Palms drenched in sweat? Check. Queasy stomach? Check. Heart racing faster than Usain Bolt? Check. Mind gone blank? Check.
I’ve had test-taking anxiety ever since I started school. I DESPISE taking tests. While it is completely normal to feel nervous before an exam, this anxiety completely overwhelms me, impairing my ability to function, and keeping me up late at night. I would toss and turn with recurring dreams of my exams for my AP classes from high school. Although I’ve graduated high school, I still have these dreams.
On top of that, my anxiety caused me to forget what I studied, to constantly fear failure, to obsess over scores and time, and to pointlessly flip through my notes back and forth for reassurance. More often than not, I would realize I filled in the wrong answer for a question AFTER handing in my test. Due to my anxiety, I haven’t been the best test taker in the past, especially when it comes to my weaker subjects (seriously why did we have to take math and physics?).
However, I am comforted by the fact that people of every age, and in every subject, feel the same way I do. Numerous social, individual, and cultural pressures are placed on us to do well. Having test-taking anxiety can even hinder one’s willingness to pursue higher level careers, such as science or law, due to a fear of failure or ineptitude. But don’t be discouraged. If you are experiencing any of this, you are not alone. Here are my tips on combating test-taking anxiety that have worked for me over time, and are guaranteed to help you as well:
1. Self Care
Accept that you are experiencing anxiety. Don’t try to suppress it. You are human and your emotions are valid.
Slowly take deep breaths. I like to inhale for 4 seconds, hold it in for 7 seconds, and gradually exhale for another 7 seconds. As you inhale, visualize yourself soaking in positive energy. As you exhale, imagine all the negative energy escaping your body and evaporating into space. Meditate. Relax all the muscles in your body by releasing the tension in your jaw, neck, chest, and wherever you feel tight. Use guided imagery that helps transport your mind into a peaceful state of being. These can be done before, during, and even after an exam.
Get a good night’s sleep (at least 8 hours) the night before, so that you are well rested and in a clear headspace during your test, which improves your memory. Side note: don’t just do this before the day of an exam; this should be a regular practice!
Eat nutritious food and drink water on the day of the exam. Avoid consuming sweets or caffeine, as they will cause you to be hyper, therefore making it more difficult to focus.
Exercise. Moving your body will decrease stress and give it more energy.It will also release pent-up anxiety, and focus your brain power.
Envision yourself doing well. Reassure yourself with positive affirmations: say them out loud if you need to. If you repeat this mantra, chances are the outcome will be better than you expected. Your thoughts become your actions, so make sure you are feeding your mind with thoughts that allow you to excel.
Talk to a therapist or a counselor if it becomes severe. They can guide you with the helpful tools needed to help you navigate your anxiety. You can even talk to a friend or a classmate- who knows, they might be able to offer you reassurance or confide with you about their similar experiences so that you won’t feel totally alone.
Arrive at class or the testing center several minutes (at least 10 minutes) prior to the start of an exam in order to allow yourself time to relax. Rushing late for an exam will only exacerbate your anxiety.
Reward yourself afterwards to clear your mind. You deserve to pamper yourself, whether it’s with shopping for that cute new outfit you’ve been eyeing at the mall, grabbing a slice of your favorite treat, or something else!
Study pieces of information bit by bit over a period of time. That way, you don’t have to cram everything you learned all at once at the very last minute. This gives you more time and capacity to retain everything so that you won’t feel as stressed. Make a schedule of when and what to study, and commit to that routine. Don’t forget to take breaks as well!
Study in a distraction-free zone. This could be done at a library or at your desk. Make sure your space is organized, as clutter will only distract you. It is best not to study where you know you will be too comfortable, such as in your bed, where you can easily lose focus.
Establish effective studying techniques and find out which works best for you. This could range from making flashcards, taking practice tests, to reviewing your notes, making an outline, studying with a group, or timing yourself.
If you have a learning disability, do not hesitate to communicate with your school’s disability services so that accomodations can be made for you (such as taking the exam in a separate room, having questions be read aloud to you, receiving extra time, etc).
Ask for tutoring help; there’s no shame in reaching out with questions!
3. Strategies while taking the test
Get started the second you hear the proctor announce “You may begin.”
Pay attention to your own exam, and not anyone else in the room. Don’t look around to see what others are doing.
Read directions thoroughly. A lot of times we make careless errors because we didn’t read carefully.
Only glance up at the clock or down at your watch briefly to check the time so you can stay on track and factor in how much remaining time you have left. Don’t do this obsessively to the point where you waste time and scramble to finish.
If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t dwell on it. You’re not going to magically figure it out right there and then. Skip it, move on to the next question, and go back to it if you have time. If you don’t have all the blanks filled in and you’re running out of time, take an educated guess. (Trick: usually your first instinct is the correct one). Just do your best and don’t dwell on it afterwards either.
Double check your answers once you’ve finished and still have time remaining. It doesn’t hurt to review them so that you can catch any mistakes that you might’ve made the first time and correct them.
Remember, at the end of the day, a numerical score does not determine your worth in any shape or form. It is only a measure of how well you can take a test and retain material. Some of the most successful people in life aren’t necessarily the best test takers and yet, they are still thriving. Your skills, talents, hard work, and who you are as a person matter infinitely more than a number. Even though you may think you don’t have much control in this situation, the truth is you have more control than you think. Don’t let any exam, big or small, intimidate you.
Written by: Stephanie Wan