How to Overcome Test Anxiety

What’s the worst, most anxiety-provoking event in college life that you can think of? Giving a speech? Running out of money? Being homesick?

Taking a test?

Everyone is nervous about tests. For most people, their mild anxiety is motivation to study well. But if the prospect of taking a test fills you with dread, if you can hardly study because of the butterflies in your stomach, if you can’t even comprehend the test when it’s in front of you, you’ve got test anxiety for certain.

The real danger of test anxiety is that it becomes a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Each time you sit down to an exam and are so anxious that you do poorly, you only reinforce your anxiety. You look forward to the next exam with growing dread, sure that you’ll do even worse. Your anxious thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophesy as your agitation continues to interfere with your studies and your test-taking abilities.

Like all anxieties, test anxiety can be overcome. But like all anxieties, the cure won’t happen overnight. With time, treatment, and determination, you can knock your test anxiety down to a manageable, motivational size.


The key to good test taking for all students is good study habits. Learn and use active study skills that allow you to interact with the material in many ways and using multiple senses. You learn passively when you listen in class, read the book, or read the notes. That’s not bad, it’s just not all that you can do. You learn actively when you take notes and write down questions in lecture and while reading; when you make outlines or mind maps of the text and the notes; when you draw pictures of concepts; when you organize information into tables. 

Anxiety may cause avoidance, where you keep putting studying off because you fear failure. Overcome the avoidance by setting a schedule. Set a short, manageable, but fixed and regular time to study each subject each and every day (except for one day off – your brain and body need a rest). Give yourself a specific task for your study time, such as taking notes on the first two sections of the current chapter or answering the chapter study questions, and write it into your schedule. 

Study with others if possible. Social learning helps reinforce learned material. Socializing will also help reduce feelings of isolation and helplessness.


Sleep deprivation is a college student’s worst enemy. Many students believe that college life requires them to stay up heroically, night after night, downing coffee and energy drinks. Don’t! Not only does lack of sleep makes people far less efficient., but many studies show that sleep is an essential part of fixing learned information into your memory. Sleep deprivation also contributes to depression and anxiety. Replace grim all-nighters with planning. Don’t wait until two nights before the big paper is due, then cry over your keyboard until four in the morning trying to finish it. Start researching the paper on the very day that it is assigned, and schedule tasks for yourself each day until it is done. The same goes for studying. Study new material every day in short sessions, and begin your more intensive exam review at least a week before the exam. At a reasonable hour of the evening, shut your book, do something quiet and relaxing, and go to bed. Let sleep do its work.


If your professor provides sample questions for the exams, use them to your advantage. Early in your exam review week, use the questions to quiz yourself. Based on the results, decide which areas of the content you need to review more deeply. If the professor does not provide sample questions, use questions from the textbook and try writing some of your own. Use your class notes to predict what kinds of topics the professor may emphasize. If you can, form a study group with other students in the class so you can quiz one another.


Most universities require professors to keep a minimum number of hours where they are available for student questions. As you study, write down any questions that you have or note any topics that still confuse you. Take your questions with you to your professor’s office during office hours for extra one-on-one tutoring. Once in a while, though, you may find yourself dealing with an unhelpful professor. In that case, seek help from a teaching assistant or from your school’s tutoring center.


When you have the exam in front of you, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Do this two or three times. It will help calm and relax you. Read through the test before you begin answering any questions. Often there are clues in the instructions, or one question may contain clues to help answer another. When you’re ready, begin with the questions that you’re sure of. Answer those quickly. Read each of the harder questions slowly and carefully. Look for key words that can give you a clue about the correct answer. Remember that all tests will include “C” questions (the ones most people can answer), “B” questions (the ones that cause most people to think), and “A” questions (the brain-busters that only the most prepared students will be able to answer). If you are confident on most of the questions, don’t let the “A” questions bother you. Do your best on them, then let them go.


If simple self-help isn’t working and anxiety still plagues you, there may be resources on campus that can help. First, find out if there is a tutoring center or other learning help center. You may be able to schedule extra tutoring time, and some centers have workshops for dealing with test anxiety. Next, check with the student health center. They often have counseling services with experienced counselors who have worked with many, many students with test anxiety. A good counselor can determine if short-term counseling will work for you, or if you’re a good candidate for medical hypnosis or anti-anxiety medications. 

Be patient with yourself. Anxiety doesn’t disappear overnight. Give yourself time and seek whatever help you need. You’re worth the effort.