It’s normal to experience a little nervousness from time to time about taking tests. However, some students routinely experience severe anxiety prior to and during their exams. Test anxiety isn’t great for your mental or physical wellness, and it can also interfere with your academic performance.
If you’re struggling with this common issue, there are many effective tips for dealing with test anxiety that you can try. You may need to try a few of these test-taking anxiety tips before figuring out what works well for you. If nothing seems to help and you’re still experiencing significant anxiety, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional.
What Exactly Is Test Anxiety?
It’s common for students to be a little nervous before or during an exam, but anxiety is different. It’s characterized by moderate to severe anxiety, which may include feelings of self-doubt, excessive worrying and even dread. People who have test anxiety may also have a mental health disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). If you experience any of the following, you may want to see a counselor.
Test anxiety commonly causes emotional and cognitive symptoms, such as the following:
- Nervousness or restlessness
- Self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy
- Hopelessness and fear
- Problems concentrating
The body and mind are closely linked. If test anxiety is affecting your emotional and cognitive wellness, then there is a good chance it’s also affecting your physical health. Be on the lookout for physical symptoms such as the following:
- Sudden shakiness and excessive sweating
- Gastrointestinal distress, such as stomach upset, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling faint or lightheaded
In short, test anxiety can cause a range of problems for your body and mind. Unsurprisingly, it can also affect your performance on exams. If you’re excessively worried about taking tests, then you may have problems concentrating on them. It’s important to overcome test anxiety so that you can do well in school and care for your health.
Tips for Test Anxiety: What to Do Before Your Exam
For students who suffer from test anxiety, it can be helpful to follow anxiety-reduction techniques both before and during the exam. In the days or weeks leading up to the exam, try the following tips for test anxiety.
Try to Keep Things in Perspective
When you’re experiencing exam-related anxiety, it might seem as though a single test has the power to influence your entire future. It’s helpful to put things into perspective. Yes, it’s important to do well in school, but a single exam — or even a single class — won’t determine your future.
If you’re finding it difficult to put things into perspective, try this simple mental game. Take a piece of paper and a pen, and jot down a list of negative things that will happen to you if you score less than 100% on your exam. (For example, will you get kicked out of school if you score only 99%, or will you fail to land your dream job if your grade on this exam isn’t perfect?)
Having trouble coming up with anything negative that is reasonably likely to come true if you don’t score 100%? Exactly! That’s the point of this mental exercise — to remind yourself that it isn’t necessary to be a perfectionist in order to do well in school. You don’t need to get a perfect grade every single time; you only need to do well.
Practice Various Stress Reduction Techniques
Stress reduction techniques can be very helpful for anxious college students. You may need to try a few to find what works for you. Visualization, meditation, listening to calming music and deep breathing can all be effective ways to cope with test anxiety. It’s ideal to practice your chosen stress reduction technique on a daily basis.
Set aside a few minutes at least once per day to practice it. Daily practice will help it be more effective when you use it on exam day.
Prepare Thoroughly for Your Upcoming Test
Some people develop anxiety because of a perceived lack of control. To put yourself back in the driver’s seat and give yourself a boost of self-confidence, you should prepare thoroughly for your exams.
Your professor may indicate the dates of exams on your syllabus. This will give you plenty of time to develop a study schedule leading up to the exam. Set aside time each day to review your class notes, handouts and other materials.
It’s more effective to study for a shorter time each day than to have very long study sessions once or twice per week. If you’re having trouble with the material, visit your professor’s office during office hours to discuss it. You should also take advantage of any tutoring services your college may offer.
Not everyone has the same study style. Some people do best when studying by themselves in a quiet, distraction-free environment, while others find that they retain information better when they discuss the class material with their peers. Try attending a few study groups and studying by yourself to figure out which approach is likely to work best for you.
Even if you prefer studying in solitude, it can be helpful to get together with a few classmates now and then. These don’t necessarily need to be people in the same class as you. This is because you’ll want to teach the material you’re studying to your classmates, and vice versa.
When you teach the class material to other people, you’re more likely to retain that information for yourself. Plus, teaching your peers about the concepts you’re studying can help boost your self-confidence and make you realize that you have a firm grasp on the material.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep Before the Exam (and Every Night)
Getting enough sleep is one of the most impactful things you can do to support your academic performance, including your test-taking performance. Scientific studies have shown that during sleep, cerebrospinal fluid is transported throughout the brain, removing toxins that build up during waking hours.1 Sleep is crucial for memory formation, and not getting enough quality sleep will lead to impairments in reasoning, attention to detail and problem-solving.
