You’ve been studying for weeks. You’ve gone through countless practice problems, read your material half a dozen times, and even had dreams about solving math equations in your sleep. No one can say you’re unprepared.
But then you sit down to take your test and all the words in your booklet seem like they’re written in a foreign language, and suddenly your mind is completely blank. You look around the room and notice that everyone else seems to be fine; you’re the only one in a state of panic.
Before you start sobbing at your desk, chew the ends off all your pencils, or run from the room screaming obscenities, take a deep breath. This is test anxiety in action, and it’s not a pretty sight.
If you’re too nervous to read the questions correctly (or at all!), you’ll never be able to show off all that hard work you put into studying. The good news is that once you truly understand how test anxiety works, and what you can do to overcome it, you’ll be on your way to less stress and higher test scores in no time.
Is Test Anxiety Real?
Test anxiety falls under the category of performance anxiety, which is similar to that stage fright you may have experienced during your third grade holiday play.
It’s not uncommon for students to experience stress before they’re about to take a test. However, while some students use this stress to help them tackle the important task in front of them, others are completely sidelined and become paralyzed by it.
As Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin says:
“A little nervousness before a test is normal and can help sharpen your mind and focus your attention. But with test anxiety, feelings of worry and self-doubt can interfere with your test-taking performance and make you miserable.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), there are three main causes of test anxiety:
- Fear of failure: While the pressure to perform can act as a motivator, it can also harm students who tie their self-worth to the outcome of their test. Overachievers and overanalyzers worry so much about being correct that they second guess their right answers and change them because they fear failing.
- Lack of preparation: Cramming or not studying at all can leave students feeling anxious and overwhelmed during test time.
- Poor test history: Previous issues or bad experiences with test-taking can lead to a negative mindset and influence performance on future tests, creating a vicious test anxiety cycle.
Now that you know what may be triggering your test anxiety, let’s talk about how it’s really affecting your body and mind during test time.
Symptoms of Test Anxiety
Test anxiety literally affects every component of your body, from your thoughts to your emotions, to your sweaty palms. Although it may feel as if you’re about to die, you’re not. These are the most common symptoms of test anxiety:
- Mental: Lack of concentration, negative thoughts, comparing yourself to others, catastrophizing (thinking the worst)
- Emotional: Anger, helplessness, disappointment, fear, dread
- Physical: Headache, lightheadedness, feeling faint, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, feeling of having a heart attack, panic attacks, intense fear of not being able to breathe
Other than these uncomfortable symptoms being a nuisance to deal with, they actually have a purpose for your body (and it’s not ruining your chances of getting into college).
Your body uses anxiety and stress to detect (and get away from) threatening situations. When it perceives a threat to your survival, like when you stumble into a tiger’s lair at the zoo because you were busy texting, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline to trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response. This would definitely help you run away from a tiger if your life depended on it.
But when all of this stress pops up during testing, your brain turns off critical functions such as memory recall so it can divert all its power to helping you get away from disaster. After all, who needs to remember SAT vocab words when there’s a tiger on your heels?
Unfortunately, while stress and anxiety will help you escape danger, they’re not quite so helpful when you’re taking a test. In fact, test anxiety has been directly correlated with poor academic performance.
See, when you’re too stressed, your brain’s attention is divided between your internal self and the test. Since your brain prioritizes stress, your ability to focus on the test gets tossed to the curb.
Although you may feel trapped by test anxiety, you don’t have to be a victim any longer.
Stop Your Test Anxiety ASAP
To stop test anxiety from taking over your brain, you’ll need to address the three major causes of test anxiety we discussed earlier and follow these simple tips:
The more time you familiarize yourself with the material on your tests, the less unprepared you’ll feel. At school, ask your teacher for the format of your test to avoid any unwelcome surprises (there’s an essay?!) and start studying at least one week earlier.
If you’re studying for a standardized test like the ACT or SAT, draft a study schedule months in advance and stick to it to keep the material from becoming too overwhelming at the last minute.
Perfection Breeds Neuroses
Here’s the reality: You’re probably not going to get every question right.
So stop striving for perfection and beating yourself up when you fail to measure up to this ridiculous goal, especially on standardized tests. You’re going to answer a few questions wrong, or want to skip them completely. If you accept this going into the test, you’ll be way less likely to stress over these questions. Don’t let one very hard question keep you from answering 20 easier questions you could answer without struggling.
Keep in mind that you don’t need perfect scores the first time you take your college entrance exams, either. You can retake the SAT and ACT multiple times — and most colleges will accept your highest score, no matter if that happened on the first, third, or final retake.
Stop the Negative Thinking
If you get into a certain negative way of thinking about yourself, you’re going to start believing it.
Instead of using these phrases:
- I’m just not a good test-taker.
- I can’t do math.
- I’m going to be a failure if I get a low score.
- I HAVE to do well.
Start repeating phrases that emphasize positivity and praise your achievement:
- I know this material, and I can ace this test!
- I’m totally prepared for this test!
- I’m going to do my best, and if I get a low grade I’ll do everything I can to raise it the next time!
Don’t Get Frustrated
If you’ve been studying more, getting extra attention from tutors, and following these tips, but you still can’t find relief from your test anxiety, you may be fighting an underlying learning disability such as dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Speak with your parents or your school’s guidance counselor about being allowed extra time to complete your tests, having test questions read aloud, or possibly scheduling an appointment with a therapist to talk about your fears. Don’t feel ashamed about needing extra help; no one has to know your struggles once you make it to your dream school.
When I tell my students that they can make their test anxiety disappear, they sometimes look at me like I’m crazy. No, I don’t think you’re giving yourself test anxiety on purpose, but I do believe you can control those negative, paralyzing thoughts and feelings. If you prepare for your tests well in advance, and convince yourself that you will succeed instead of being trapped by fear, you’ll be able to work through your tests with a calm, level head and show off everything you’ve learned.