do it. I actually volunteered and handed over a scary amount of money for the privilege. That’s stressful in itself! Neither have I learnt from my school exam days as I still went through the same old emotions, and the same old rituals and I’m very pleased to say it worked. Although I’m still convinced that it’s not so much what I wrote in my exam that did it but how I wrote it. The infallible mint-scented biro strikes again!




Phew! This article is more dreaded than the exam itself. However It is really useful and I taught loads of new words, phrases and collocations which I’d never read or listened before.
By the way I have some questions:
1- As far as I know (It is also mentioned in the dictionary) ‘Polo’ and ‘Biro’ are two brand names. Why their first letters are not in capital?
2- In the last paragraph where it is written ‘…followed by a horribly stress-inducing exam…’, why the word ‘horribly’ which is an adverb instead of ‘horrible’ which is an adjective? Doesn’t it describe the ‘exam’?
3- Unfortunately I didn’t get the writer’s point with the sentence ’It’s essential that you line them up in edible order so as not to have to think too much whilst writing.’ Could you please clarify it more for me?

Thanks in advance.

Hello RezAref,

Glad you found the article useful. To answer your questions:

1. I agree with you. I'm going to double-check with our proofreader and then, assuming we are right, I will correct these errors.

2. You could call an exam 'horrible', but here 'horribly' modifies the adjective 'stress-inducing'. If you wanted it to modify 'exam', then you'd need to put a comma between the two adjectives: 'horrible, stress-inducing exam'. There's not a big difference in meaning here, though the difference could be important in other combinations of adverbs, adjectives and nouns.

3. Here the writer is trying to be funny. I think the idea is that some snacks taste better before or after others. In other words, you should arrange them in the best order in terms of how they will taste or help you in the exam so that you don't have to think about that while you're taking it.

Let us know if you have any other questions.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi dear Kirk,

I would like to express my deep gratitude for all your helpful and prompt replies. I really appreciate such a great commitment and dedication.

Merry Christmas and wish you all the best.

Yours sincerely,

Do I need to pay to write the IELTS exams?

Hi Violet victory Brookes,

Yes, there is a fee to take the IELTS exam. You can find out more on the British Council's IELTS site, which also has preparation materials and information about the exam structure.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

that was very awful

Some exams are just so stressful that you have to compete with time, especially those exam with full day schedule. After a day of exam, you will feel extremely exhausted, your body is arching and your brain is tiring, but at the same time all the tension is released.

Hi there,
I like this article immensely.
It's gave me some idea about how the other people going throughout the exam. Believe me, when I was a student I didn't experience these kind of stuff that the author mention in the article because I always think that if I study smart & hard in a regular basis, it will makes my life easier during exam period which was quiet true in the end; I don't have to stay up all night a week before exam because I alreday well prepared from my daily revision.
But, unfortunately as a mature student, I feel difference toward examination compared to what I felt at my younger age. Now, I felt that nervousness and everything the author wrote in this article about the exam. It stranges really!!!!!
In my view, I think testing students by exam is unfair because it puts too much stress on a small part of a student's performance and also because some students fail to produce their best work under exam pressure, but we also notice that other method of assessment have comparable disadvantages so, in a way it might be that examination is still the best way to assess students performance throught the year.
The very best of luck,
Warm regards,
Umi Zahrok

i like ur comments and i would like to be friends  can u give me ur email facebook my email is xxxxxxxxxxxxx  :)

Hello faida!

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