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7 (New) Steps to Stopping Test Anxiety

© Jordán Francisco/Flickr
© Jordán Francisco/Flickr
The test is in one hour and you suddenly feel sick. Or, you may find it difficult to concentrate.

Perhaps you don’t get nervous until the proctor starts passing out the exam papers and score sheets. Then, your hands go clammy and you start to sweat.

Maybe you are the type of person who gets anxious when other students finish their exams early.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If so, you are NOT alone.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Many people experience some test anxiety, particularly around tests that seem to hold an enormous amount of significance -- standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT and GMAT.

After all, failure or success on these tests can determine your entire future, right?


A big reason why people get so anxious about these tests is we think they are more significant than they are. That can come from your friends, your parents, your teachers, or the universities themselves. Or, perhaps you are a Type A person who always has to do well, and nothing but the 99th percentile on exams will suffice. That puts a lot of pressure on yourself!

Here are some practical tips to help you nail your test anxiety so it doesn’t negatively impact your performance on a standardized test.

Consider carefully the test location.

Over the past few years, I have tutored dozens of students in test prep. Some purposely have signed up for an SAT exam or an ACT exam in a location fairly far from their home. One student told me she did this so she wouldn’t know anyone at the exam site. She thought her friends might distract her. Consider her example!

Another student took the SAT for the first time at an unfamiliar location. She did really well on the test, but with room for improvement. She took it a second time at her high school, in the exact classroom where she had English class. She expected to do better than the first time, but instead her scores went down, significantly.

She had a few theories on that: the second test environment was too familiar so she didn’t have the adrenaline rush that can come with — you guessed it -- a little test anxiety. Further, because she did pretty well the first time around, there wasn’t as much at stake. Hence, the reduced score. It’s worth noting that a little anxiety may actually help you focus and do your best.

Credit: Gwen Nicodemus (Virtual Assistance League)
Credit: Gwen Nicodemus (Virtual Assistance League)

Talk this over with friends who have already taken the exam to find out which test center is ideal for you. It’s good to know ahead of time what to expect. I once took the GRE at a university auditorium. The testing conditions were horrible. The lighting was very dim and there were only half-desks so I didn’t have enough space to spread out my work. Had I done some research, I could have found a better test location.

Sign up for the exam.

Know the deadlines for the test you intend to take. This may seem obvious, but sign up for the test well before the deadline so you don’t have to pay a penalty for late registration. Get it out of the way so it isn’t hanging over your head while you are trying to study. Also, begin the process early so if you don’t do as well as you would like on the test, you can take the test again at a later date. Knowing that you have another chance at the test can help limit anxiety.

Study. Study. Study.

Preparation, ideally, a few months before the exam, is one of the keys to reducing test anxiety. Test anxiety often stems from a lack of confidence in your command of the test material. This is where preparation comes in. If you know the material well, you won’t face too many surprises on test day, thereby reducing test anxiety.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Get some test preparation materials by going to a library or bookstore and looking at the resources for the particular test you will be taking. Thumb through the books and determine which one will help you the most. Then, use them!

If you are allowed to use a calculator on the exam, make sure you have one that is approved. Go to the official testing website and double check. One student I tutored brought a sophisticated graphing calculator to the test, only to be told that he couldn’t use it. Don’t let this happen to you.

Procrastinator alert! If you tend to procrastinate, your best plan is to sign up for a test preparation course in your area or online. A course will hopefully provide the structure you will need to study on a regular basis. Private tutoring is another option. Both of these can be costly so it is good to know there are other options as well.

If you are self-motivated, try to set aside time on a regular basis to practice test questions. Ideally, you will get the most benefit from practicing a little each day rather than enormous amounts of time in one day. That said, students are terribly busy and with the demands on their time during the week due to work, school, or extracurricular activities. In some cases, it may be more practical to prepare for the exam on the weekends.

There are also mobile apps that will allow you to practice for the standardized test in bite-size pieces. These can be convenient when you are on the go. Suppose you have to wait 10 minutes for a train. Open Ready4GRE and practice for 10 minutes!

