Tips for Managing Test Anxiety

You’ve done all you can to prepare for the big exam.

You’ve reviewed the concepts, solved practice problems, and completed practice tests. Now, all you have to do is take the test.

Simple, right? 

Maybe not. For students with test anxiety, taking the test is often the most difficult part of the test prep process.

Feeling nervous about exams is normal. In fact, a little bit of stress can help gear you up for the challenge and treat it seriously.

However, test anxiety can quickly become problematic. Emotional distress can become so intense that it prevents you from performing well. 

When the stakes are higher, such as with the SAT or ACT, test anxiety can get worse–and have greater consequences.

Test anxiety is not a topic many people like to discuss. However, if you struggle with it, you’re not alone! This post gives you the knowledge, tools, and strategies you need to take the SAT or ACT with confidence and calm.

Here’s what we discuss:


Test Anxiety: What is It?

Test anxiety is more common than students may realize. In fact, it impacts more than 33% of school-aged children and adolescents!

Testing anxiety can start in children as young as 7 years old, and remains consistent throughout middle and high school. Some educators view test anxiety as the “most prevalent scholastic impairment in our schools today.”

Test Anxiety

Medical professionals define test anxiety as the following:

“[Test anxiety] is the subjective experience of intense physiological, cognitive, and/or behavioral symptoms of anxiety before or during test-taking situations that interferes with test performance.”

Sawka-Miller K.D. Test Anxiety, from the Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development 

Test-takers with test anxiety are also more likely to fear failure of any kind. They may even experience testing situations as a personal threat.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, symptoms of test anxiety have four components: physical, cognitive/behavioral, and emotional.

Everyone experiences test anxiety differently, but here are some common symptoms that test-takers may experience.

Physical/Somatic

You may experience increased heart rate, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, headaches, nausea, dry mouth, cramps, and lightheadedness.

It may feel as if your body is geared up for battle, or, on the other extreme, that you are frozen in space. At its most severe, test anxiety can lead to full-on panic attacks.

Cognitive/Behavioral

You may have difficulty concentrating or trouble recalling information during the exam. Students with test anxiety may also experience negative self-talk about the consequences of failure, past performance, or comparisons to others.

You may fidget excessively, have difficulty sitting still, and experience racing thoughts. With your brain preoccupied with worry and fear, there is little room left for critical thinking.

Emotional

You may experience feelings of stress, low self-esteem, anger, fear, helplessness, and disappointment.

These may be caused by the physical and cognitive/behavioral symptoms, or simply due to the test-taking situation itself.

Test Anxiety (1)


What Causes Test Anxiety?

To understand how to combat test anxiety, it’s helpful to know some main causes behind it. For many students, test anxiety can result from any (or all!) of the following.

  • History of poor testing outcomes

If test anxiety has caused you to perform poorly before, then you may carry that fear with you to the next exam. This creates a vicious cycle in which you experience test anxiety about a future exam far before it happens. 

  • Lack of preparation

If you did not have enough time to prepare, you may be confused about some concepts, or unfamiliar with the test itself. This only worsens your level of self-doubt and low self-confidence. 

  • Fear of failure

Performing well allows people to experience pride and boosts confidence. However, if you equate each outcome as a measure of your intelligence or self-worth, then falling short creates a disproportionate sense of devastation.

  • Perfectionism 

Students with exceedingly high expectations are often also very self-critical. They are unforgiving of their mistakes and believe that success is all-or-nothing.


Test Anxiety and the SAT / ACT: What You Can Do

Test anxiety is much higher when the test is evaluative and considered a measure of a student’s academic abilities. 

Anxiety tends to increase in part because students may experience fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, and the pressure of high stakes. 

Such feelings can be crippling for the SAT or ACT. After all, these tests are designed to evaluate a student’s “college readiness”.  Even if colleges may emphasize different aspects of student applications, it’s easy to feel as if acceptance hinges on an SAT or ACT score.

Test Anxiety (2)

One study found that test anxiety can negatively impact SAT scores, as compared to other non-evaluative assessments with lower stakes.

What’s more, it’s not likely students will be able to get ACT or SAT testing accommodations for anxiety.

That being said, there are ways to manage test anxiety effectively, especially when it comes to the SAT or ACT. Here are our tips:

Well Before the Exam

1. Take care of your basic needs 

This seems intuitive. But when life gets hectic, students can easily forget the value of self-care!

This is especially true when being too busy to sleep, eat, or relax becomes a badge of honor. Taking care of yourself lays the foundation for high energy and focus. This means getting restful sleep, exercising, eating nutritious meals, and engaging in relaxing activities.

If you are feeling tired, hungry, or cranky, it is hard to focus on anything else. Your physical health also has important effects on your mental health.

2. Be prepared 

This means starting early, setting a plan, and following through. You can seek out help from a tutor if needed.

When it comes to test prep, the key is to study according to your personal needs, not anyone else’s!

3. Replicate actual testing conditions 

With repetition and practice, a difficult task often requires less effort over time. Replicating actual testing conditions in your practice will give you a sense of control and reduce the stress of uncertainty.

For best results, replicate real-time testing conditions as much as possible by targeting your most difficult sections, and taking timed practice tests.

This is also a great opportunity to practice coping with test anxiety as you would during the actual exam.

4. Put the test into perspective

Remember that the test is important, but your entire future is not dependent on this one score! A single instance doesn’t reflect your intelligence, competence, and value.

