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UZH Journal

Battling Exam Anxiety

Closeup worried face

Many students find themselves tormented by exam nerves. Here’s how to cope.

By Fabio Schönholzer; English translation by Gena Olson

It’s exam time: For days – if not weeks – on end, students drown themselves in academic literature, neglect their friends and family, miss their favorite TV shows, and even skip the occasional party. But when the moment of truth comes – the moment they’ve spent so long preparing for – they suddenly can’t keep it together. Did I study enough? Will my knowledge shine through when I put pen to paper? And what happens if I suddenly forget everything I’ve learned?

In this issue we are shining a spotlight on exam anxiety, a major source of stress for many students.  The anxiety can cause your thoughts to go in circles, make you insecure, and take its toll on both body and soul, with sweating, restlessness, fatigue and stomach pain being common symptoms. Exam anxiety can become especially problematic when it prevents you from studying or taking the exam. It can even lead to blackouts. If that is the case, students should seek professional help.

UZH students can get support at the UZH/ETH Psychological Counseling Center. The nine-person team led by Cornelia Beck helps students and PhD candidates manage stress when it comes to exams or other difficult life situations. “Of course, there’s a certain strain associated with studying, and that holds true for exams too,” says Beck. “Education makes demands not only on your knowledge but also on your whole self.”

This issue of the UZH Journal highlights four students, each of whom has a different way of coping with exams, stress and anxiety. While Philipp snacks on dried fruit to maintain focus, Seraina wants to seek out help from a mental performance coach, and Gabrielle acknowledges the tension she feels – but consciously pushes it aside. Jacqueline not only manages her own exam-related stress but also offers a helping hand to other students who are having difficulties: She is the vice-president of the anonymous help-line Nightline Zurich.

Two faculty members also have their say in this issue. Nicole Joller, assistant professor of Immunology, and Raji C. Steineck, professor of Japanese Studies, take a look back at their time at university and share how they used to deal with stress as students and how they structure oral and written exams in their role as examiners today. We also interview Cornelia Beck, who shows us the many faces of exam stress and explains how students can overcome their fears. 

I can do it!

UZH Journal sat down with Cornelia Beck, head of the UZH/ETH Psychological Counseling Center, to talk about strategies for coping with exam anxiety and how the Center can help those suffering from exam phobia.

To the interview

To each its own

Four students and two lecturers talk about their own experiences with exam stress.

Jacqueline – “We’re here for you!”

Philipp – “I was better prepared the second time around.”

Professor Raji C. Steineck – “Red lights gave me permission to take a break.”

Gabrielle – “It’s important to be passionate!”

Professor Nicole Joller – “I only got the jitters when I hadn’t studied enough.”

Seraina – “Everything was different at university.”

Weiterführende Informationen


A small portion of exam stress can be helpful, but too much anxiety is a hindrance.

(Picture: Frank Brüderli)

Cornelia Beck

Cornelia Beck on exam anxiety

To each their own

Four students and two lecturers talk about their own experiences with exam stress.