There is an abundance of fantastic resources available to you as a CFA candidate to help you pass with flying colors. There are test prep guides, practice exams, learning testing strategies, live class tutoring, and great websites (ahem).
But even with all of this information available and tons of preparation, some students still suffer poor performance on CFA exam day because they are unprepared for the physical symptoms that arise due to exam anxiety. These symptoms can include:
- sweaty or shaky hands
- tension in the head and neck
- an elevated heart rate
- racing thoughts
- high cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
What isn’t available to many students is a way to combat these effects using simple practice and an understanding of how we react to stress. In this article, we’ll go over a few simple exercises that will allow you to lower your heart rate, decrease cortisol levels, and access the “rest and digest” hormones that our bodies naturally produce to calm us down when stressed.
Exam Anxiety Is Normal
You won’t have zero stress or anxiety on the day of an exam – no one does. It’s not a bad thing either, because it’s just our body’s way of alerting us that something important is happening. When we receive a stress signal, our body is pumped full of energy so that we can heighten our performance.
This is an extension of the “fight-or-flight” response that was used to shock cavemen into action when faced with a saber-toothed tiger or a woolly mammoth, ensuring survival. Because most of us don’t run into dangerous animals during our daily commute, our body adapts and activates the fight-or-flight response during other tasks that are important to our survival and our future – like passing the CFA exams.
The trouble is, most people are unprepared for the rush of energy that accompanies this response, and go into a state of worry or panic. When we learn to naturally calm our bodies down and embrace these sensations, we are able to harness this energy and direct our focus with more clarity and precision.
Here are three simple exercises that you can start doing right now that will help.
Slow, deep breathing through the nose may seem simple, but it has many physical benefits to our health and also our ability to relax.
Fast, shallow breathing is a common response when we get anxious. However, this makes it worse – your body is flooded with too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide, causing dizziness, tingling, affecting your nervous system. Taking a moment to get your breathing back under control will put you back on the right path to calming your body down.
Take a deep, slow breath in through your nose lasting close to 5 or 6 seconds. At the end of your breath in, you should feel your whole chest expand and loosen up. Hold your breath for a few seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth or nose, taking close to 7 seconds. Repeat a few times – you should feel a lot better pretty quickly.
Ready: Know that by exam-time, your work is mostly done
Imagine you’re Usain Bolt in the Olympics 100m final. Although how you run this race is important, 95% of how you’ll do in this race has been predetermined beforehand – the training, workouts, strategies, nutrition, discipline, preparing your body for this moment. Similarly, by the time you’re actually about to take the CFA exam, most of the work is done. You’ll have studied and prepared as much as you can up to this point, and no more. You are as ready as you can be.
Risk-management: Run through the worst-case scenario
Quite often, candidates don’t allow themselves to think of the worst-case scenario. But sometimes it helps. For example, if we consider a failure scenario:
- Ask yourself what’s your most likely, realistic response. Will you retake the exam, or not bother with it anymore?
- Maybe you’ll have to wait another year to take the exam. Assuming that happens, can you make that work with your plans for next year?
- Maybe you’ll have to spend more money to retake the exam. Have a quick count on exactly how much.
- If it’s important to you, have a think about the responses from your family, friends and colleagues. How is that likely to go, and how will you handle it?
Consider all the aspects above, and imagine that you’ve already failed, and you’re actually planning your next steps out. Chances are, you’ll simply start thinking on how to move forward and make it work, and realise that it’s not necessarily that terrible. Knowing that the worst-case scenario is planned, checked, and not scary will help stave off any future panicky thoughts.
Retake: Remember that (although not ideal) there’s always another chance
Yes, failing is not great. You’ll have to wait another year (or 6 months for Level I) and incur a bit more cost in re-registering for the exam. But you do get to try again. As many times as you need. Focus on that – you always have an ultimate safety net. It’s not your ideal situation, but at least you know you’ll always have the option to have another go.
Also remember to practice eating well and sleeping adequately – keeping a healthy body is equally as important in avoiding exam anxiety. Here’s more info on how health improves your CFA performance, and our easy-to-follow guides:
Sounds like a terrible cliché, doesn’t it? Except it does work. Smiling is not only a great way to put ourselves in a good mood and attitude for your CFA exam, but it also affects our physiology in a powerful way. Smiling has been shown to alter our body chemistry by increasing serotonin (a mood regulating hormone), decreasing cortisol, and lowering heart rate.
Because it is so simple and familiar, smiling is a great tool to consciously use in the middle of an exam when encountering a difficult question or a distraction created by another student or proctor. It will not only help you feel better, but will actively put your body in a more relaxed state and help you deal with exam anxiety.
Instead of just reading this article and hoping that you remember to use these exercises when you encounter stress during your exam, it’s better to create a game plan to develop the skill of using these exercises effectively.
- Pre-Exam Routine: Try these exercises out and see which one has the most powerful effect on you. Once you decide which is your favorite, make it a point to create a pre-exam routine that will put you in a relaxed state before you enter the exam. Don’t wait until you feel the effects of exam anxiety to start using these exercises. Deep breathing, followed by the 3R pep talk and a few smiling exercises will do wonders for your exam nerves.
- Pre-Study Routine: Just like lifting weights, learning to intentionally relax is a skill and has to be developed like a muscle. Just like the pre-exam routine, I encourage you to get a head start and using your routine before you begin a study session. If you are doing these exercises for months in advance every time you study, you will be strengthening your ability to relax at a deeper level. This will make it much easier for you to access the “rest-and-digest” response when exam time comes around because you are more familiar and more practiced with it.
These tips will help you perform better on CFA exam day. But if you need more advice on calming exam-day nerves, or have tips of your own, let us know!