When you walk into a final exam or a standardized test, it’s perfectly normal to experience some feelings of nervousness. These feelings happen to even the most prepared and self-confident of students; one can never be 100% sure what’s going to be on a test, and that bit of uncertainty causes anxiety and the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline can actually be useful when it comes time to sit down and take the test, keeping you focused on the task at hand. Nervousness and anxiety become problematic, though, when they are debilitating and take over your every thought or result in physical symptoms.
This overwhelming anxiety is often called test anxiety when it occurs in an academic setting, but it’s really just a form of performance anxiety or stage fright. Any number of things could cause test anxiety, but the most common are fear of failure combined with the need to be perfect and the knowledge that one is underprepared for the exam.
Unfortunately, while some adrenaline can help you on an exam, the adrenaline that accompanies feelings of acute anxiety can actually negatively affect your performance: You’re anxious, so you forget the answers to even simple questions. This inability to remember makes you more anxious. Pretty soon the only thing you can think about is how poorly you’re going to do on the test. Symptoms may get worse as time goes on.
It’s a vicious cycle, too. Once you get anxious about one test, you may start to feel anxiety every time you have another test, especially if you didn’t end up doing well on the test the first time. You may even feel test anxiety despite knowing that you’re prepared and know the material well. Once feeling anxious becomes a habit, you’ll have to work harder to break it.
Symptoms of test anxiety are all over the board, but some common ones include:
- Feelings of dread
- Feelings of helplessness
- Racing mind
- Inability to concentrate
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Elevated heart rate
- Panic attacks
Knowing that you are susceptible to test anxiety is one thing, but getting it under control is another. Fortunately, there are several techniques that you can try on your own before turning to a professional.
- Start studying well ahead of time. The more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll be going into the test. Instead of cramming at the last minute, which isn’t going to help you remember all of the information, plan out a study schedule for the week leading up to the test. Spread your studying out, take frequent breaks, and study only when you’re awake and alert.
- Get a good night of sleep. This seems obvious, but if you’re exhausted when you go into your test, you’re less likely to be able to recall information and you’re more likely to start feeling emotional. Skip the late-night cramming and the all-nighters; you won’t remember anything anyways. Aim for a solid eight hours of sleep the night before you have a test.
- Eat a good breakfast or have a snack. You don’t want to be hungry, craving a caffeine fix, or experiencing a sugar crash when you’re in the middle of a test. Eat a healthy breakfast if your test is in the morning or a healthy snack if your test is in the afternoon. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and yogurt are all great options. Avoid sugary snacks and processed food. Have a cup of coffee or tea if you’re a caffeine person, but don’t drink so much that you’ll have to go to the bathroom as soon as you sit down.
- Get to the testing site or classroom early. You want to be as prepared as possible, and that includes getting to the testing site well before the exam starts. Rolling in at the last minute is only going to exacerbate your anxiety. Set an alarm to remind yourself to get to the test and then spend a few minutes setting up your workspace. Get out your pencils, calculator, erasers, and water bottle and arrange them in a way that helps you feel the most in control.
- Take deep breaths. If you start to spiral, focus on your breathing and take deep, calming breaths. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat until you feel your heart rate slow and you’re ready to focus on the test.
- Think positive thoughts. Thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies, so instead of thinking “I am going to fail this test,” or “I don’t know anything,” think “I’m prepared for this test,” or “I am going to do my best.” Negative thoughts will increase your anxiety; positive ones should have the opposite effect.
- Don’t pay attention to anyone else. So what if everyone is busy scribbling away or already flipping onto the next page? So what if you’re not the first one done? Everyone tests differently; judging yourself based on the actions of others isn’t going to help you do better. In fact, it could make your anxiety worse. Keep your head down and focus on your test, not your classmates.
- Don’t be afraid to skip a question. If you go blank, skip it. Don’t waste time on one question that you don’t know when you could be spending your valuable time on multiple questions that you do know. If you have time at the end, come back to it. If you don’t, be glad you didn’t waste too much time on it, because your grade will be higher for having moved on.
- Know that it’s okay not to be perfect. You’re not going to ace every test every single time. Some subjects will be harder for you than others. Letting yourself make mistakes gives you the opportunity to learn and to grow. A poor test grade could result in better study methods in the future. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
If your symptoms persist and none of the methods above work, consider talking to your professor or making an appointment to talk to a counselor or therapist at the campus health center. Your professor may be able to offer you the opportunity to take your tests in private, and a therapist can help you develop coping mechanisms, or, if necessary, prescribe anti-anxiety medication.
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