It’s important to prioritize your sleep every night so that your study sessions are more effective, you retain more information during classes and you do better during exams. Avoid all-night study sessions, because these will do more harm than good. Instead, set aside a reasonable amount of time each day to study leading up to your exams, and try to get to bed at about the same time every night.
Treat Your Body to Healthy Nutrition (and Less Caffeine)
It can be hard to focus on a test when you’re hungry. Eat a healthy meal before your exam. Try to limit your intake of simple carbohydrates, sugar and caffeine. You may get a rush of energy from these substances, but it will be followed by an energy crash — and that’s not helpful during exam time.
Make Plans To Do Something Fun Afterward
Another effective way to overcome test anxiety is to reward yourself afterward. You can make plans to do something fun following your exam so that you’ll have something to look forward to. When you start to feel a little anxious, try to shift your focus to your post-exam plans.
Take a Longer Walk on Your Way to Class
Many students who experience exam-related anxiety feel like they have lots of nervous energy, especially on exam day. If that describes you, it can be helpful to take a longer route to the classroom. If you live off campus, park much farther away than usual.
Listen to some calming music while you walk and practice deep breathing. Remember to give yourself extra time to get to your class. You’ll want to arrive a little early, but not so early that you begin to get nervous while waiting for the class to start.
Test-Taking Anxiety Tips: What To Do During Your Exam
You’ve prepared thoroughly for your test, practiced deep breathing and gotten a good night’s sleep. Now, it’s exam day, and it’s time to put what you’ve practiced to work for you. Try the following test-taking anxiety tips while you’re waiting for the exam to start and during the exam itself.
Start With a Stress Reduction Technique
If you’re sitting in class and you’ve got a few minutes before the exam starts, spend the time using a stress reduction technique. Close your eyes and visualize yourself enjoying those fun plans you made for after your exam. Take some deep breaths by breathing in slowly through your nose, then exhaling even more slowly through your mouth.
Curb Negative Thought Patterns
It’s all too easy to fall into negative thought patterns, like “Maybe I didn’t study enough,” or “I’m going to fail this test.” Trying to clear your mind of thoughts might not necessarily help. Instead, focus your thoughts on something else.
For example, remind yourself of your goal for this exam: to do well, but not necessarily to get a perfect grade. It may also help to remind yourself of the exams you’ve done well on in the past. Think about all of your past classes in which you’ve earned A and B grades, and reminder yourself that you’re a perfectly capable student.
Avoid Rushing Through the Exam
Nervous test takers often worry that they won’t have enough time to finish the exam, so they go through the questions as quickly as possible. However, it’s important not to rush through the test, because this can negatively affect your grade. Instead, read each question twice before responding. If it’s a multiple choice question, carefully consider each possible answer before choosing one.
Try to avoid checking the clock frequently. You can check it once in a while, but excessive clock-watching will only worsen test-taking anxiety.
Double-Check Your Work If Time Allows
If you finish your exam and still have time left, go back and double-check your work. Re-read each question carefully and only change an answer if you’re certain that you got it wrong the first time.
The goal of trying these tips for test anxiety isn’t just to cope with feelings of nervousness before and during one particular exam. Students with test anxiety tend to experience symptoms before and during all tests that they take. You’ll also want to focus on overcoming your test anxiety permanently so that you can complete your college degree with confidence.
One way to conquer test anxiety on a long-term basis is to debrief yourself after each test. Tell yourself, “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? I got all worked up for no reason at all.”
Think back on all of the strategies you used to manage your anxiety, such as meditation, getting lots of sleep and taking a longer walk on your way to class. Consider which strategies were most effective for you and which weren’t. Adjust your routine accordingly moving forward.
Should You Talk to a Professional?
In some cases, students with test anxiety may also have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorders or another type of mental health disorder. If you’ve tried following the tips above, but you’re still struggling, or if your symptoms are beginning to interfere with your daily life, then it may be time to talk to a professional. You could start by talking to your primary care doctor or even by scheduling a telehealth appointment with a therapist online.
GAD can look a little different from one person to the next. In general, however, a person with GAD may experience any of the following:
- Worrying excessively multiple times per day
- Having a hard time relaxing or falling asleep due to worrying and/or catastrophizing
- Feeling tired or lethargic constantly
- Having a hard time concentrating
- Experiencing gastrointestinal issues for no apparent reason
- Experiencing shakiness, sweaty palms and a rapid heartbeat
If you think you may be struggling with an anxiety disorder or another mental health issue, it may be time to reach out to a professional for help.
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1National Institutes of Health, How Sleep Clears the Brain in September 2022.
Approved by the Manager of the Office of Student Care on Nov. 11, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.