Ready, steady, study

Ready, steady, study

With exam season just around the corner, secondary school and junior college students are hitting the books hard. However, burying your nose in textbooks isn't enough to score straight As. Find out how taking care of your physical, mental and emotional well-being can go a long way in helping you ace those papers.

By Desiree Phua


Exams – the bane of school-going youths on our little red dot. When September rolls around, teenagers can be seen poring over textbooks and laptops at cafes and libraries – during pre-COVID-19 days at least – for hours on end. Having been a student for many years, I understand how stressful examinations are. This is particularly true of national exams like the PSLE, and GCE N-, O-, and A-levels where everything rides on a single series of examinations. And of course there’s always too much to study, too little time, and a shortage of mental “hard disk space”.

While it may feel as if there’s little time to do anything else besides hitting the books, self-care is especially important during exam season because you need to be physically and emotionally healthy to perform at your best.

You snooze, you win
We’ve all had classmates humblebragging about how they left studying till the last minute and had just a couple of hours of shuteye the night before a big paper. Well, don’t follow their [bad] advice. Sacrificing sleep for late-night, last-minute cramming is like a librarian who spends all day receiving books but has no time to shelf or arrange the books. When a visitor requests for a book, she will not be able to find it.

It is similar to how your brain works. Sleep gives your brain the time and space to consolidate whatever you have been studying during the day. Remembering things is just one part of the process – your brain needs to be able to retrieve the required information as well. Retrieval failure is when you know you have studied for a question, but you just can’t recall what the answer is. Also, sleep-deprived brains are not as sharp or flexible, which is crucial for tricky exam questions and/or preventing careless mistakes.

Give your brain breathing space
While studying, take short breaks by looking out of your window at the trees. Green spaces not only help to relax the eyes and mind, they’ve also been found to reduce stress levels and improve mental health.

After a long studying session, head to the park for a short walk. As the Chinese adage goes: Taking a rest allows you to travel further. Managing your stress not only helps you feel better, it also allows your brain to function more efficiently. With improved mental health, you’ll also be able to perform better cognitively. In other words, mental processes such as perception, memory, judgement, and reasoning – all important when taking examinations – will receive a boost.

Create a support system
Without a doubt, preparing for exams is a highly stressful period that requires more of you mentally and physically. Hence, having emotional support during this time can do wonders. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family. Challenges always seem more daunting and impossible to overcome when we feel that we are in it alone. However, know that you are not running this race solo. There are always people who are willing to go the distance with you.


  • Even if you prefer studying alone, stay connected with friends and family by sharing how you feel, whether it’s feelings of frustration, your study progress, or even mindless ranting.
  • Seek help from teachers and/or friends who are stronger in a subject when you struggle with study materials. If your friends need help, lend a helping hand. After all, there is no better way to enhance your understanding of a topic than explaining it to someone else.
  • If you struggle with procrastination, create a study plan. Better still, find study pals who will hold you accountable to it – friends who will give you a push whenever you lack motivation.

Dr Desiree Phua is a senior research fellow with the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS). An integral team member of the Translational Neuroscience programme at the institute, Dr Phua’s research focuses on positive mental health in parents and children/youths, the effects of the social environment on children’s and youths’ mental/emotional well-being, and the interplay of biology and social environment on individuals’ well-being. In her free time, she volunteers at a secondary school as a Girls’ Brigade officer where she provides guidance and mentorship to teenage girls who are members of this co-curricular activity. She attended CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh) and Millennia Institute in her schooling years, and obtained both her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and PhD from the Nanyang Technological University.