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7 tips to sharpen your mind for exams

Clever tactics to eliminate stress while you study
University of Sydney alumnus and mental health advocate Dr Benjamin Veness shares his tips on how to avoid stress and practice mindfulness.
The pursuit of mindfulness can be an individual practice or act as a stimulus for a community bond.

The end of any semester can be a chaotic time for your mind, with assignments to finish, exams to prepare for and holiday activities to plan. Here are some of my tips for getting through (and you will!):


Mindfulness is a stress-management technique which involves observing your thoughts, feelings and breath. As a quick exercise, sit with your feet flat on the ground and your back straight but not touching the back of the chair. Set your phone timer to countdown for 90 seconds. Rest your right hand in your left hand and close your eyes. Breathe a little slower and more deliberately than normal, and feel the air entering and exiting your nose, your chest slowly rising and falling. When your mind wanders, silently acknowledge it and be proud that you noticed, then return to focusing on your breaths, in and out. On exam day, focusing on your breathing will calm your nerves and help you to do your best when writing time begins.


Sometimes it can help to have a piece of paper and pen nearby, to jot down distracting thoughts – almost as though you were taking them out of your mind and placing them onto the page instead. One of the great things about practising mindfulness meditation is that you will learn to be non-judgemental about your mind having drifted, allowing yourself to acknowledge the slip and then calmly bringing yourself back to task.


Make time for sleep. To work at your best, you need your rest. For young adults, that’s typically seven to nine hours. It can be hard to get to sleep when you’re feeling stressed or have had your brain switched on all day studying. Unwind before bed by taking advantage of free mindfulness meditation apps like Headspace or Australia’s recently revamped Smiling Mind. If you find yourself thinking about your work, jot it down on a notepad for the morning.


Exercise regularly. Choose whatever you enjoy most – going for a walk, run, swim, yoga, dance class, or visiting the gym. Exercising with a friend can make the activity more fun, as well as providing additional motivation.


Choose delicious but nutritious snacks. It’s great to have scrumptious edible rewards while studying, but try not to pig out just on chips and biscuits. Almonds, cut fruit with a few scoops of unsweetened yoghurt, and dark chocolate are some of my favourites.


Study in beautiful surroundings. If you need to read something in hard copy, try to get out and enjoy a little sunshine while you highlight. If you are better off at your desk, buy a bunch of pretty flowers for $10 or less and put them in a vase to brighten your room, and your mood.


There’s no point berating yourself if you didn’t get through as much work as you hoped to. You can only do the best you can, with what you’ve got right now. So forget today’s indiscretions and focus on tomorrow instead.

Good luck – you can do it!

Benjamin completed a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in 2014, and a Master of Public Health in 2013. Throughout his studies and career, he’s been committed to working for the mental health of university students, completing a Churchill Fellowship on the topic.

Ben was a Fellow of the Senate of the University (2010-2012), President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association (2013), Federal Councillor and Director of the Australian Medical Association (2013) and Australia Day Ambassador (2015-2017).  

27 October 2016
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