How to manage exams

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.


You will have experience of exams from secondary school. 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)

Some University courses (such as PhD’s, vocational qualifications and creative topics) do not include exams and will instead offer assessment opportunities via practice placements or fieldwork assignments. On most courses however you can expect to sit exams at least once during the year, most commonly in May and June. At The University of Sheffield, the standard exam periods are at the end of Semesters in January/February and May/June.

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. 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 the Disability and Dyslexia Support Service 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!

Additional information and links

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. To apply for exam support, you must discuss your requirements with the Disability and Dyslexia Support Service and provide satisfactory diagnostic evidence of your disability and the service will then liaise with the Student Examinations Team on your behalf.  You can make an appointment to discuss your exam requirements (and other support needs) with a Disability Adviser by following the steps on our ‘How do I set up my support?’ page.

Examples of adjustments that might be arranged, depending on your individual support needs, are extra time, rest breaks, use of a computer and the opportunity to sit your exam in a separate room. Exam adjustments are considered on a case by case basis. Once your individual exam arrangements are agreed they are in place for the duration of your course.  You will recieve an email from the Student Examinations Team in advance of each exam period with your exam timetable information.

Deadlines for arranging exam support

The University of Sheffield has a deadline date for alternative exam arrangements.  To guarantee that exam support will be in place in time for any exams you are scheduled to sit, you must have contact with DDSS before the Exams Team’s deadline. To find out when the deadline is, contact DDSS.

There is likely to be a be a high demand for disability adviser appointments in the lead up to the exam deadline so you will need to contact DDSS well in advance of the deadline to request an appointment.

After the deadline has passed, DDSS will still make referrals for alternative exam arrangements, but it may not be possible to implement these arrangements in time for exams taking place in the upcoming assessment period.

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.

It is your responsibility to notify tutors and supervisors, or other appropriate departmental staff, at the earliest opportunity, if there are any extenuating circumstances that might impact on examination/assessment performance.

You should complete and submit an Extenuating Circumstances Form, along with additional relevant documentary evidence where appropriate.

The options open to you will depend on your mode of study and you should discuss these with your academic department 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 may be more difficult to apply for extenuating circumstances after the event. For further details about the deferral process speak to your department and student disability services.