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Exam Skills – How to Overcome a Mental Block

Dealing with a mental block

I had some trouble this week thinking of something useful to write for the blog. I’m sure you know the feeling – sitting in front of a blank piece of paper (or a blank Word document) and desperately trying to think of something to write but nothing comes to you. In English we call this a mental block or writer’s block. I’m not sure where this originated from but when this happens to me, my head always feels completely blocked and no ideas can get in!

One of the worst times for a mental block to happen is when you have a time limit, for example when you are taking an exam. You might be sitting in your English language writing exam e.g. IELTS with a blank piece of paper in front of you and an hour left until the examiner says “pens down”, and you really can’t think of anything to write! Then, the more you try to think, the more you panic and you start thinking that there’s no way you will be able to finish the exam and pass!

So, how can you overcome a mental block when you’re taking an exam?

Student having a mental block while taking their English exam

1. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply for 60 seconds. This will relax you and help you focus on the task ahead. It will also help you to block out all the people around you who are frantically writing – remember, it’s often the quality that counts, not how many words you write or how quickly you finish the test!

2. Move on to the next question. You do not have to answer the questions in any particular order in a lot of exams. If you are having a mental block about one of the questions, move on to the next one and come back to the troubling question later. It’s always better to answer the questions you feel most comfortable with first as these are the ones you are more likely to get better marks for.

3. Be confident. Taking a language exam, especially the writing and speaking parts, focus a lot on communication skills and being able to communicate well often comes from having confidence in yourself. If you think “I know English, I can do this”, the chances are you will be able to!

Animationa of girl sitting an English exam4. Start slowly and build up. If you’re taking a writing exam and you think about the long essay that needs to be written in an hour, you are likely to panic. The best thing to do is break it down and plan your answer:

  1. Start by reading the question again and underlining any key words.
  2. Write a list of words, phrases and ideas/arguments that you will use in the essay.
  3. Write brief notes about what you will write in the introduction, main text (each paragraph) and conclusion.
  4. Now you have your plan, you can start writing the essay. Go slowly, paragraph by paragraph, and remember to leave some time at the end to read through your essay and make corrections.


5. Think about your English teacher and your English classes.
If you went to classes to prepare for the exam, I’m sure your teacher gave you many tips to help you pass. Close your eyes and try to remember some of the tips. You may have also talked about the topic that you’re having problems with in a previous lesson and trying to remember what your teacher or classmates said may help you answer the question.

Cambridge exam answer sheetNext time you find yourself with a mental block in an exam, try these 5 steps and I’m sure you will be surprised at how your mind can change. You will end up with a completed test in front of you that one or two hours earlier you thought would be impossible!

Good luck and let me know if you have any other tips for mental blocks in exams!

Have fun with English

Why not try out these tips by answering an exam question in a time limit? Below is a typical question from an IELTS writing exam (task 2). You should spend about 40 minutes on this task.

Present a written argument or case to an educated reader with no specialist knowledge of the following topic.

The increased use of text messaging using mobile phones is largely to blame for the falling standards in written English, particularly among young people, many of whom are unable to construct grammatically correct sentences.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.

Write at least 250 words.

Answers from the writing mistakes exercise

Today I had a great day! It was Saturday so I didn’t have any English classes to go to. Instead, I met up with some friends from my English course, Daniel and Maria, and we went to Big Ben. It was the first time I had seen Big Ben and it was amazing! I have seen it so many times in photographs but seeing it in real life was a completely different experience. We were even there at exactly 5pm so we heard the bells ring 5 times! I really love London – every day is more special than the last one.

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