Colleges also consider other aspects of your application when assessing eligibility. These include your application essay, recommendation letters, transcript, and resume.

5. Combat negative self talk

People are often much more critical of themselves than they are with others. However, the only person who can be with you during the exam is YOU! So you have to be the cheerleader in the room, not the critic.

Here are some examples:

Negative Self Talk Positive Self Talk
I always do poorly on tests.  No one can be perfect. Plus, that’s in the past. This time will be different because I prepared more effectively and gained skills to manage my test anxiety.
If I don’t get my ideal score, then I’m a failure. I will do well, but if not, I can retake the exam. Plus, a test score is not a measure of intelligence. 
If I feel anxious, I will panic and will do poorly. I have the skills to manage my anxiety. I am the one in control.
Everyone here is way smarter than me. I can only do my best. Other people can worry about themselves. I am competent just as I am.

Immediately Before the Exam

1. Sleep well 

Getting a good night’s sleep (7-9 hours) the day before the exam is ideal, but it is common to have insomnia from pre-performance jitters.

Thus, aim to get proper rest for the days, weeks, or even months prior to test day. Consistency is important – if your body is well-rested, one off-day will not take you down.  

2. Eat something nutritious

Your brain needs fuel to jump-start its engines and to sustain you throughout the long exam. Even if you habitually skip breakfast, consider some manageable ways to consume energy. 

Bring snacks to the testing center, too, if possible.

3. Squeeze in a short workout 

You don’t need to head out for a five-mile run, but physical exercise naturally reduces stress, boosts your energy levels, and helps you feel more relaxed and positive.

4. Prep the night before

Get everything in order so that you are ready to head out the door in the morning: pack your snacks, verify the testing site, double-check your documents, lay out your clothes, etc.

This minimizes brain clutter so that you can focus on staying relaxed, hopeful, and acing the exam.

5. Acknowledge the anxiety

Many people will tell you, “Don’t be nervous. You’re fine.” They mean well, but this sends the message that feeling anxious is “wrong,” so that you feel guilty on top of feeling anxious.

If I tell you, “Don’t think about the Pink Elephant standing across the room,” you will think about the Pink Elephant standing across the room.

Simply recognize that some anxiety is normal and remind yourself that you have all the tools to stay in control!

During the Exam

1. Calm your body

Breathe in deeply from your belly, tighten various muscle groups one at a time, and then slowly relax them (a technique called progressive muscle relaxation).

With this exercise, you are signaling to your brain that you are safe, and everything is okay.

2. Focus on the task at hand

Focusing on the present moment allows you to put aside your concerns about the past or future.

For example, simply tell yourself, “It’s 8 AM, I am at X Testing Center, sitting at a desk. I’m picking up my pencil and working on SAT Math.” 

If you feel your mind wandering to the past or future, gently bring it back to the task at hand.

3. Interrupt negative thoughts

It’s normal to have a little self-doubt before being evaluated The goal is not to get rid of this doubt but rather to manage it when it comes up.

When you hear your inner critic, just say, “PAUSE” (you can even put your hand up!), take a few deep breaths, and then refocus your energy. You can even use your test booklet to jot down some positive affirmations. 

4. Challenge perfectionism 

Remind yourself that getting a high score (or even a perfect score) doesn’t require getting 100% of the answers correct. Understand what a good SAT score is beforehand, based on your choice of schools.

Even with this in mind, you can still retake the exam. In fact, we encourage our students to take the SAT or ACT at least twice.


Next Steps

What can you do to tackle test anxiety while prepping for the SAT or ACT? Here’s what you can do today.

  • Plan and practice

Test anxiety feeds on the unknown. Spend your time and energy to design an effective study plan, which should include coping with test anxiety.

If this is your first college admissions exam, it can take some time to get into the flow. Plus, managing your emotions is hard work! It takes practice and trial-and-error.

These are not just important test-taking skills, but also important life skills.  

  • Get the help that you need

If you don’t see improvement in your anxiety levels even after multiple rounds of practice, or if you notice anxiety creeping into other areas of your life, consider seeing a psychological mental health professional (i.e. therapist, counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist).

He or she can determine if there is another underlying cause, such as mental health issues or learning difficulties (all of which are treatable).

Talking to a therapist can also help you work through your cognitive and emotional barriers, such as a fear of failure, perfectionism, self-esteem, or general school/family/social issues.

  • Consider social factors

In a culture that is obsessed with success and high expectations, it makes sense that students feel a lot of social pressure when taking tests. 

For parents, working through your own test-related anxiety can have profound effects. Children take on the anxiety of the adults around them, and internalize criticism and the pressure to “succeed.” Make sure that the family provides a safe and accepting place to talk about doubts and fears.

Test anxiety can be stressful and unpleasant, but it’s completely manageable. If you believe that test anxiety is keeping you from being your best, try out the techniques offered in this article.

You can also work with a test tutor who is familiar with anxiety management techniques to help you incorporate coping strategies into your study plan.

Now, take a few deep breaths, relax, and remember that you will do well!


BW Singapore PT 5 (1)Biyang is a licensed mental health professional based in Illinois. She provides coaching and psychotherapy to young adults and adults. Biyang is a graduate of Princeton University (BA in Psychology and Neuroscience) and University of Chicago (MA in Social Work, concentration in Health Administration and Policy). She has over ten years of experience working in various areas of education, including college counseling, academic tutoring, application essays, executive function skills, and test prep. She is a Master Tutor at Princeton Tutoring.