It’s test day. You wake up after a night of cramming, tired and stressed out. By the time you get to the classroom, everything you thought you’ve learned has turned into a jumble of conflicting factoids. Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and you feel like you can’t breathe. When you get your test, you pick answers randomly, in a panic. When the teacher hands it back, there’s a big red “F” at the top. Sound familiar? Then you may be one of the millions of students nationwide who suffer from test-taking anxiety. But don’t worry—you’re not alone, and you’re not doomed to suffer forever. Here are some good ways of reducing anxiety and improving your performance on test day.
Put things in perspective
Try telling yourself: “It’s just a test; it’s not the end of the world if I fail.” If you’re already stressed out about tests, that’s hard to believe. And it is true that tests are getting more and more important—and more and more numerous. There are SAT, Ergs, AP tests, and Spats. Large classes and the necessity of finding some way to measure schools’ adherence to county, state, and federal progress metrics mean students are faced with more tests than ever before. There are even IQ tests, personality tests, and thousands of online quizzes on Facebook, and other websites that are designed to tell you and your friends who you really are. In fact, there are so many tests that it can seem like test scores are the only way you can prove yourself.
But that’s just not true. Tests don’t tell the whole story; and no test—not even personality inventories—can really sum you up. You’ll likely never be in a situation where a single test is your only chance to do well at something. There will always be other things in your favor, and you can retake many of the most important tests—such as both the SAT and the GRE.
So take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you’re a whole person, not just a test score. Whatever happens when you start writing on that answer sheet, you’ll still be the same person when you finish. It’s not the end of the world; it’s just a test.
Test anxiety can start before you even feel worried. Your fear is rooted in preconceptions about tests, studying, and about your own performance. So you need to start fresh, and build new, encouraging expectations for yourself. When you start preparing for a test, don’t start by worrying about what could go wrong, or by telling yourself how hard it will be, and especially don’t think about how awful it was the last time you took a test. Start by figuring out how you want the test to go.
Think further than “know the material,” or “study more,” or “study harder.” Those aren’t real goals. They’re too general, and you’ll only psych yourself out trying to achieve things that you can’t define. Instead, be specific, detailed—and selfish. Don’t worry about looking good, or doing what you’re “supposed to.” Remember, all you have to do is pass the test, not pass the test while also looking like a model student. If what you really want is to be finished with your test before everyone else, so you can take a nap, focus your studying on going through practice questions as fast as you can without making mistakes.
Make yourself comfortable
When you get to the testing room, before you do anything else, change something about your surroundings. Move your chair to one side, set a couple of pencils on the desk, hang your sweatshirt over the back of your chair, etc. Even those minor alterations give you a sense of control, which will help you relax. You’ll also want to wear comfortable clothes, get as much rest as you can, make sure you’re not hungry or thirsty at the start of the test, and, if possible, go to the bathroom beforehand. This is especially important if you won’t be allowed to get up and leave the room during the test.
If you’re not sure whether the room will be hot or cold, wear layers. If you have nervous habits, test day might not be the best time to try to quit. Nervous tics like nail biting, fidgeting, or chewing on the end of your pencil may actually be reducing your anxiety, or even helping you concentrate. Worry about that kind of thing when you have the time and energy to replace them with better coping strategies. If sounds tend to distract you, bring ear plugs with you.
But don’t stop there: write a list of all the things that make you uncomfortable when you take tests, and see how many you can fix. Remember, the best way to help yourself relax is to make the test experience as pleasant as possible.
Short-circuit anxious thoughts
When you feel yourself getting panicky, get your mind off the stress as quickly as possible. Pick a word, phrase, or melody as a thought-stopper, and whenever you start thinking negative thoughts or feeling scared, repeat the thought-stopper silently to yourself. It can even be profanity, since you won’t be saying it out loud. Not only will cutting off bad thoughts help you feel less anxious, it will clear your mind for more important thoughts—like the answers to the test questions.
The best thought-stopper is short and sweet.
If worst comes to worst. . .
If the test is tomorrow, and it’s too late to make and achieve a lot of goals, then think small. Even if all you can do is desperately skim the material for a few hours and hope for the best, write that out as a series of goals. Your first goal might be, “Speed-read textbook for one hour.” After an hour, you can declare success. You may not be making any more progress, but you’ll feel a lot better about it, and you might be surprised by how much better you work when you feel good about yourself.
If the test is today, and you’re really stuck, the same thing applies. Make very small goals—goals like, “stop reading this article and go over page 347 one more time.” And if you are in that position, just do your best. Remember: it’s only a test. It’s not the end of the world. And next time, you’ll do better.