How to manage exams

Exams and assessments take place throughout the year for all students. This section looks at how to manage exams. This includes information about what to expect, how to prepare for an exam and practical tips to help you perform well.


Exams can be delivered in a variety of different ways including written, practical or oral exams. They will often take place at University but in some cases will be take-home tests. Most commonly exams take the form of a set of questions that you need to answer and are a way of measuring your knowledge in that particular subject. Exams are timed and will often take place in a controlled environment with an invigilator present. Exams are just one form of assessment that will take place on your course, you will also be assessed via coursework.

‘Exams used to cause me to have really bad melt downs. I would turn over the page and my mind would go blank. Now I’ve realised that getting stressed doesn’t really help and I am much better at managing in exams.’
(Biosciences student)

In DCU formal examinations usually take place at 3 points throughout the year, semester 1 exams in January, semester 2 exams in May and resit exams in August.

How could this affect me?

Many students report finding exams stressful, particularly in terms of preparation and knowing what to expect. It is important to remember that exams are only one form of assessment and that you will be assessed using a variety of methods on your course.

For autistic students one of the challenges relates to organising a revision timetable and not becoming overwhelmed by all of the reading material.

‘I feel like I need to read absolutely everything on the course reading list even though this takes ages. I find it hard to just revise certain topics.’
(Engineering Student)

Many autistic students report feeling very anxious during the exam period particularly in terms of practical arrangements such as where they need to go to sit the exam. It can be helpful to visit the exam venues ahead of the exam to ensure that you know where to go. Your examination timetable on your portal page and DCU website gives you information on the dates, times, venues and seat number for your examinations. You will also be provided with an examination number which you will use in place of your student number during the exams to ensure your papers are unidentifiable for correction. See the tips section below for further information.


What to do next?

In addition to revising for exam content, prepare yourself well for the exam environment.

Practical tips

These tips are intended as a guide so you can pick out the ones that are most helpful to you.

Before the exam

  • Many autistic students find it difficult to do targeted revision and to take regular breaks when revising. It can be helpful to set a timer to ensure that you revise a topic for a set period before moving on to the next topic
  • Many students report that mindfulness meditation or breathing techniques help them to relax before an exam. There are lots of resources out there that you can try that will guide you through the meditation process.
  • If possible visit the rooms where your exams will be taking place in advance. You will then be able to rehearse the route to your exam room and can find out about any potential distractions. You may also be able to arrange to sit at a particular desk (e.g. near the front of the room or door) as part of your special exam arrangements.
  • In order to revise most effectively it’s a good idea to use a variety of approaches. This could include using recordings, making a mind map and taking notes which you could display in a visible area.
  • Get as much rest as you can, 6-8 hours a night is recommended. Even if you can’t sleep then give your body a chance to rest and make sure that you have a chance to wind down before going to bed
  • Try to eat at least one proper meal a day including vegetables and protein and make sure that you stay properly hydrated. Although some people find caffeine useful in the short-term as a stimulant, it is not always helpful for those that are prone to anxiety
  • Try to exercise daily as this will help relax tense muscles, use up any excess adrenaline and increase circulation.

During the exam

  • If you feel anxious when you enter the exam room, practice breathing exercises to keep calm
  • Make sure you are sitting comfortably. Place your feet firmly on the ground and relax your shoulders
  • Take a few seconds before turning over the exam paper to let the initial feelings of anxiety subside
  • Plan your answers out briefly to ensure adequate time for each question. Before you start writing have a look through the exam paper to see how many questions you have to answer. You can then work out how many questions you have to answer in the time available by dividing the time by the number of questions.
  • Many autistic students report that they become easily distracted by sensory stimuli and this can be particularly problematic in an exam. It is worth discussing this with Student Disability Services as you may be able to arrange to take your exam in a separate room to avoid distractions
  • Stay hydrated throughout the exam by drinking plenty of water take short breaks at the end of each question.
  • Avoid perfectionism – check spelling and punctuation and use sources if necessary but remember that you aren’t expected to produce the same level of writing as you would be in your coursework
  • If you feel unwell during an exam alert the invigilator and ask if you can leave the room for a short while. Taking a few deep breaths and a drink of water may be sufficient for you to calm down.

After the exam

  • Consider what went well and what didn’t go so well. Use that knowledge to inform you on how you prepare for your next exam
  • Don’t be too self-critical if you think you haven’t performed well. Remember that exams are stressful and it’s common to have doubts about your performance after the event
  • Whatever the outcome congratulate yourself for taking the exam and all your hard work!

DCU Student Support and Development have produced a very useful step-by-step guide to help you prepare for your exams. The guide includes lots of great tips on study skills (including a sample study timetable), exam preparation and exam performance. You can have a look at the guide here.

DCU Business School have written their top tips for exam preparation here.


Additional information and links

DCU is committed to ensuring that students registered with the Disability and Learning Support Service (DLSS) are not disadvantaged in examinations. Reasonable alternative examination arrangements may be made for students because of their condition and are made on an individual basis. Read on to find out about how applying for special exam arrangements can help you to perform your best in the exam.

Applying for special exam arrangements

If you think your autism impacts upon your ability to perform in an exam then you can apply for special exam arrangements. In order to avail of any of these accommodations you must be registered with the DLSS. You will need to complete an educational needs assessment and provide medical evidence of your autism. The DLSS will then make a recommendation about what adjustments are needed based on the evidence you provide and the adjustments you request.

Common adjustments that can be arranged are extra time, rest periods, announcements and the opportunity to sit your exam in a separate room. Other more personalised adjustments can also be considered on a case by case basis. Once your special exam arrangements are agreed you will be sent a letter confirming this and the arrangements will be put in place for the duration of your course.

For more information on exam accommodations available for autistic students in DCU click here.

Deferral/ fit to sit

If you don’t feel well enough to sit your exams because of a physical or mental health reason you can apply for extenuating circumstances.

The options open to you will depend on your mode of study but there may be the opportunity to re-sit the exam during the later session (often the late summer period). The general advice is that if you don’t feel ‘fit to sit’ the exam then it is better not to sit the exam. If you attend the exam and your performance is compromised by illness then it is harder to apply for extenuating circumstances after the event. For further details about the deferral process speak to your department and student disability services.

For more information on postponement or deferral of exams click here.

You can read DCU’s Policy and Practice on Assessment and Examination Accommodations for Learners with Disabilities here.

Here is a list of some other posts you might like to read to learn more:

About the author

This article was written by Lucy Balaam, Disability Advisor (Autism Spectrum) at University College London and further adapted to include information specific to DCU.