Nervous About Your Exam? Let It Work to Your Advantage

When taking an exam, doing a job interview, or faced with any challenging situation, don’t fear nervousness. It can help bring out your best performance.

Late in my senior year of college I was seeking a summer internship at the local daily newspaper.

For help in preparing for the interview I turned to the head of the college’s placement office, and he gave me a piece of advice I have never forgotten. He said, “Don’t worry about being nervous. If you’re not nervous, you’re not up.”

Yes, I was nervous for the interview, and yes, I did well, and yes, I got the position. And ever since then when faced with a challenge, instead of trying to calm the inevitable case of jitters, I embrace it. And it has helped me every time, even though the outcome wasn’t always what I hoped for.

On a curve

If you need a more authoritative voice on the value of nervousness, consider one of my brothers-in-law, an Olympic-medal-winning speed skater. He maintains that the relationship between nerves and performance shows on a graph as a bell curve.

If we’re not nervous at all, our performance will be flat. But if we’re too nervous, we’ll be prone to mistakes and even panic under pressure. We want to be keyed up just enough to let our bodies’ biochemistry — dopamine, adrenaline and other mysterious substances — work on our behalf.

Actually, my brother-in-law was invoking the Yerkes-Dodson Law, posited by two psychologists more than 100 years ago. It states that mental or physiological arousal enhances performance — up to a point beyond which the arousal becomes too high and performance declines.

Seeking Goldilocks

So at exam or interview time, how can you find that sweet spot of nervousness at the apex of the bell curve? Experts offer a few words of highly practical advice. For one thing, get a good night’s sleep before the event. For another, lay off the coffee and other caffeine sources. Your body will be stimulated enough on its own; adding a chemical stimulant might push you into the zone of excess anxiety.

On a more esoteric level, some researchers recommend rethinking performance anxiety, looking upon it as excitement, a much more positive attribute. According to an article in Psychology Today,[1] the most recent science “suggests that emotions are constructions we actively participate in creating. We feel a sensation, run it past our experiences and vocabulary, and in choosing a label, actually construct the emotion we experience.”

The article cites Alison Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, who went farther with that concept: “She found that participants who simply reappraised their performance anxiety as excitement felt significantly less distress than those who did not.”

Being prepared

Of course, nervousness alone will not ensure a successful performance. It’s the marriage of nervousness and preparation that creates a force to be reckoned with. In my capacity as a book author I recently had to give a keynote presentation to an audience of some 250 at a state conference of advocates for lake protection.

It was a much larger stage than I was used to, in front of accomplished people whose expectations would be high. I had put the presentation together in the weeks before the event, and I had given similar talks before, but still I was worried.

So in my hotel room on the two nights before my talk, I brought up the slides on my computer and went through the entire program, out loud, just as if a roomful of people were listening. I did my fumbling and stumbling (and there was plenty of both) in private.

So, when I stepped up to the podium and microphone, yes, I had the jitters. But I also felt energized and excited. I gave the presentation smoothly and with conviction, and the response was excellent. It reminded me of other times in my life when nerves helped bring out my best.

It’s a lesson worth remembering: In our trying times, when the stakes are the highest, nervousness can be our friend.

[1] Clark, Alicia H., Psy. D, “7 Ways to Use Anxiety to Improve Performance: Research continues to link moderate anxiety to optimal performance.” Psychology Today, December 18, 2018.


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