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How do you deal with test anxiety?

October 31, 2019

We all know that feeling -- stress floods your body, your heart races, and suddenly, you can’t remember how to do a problem you know you could do yesterday.

During high-stakes testing, many students experience anxiety. This can present itself as difficulty concentrating, light-headedness, or increased heart rate. Additionally, anxiety can manifest as chronic procrastination well before the test, as the mere thought of studying causes a student to spiral.

So, what can you do to manage test anxiety, both before and on the test day?

  1. Understand the root of the issue. You may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of studying because it seems like your whole future rides on this one score. The truth is that ACT/SAT is just one piece of the college admissions decision. An applicant’s grades and course rigor are more given more weight than standardized test scores. Most competitive schools also consider the strength of an applicant’s teacher recommendations, the compellingness of their personal story, and the extent to which their extracurriculars illustrate their talent, drive, initiative, and passion.
  2. Prepare. The best defence against exam day panic is preparation. A big driver of fear is uncertainty. The more you know about what to expect on the day of the exam, the more at ease you will feel.
  3. Start small. If you’re really struggling to start studying, set a timer for 10 minutes and commit to doing practice problems for just this period. You can find practice problems on the ACT and College Board websites. Additionally, most public libraries have ACT and SAT prep books.
  4. Build momentum. If you feel mentally taxed after the timer goes off, take a break and come back later. If you feel ready to take on more, keep going. In a given study session, focus on 1-2 sections or a handful of math skills. Leading up to the exam, set aside small chunks of time for studying at least two days a week.
  5. Take breaks. Your brain retains information better when it has time to process. If you study for more than an hour, then take a few minutes to stand up, walk around, drink some water, breathe deeply, and give your eyes a rest. There is tons of research that shows the necessity of taking breaks for optimal brain function and memory retention. Speaking of advice that is backed up by decades of research...
  6. Sleep. Don’t cram the night before the exam. Your brain needs time and sleep to process new material, so do not sacrifice sleep for extra studying hours. Even if you don’t feel tired, your brain does not work optimally if you do not get adequate sleep.
  7. Breathe. On the day of the exam, take a moment to close your eyes, take slow, deep breathes, and visualize a positive outcome.
  8. Channel your stress into focus. Anxiety can, under the right conditions, help students perform at a higher level. In a Harvard study, students were told that anxiety might actually help them do better on the GRE. These students scored significantly higher than those in a control group, who were not given this positive framing.
  9. Ground yourself. The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is a technique for combating anxiety, whereby you focus on things you can perceive with your senses. After taking some deep breaths, slowly count and take note of 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
  10. Ask for help. Test anxiety might be just one symptom of a diagnosable mental health issue or learning disability. These issues are beyond my expertise, but know you deserve to take advantage of every resource available to you. Some high schools have psychologists who are practiced in helping young people manage stress. Students with learning differences are entitled to test day accommodations, but these must be requested well in advance. These deadlines are even earlier than registration deadlines.