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What to Do When You Freeze Up During an Exam

September 28, 2020

What to Do When You Freeze Up During an Exam
Whether you are a student taking a proctored exam or a working professional who is taking a certification exam, lots of people experience exam stress. This can lead to freezing up when you need to perform your best. Maybe you prepared yourself with lots of studying and you even had a good night sleep before your exam. The day comes and you feel ready. You go to your exam testing centre and get settled in. You stare at the first question and... your mind is a blank slate. Almost everyone has been there at one point or another, so there is nothing to be ashamed of. Freezing up on an exam is a regrettable but relatable experience. What can you do about it? There are a couple of helpful areas where you can focus your energy. There are a number of things that you can do before your exam and there are things you can do in the moment too. 

Before Your Exam 

Study habits can make or break your ability to focus on an exam. While you are studying, think about what kinds of questions could be asked about the material. Frame everything as a learning opportunity and test yourself regularly. Oxford Learning recommends that you absorb content and examine how it changes your understanding of a subject, rather than simply memorizing facts. This process will help you to avoid freezing up in the moment.  As you prepare for your exam, do not underestimate the power of positive thinking. Remember to give yourself plenty of encouragement and observe how this affects your preparation. Boosting your confidence is a great way to reduce stress and increase your chances of remaining focused and unrattled during the exam. 

During Your Exam 

Do you struggle with freezing up in an exam scenario? Step one is to simply pause. Take a moment or two to focus on mindfulness and take a deep breath. If you are stuck on a particular question, simply skip it and move on to something easier that you feel confident about. You can always come back to a challenging question or prompt and chances are that your memory will be jogged in some capacity from the rest of the exam. Blanking on an exam often has to do with assessments of our memorization. We are usually safer on analysis or comprehension, so jump to another style of question if you can. The change in style or tone of the questions may be enough to snap you out of a frozen state.  Depending on the format of your exam, you may need to do some brainstorming too. Perhaps you have a limited amount of time to answer multiple choice questions or you need to write an essay in an efficient manner. If you have one hour to write an essay, be sure to spend the first five minutes mapping out your outline. You may have a hard time convincing yourself that you are not losing out on valuable time, but the benefits of methodical brainstorming are profound. Your outline can be unfiltered, with thoughts falling on top of one another and sorting themselves out on the page. Your exam may have high stakes and there could also be a tendency to fall into perfectionism. Letting go of perfectionism will help you to loosen up and ultimately perform your best. 


Lots of people are prone to freezing up during important exams so you are not alone on this challenge. Focus on building mindful study habits in the weeks leading to up your exam and remember to stay positive in the moment. Having a calm and professional testing environment can also make a world of difference for you. Look for an exam testing centre that is clean, professional and free of distractions. This will help you to stay calm and focused on the day and will increase your chances of doing well.