We need to talk about exam stress

by Maud Millar on October 29, 2018

People talk about stress a lot.


Well, when I say people, I really mean adults. (Adults, by the way, with no exam stress whatsoever.)


I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Your mum saying she’s so stressed out at work. Your dad being stressed out about your younger brother. Your parents’ friends being stressed out about football matches, or relationships, or money.


But no-one seems to talk about the exam stress that teenagers feel. It’s weird, right? You look up articles on stress online and, unless you specifically search for “stress in teenagers” or “exam stress” or “school stress”, every article that comes up is peculiarly geared towards adult stress. You’d think no-one under the age of thirty suffered from stress, the way the internet goes on about it, and I think that needs to change.


Here’s an example of what I mean. I searched “stress” on Google this morning and the first article that came up listen the ten top most stressful life events. Here they are:


Top 10 stressful life events

According to the widely validated Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, these are the top ten stressful life events that can contribute to illness:

  1. Death of a spouse
  2. Divorce
  3. Marriage separation
  4. Imprisonment
  5. Death of a close family member
  6. Injury or illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Job loss
  9. Marriage reconciliation
  10. Retirement


Sorry, what?


Ok, so, we can concede that numbers 4, 5, and 6 could relate to anyone of any age, but every single other stressor on that list is specifically related to people waaaaay past school-age. Besides that, five out of ten of those are only related to people who are actually married. One is retirement. This is nuts; surely they can’t be saying that teenagers don’t suffer from stress? Surely someone can see that there are possible causes of stress for young people? School, maybe? Exam stress? Deciding on the whole course of OUR LIVES (which, insanely, you are asked to do at SIXTEEN when you pick your A-Levels). It’s huge, and I don’t understand why people aren’t trying to fix it.


The facts

The charity Barnardo’s released some statistics recently that show the extent of the problem in actual cold hard numbers. They said:


70% of young people feel sad or anxious at least once a week.

The most common causes cited are school (65%) and their future (42%).

These both rose to over 80% by age 16.


Putting this next to the “top ten stressors”, it’s pretty jarring. None of the “top ten” on that list suggest that young people suffering from exam stress make up even a percentage of the stressed-out people in the UK today. But look at those statistics from Barnardo’s. Those are BIG NUMBERS. And they affect A LOT OF PEOPLE.


Let’s do the maths. This is a population graph by age, in the UK today.

Exam Stress Statistics

The bars we’re interested in are the two most stressful ages for young people, 10-14 and 15-19 (because these are the ages when exam stress hits…)

These are, respectively, 3,625,100 and 3, 778, 900. Combined, they add up to 7, 404,000.

Seven million, four hundred and four thousand young people aged 10-19.

70% of that number? 5,182,800.

Therefore, there are over five million sad, anxious young people in the UK.


And the top causes of stress are retirement and imprisonment? 


The winds of change…

An article came out last week, though, which had me going “Finally! Finally, someone is talking about it!” It’s really good, you should check it out here, but basically the headline is “Britain has created a crisis in childhood, says former children’s commissioner.”


Good headline, right?


Sir Al Aynsley-Green was the government’s children’s commissioner, and he’s written a book which finally blames the government for the ridiculous exam stress system they force on today’s young people. Here are some snippets:


“He says “There has been a failure of effective advocacy for children in this government, overseen by a prime minister who has lost sight of the purpose of education…” [Sir Al] would abolish league tables, along with the “perverse incentive” they create for schools to teach to the test in order to improve performance. “We have been indoctrinated to believe that testing and league tables are the only way forward. It doesn’t have to be like this. I want to see evidence that testing is good for children and produces benefits, not least because all we can measure is what is easily measurable – and not what matters.”


He adds: “When has the government given any acknowledgment of the stress caused to children by the testing regime?”


“He is particularly concerned about the lack of funding for child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs)… children with mental health issues are being neglected. “The bar for access to Camhs is so high, many children can’t access it. We’re seeing the endpoint of at least 20 years of denial of the importance of emotional ill health in children.” Meanwhile, teachers are being forced to witness children suffering without help. “It’s appalling.”


Hope for the future

So maybe something is on the way. Maybe the government will start to understand that putting young people under insane amounts of exam stress will never help, in any way. It’ll even affect those precious results they care so much about. I mean, we know nowadays that anxiety is a huge block to understanding. We’re also aware that when exam stress builds up too much, it can affect our ability to take in, process, and store new information. But we aren’t trying to combat it. Students all over the country are being lured in with websites and learning tools that promise to help them study faster or better or smarter… but why is no-one trying to help them study happier?


Anyway, this is why we’re on a mission to deal with this crisis. This is why Study Rocket exists.


We think about exam stress a lot. We even write about it a lot (for example- if you’re looking for tips to reduce exam stress, try this post here). And, ultimately, we built Study Rocket to reduce exam stress. To give students space to breathe, relax, and study, safe in the knowledge that we’ve got your back. We aim to be a light in the darkness for every student who comes to us confused and anxious about what they’re supposed to do. We lay out a clear, manageable roadmap to each person’s individual target; a target set by them, and not by a school, a parent or an algorithm. We guide every individual along their journey with a properly adaptive revision platform. It breaks work down into manageable chunks of time, builds in pauses to rest and recuperate, and shows every student exactly how far they’ve come. 


Come join us. And Study Happier. 


Ps. In the meantime, if you’re feeling that exam stress, you might be interested to know this:


Exam Stress Song


Give it a go, it’s really good. I’m listening to it now 🙂


Stress no more about


Try it now →