Practice full-length exams in test-like conditions. Check in with your school’s guidance office – some communities offer proctored practice exams in test-like conditions. If that’s not an option for you, find a study space at home that is quiet and free of distractions. Time yourself on the exams as if it were a real test. Once you have corrected the test, make notes as to which areas you need to study more.

Formulas are your friends.

Depending on the test for which you are preparing, certain formulas may or may not be provided to you. For example, the ACT does not provide students any math formulas. So, if you are taking the ACT, you need to know these formulas as well as you know facts such as 2x2=4. There is nothing worse than suddenly forgetting the formula for the area of a circle, for example. Forgetting will cause you to get more stressed. If you know the formulas, you can use these formulas as your security blanket on the exam.

The week before the test.

Make sure you know where you will be taking the test. If you are unsure of where the testing facility is located, if at all possible, drive or take the train to the location the week before the test so you can avoid things you hadn’t planned on -– getting lost, detours, etc. You don’t want the added stress on test day of not knowing where you are going.

Familiarize yourself with the actual exams. By now, you should have completed some practice exams so hopefully you are comfortable with the test format. If not, now is your chance. Memorize the instructions in each section of the test so you won’t have to waste valuable time reading the directions on test day. Know if you will be penalized for wrong answers – this will help you strategize as to whether or not you should guess on multiple choice questions.

The evening before the test (or, Test Eve).

Organize everything you will need for the next day.

Credit: Stuart Anthony/Flickr
Credit: Stuart Anthony/Flickr

Get a good night sleep and don’t cram for the test! Try to do something fun or relaxing to get your mind off the next day’s exam. Remind yourself that you are well-prepared for the test.

Make sure you have fresh batteries for your calculator (if allowed), a photo ID, pencils, drinks, snacks, your admission ticket, and a non-digital watch as well as anything else you want to bring to the test. Double check the official website for the exam to make sure you have thought of everything.

Do not go to a prom the night before! Sounds obvious, right? Yet, I had a student do that before an SAT exam.

Test Day.

Be confident in your abilities. You worked hard! Take some deep breaths and try to relax. Oh yes, and don’t forget to eat a good breakfast before you go.

If there isn’t assigned seating at the test location – choose a good seat for yourself, making sure you have ample lighting. If you are someone who gets distracted by students who finish early, sit in the front row so you won’t notice them. One of my students always sits in the front for standardized tests -- she says it really helps her focus.

Avoid spending too much time on any one problem. Go through the test and build up as many points as possible by focusing on problems you know. Leave longer, harder problems to the end, but make sure you mark your test booklet so you don’t accidentally forget to go back to these problems! Once you have completed the easier questions, this will boost your confidence to help you tackle the more difficult ones.

Brain freeze? Take deep breaths and exhale slowly, in a concentrated manner. Focus on something else. Once you have done that, the next step is write something down! If you are unsure of what to do on a problem, write something. Sometimes, just the practice of writing a math problem in your own hand can get your brain jogged into thinking of the next step.

Or, if you suddenly blank out on an essay portion of a test, brainstorm ideas for the topic – write anything down that comes to mind. It should help you focus and hopefully you will see patterns emerge which will help you write your essay.

If you are reading a passage that is boring, as so many of them are, try shifting positions in your chair. Use your pencil to write things down, underline passages, make notes, something that will keep your mind from wandering.

Absolutely take advantage of the breaks. Get up, stretch, move around. Get a drink of water. Eat a snack. Just make sure you move and don’t just sit at your desk.

Credit: JosephM./Flickr
Credit: JosephM./Flickr

Worst case scenario: You let anxiety get the better of you, and you think you did poorly on the exam. Most standardized tests allow you to cancel your scores within a few days of taking the test. It is not ideal, but it is good to know this in advance. Remember – you can always take the test again!

Hopefully, these practical tips will help you conquer any test anxiety you may be fighting. Remember – it is just a test, it is only a test.