- Test anxiety can manifest as nerves before a test and a racing heart or sweating during a test.
- You can cope with it by taking a practice exam beforehand to prepare you for the stress.
- It may also be helpful to use relaxation techniques like deep breathing and positive mantras.
If you sit down to take a test and you feel your mind go blank, your stomach starts to churn, and your heart races — you might have test anxiety.
Test anxiety is a type of anxiety that can cause intense fear and worry before and during exams — and it doesn’t just feel bad, it can affect your scores.
Luckily, there are several strategies, like taking practice exams and doing breathing exercises, you can use to help fight test anxiety and perform better on tests.
Here’s what you need to know about what test anxiety is and how to cope with it.
What is test anxiety?
There are a few different types of test anxiety you may experience, depending on your personality and past experiences. Here’s what may cause it:
- You’re worried about what others think. This can happen if you have very demanding parents or feel a lot of pressure from a boss or professor. “Some may even become anxious because they are worried that the examiner or proctor might think they are cheating even though they aren’t,” Norton says.
- You’ve had bad experiences on past tests. Some people may have had negative experiences in test situations — “perhaps they blanked on a very important test before, and now they get anxious when in testing situations because they are concerned it might happen again,” Norton says.
Test anxiety can bring on intense symptoms in your mind as well as your body — “we often see physiological responses of test anxiety during the test,” says Nathaniel von der Embse, a professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida.
Some of the common symptoms of test anxiety are:
And test anxiety doesn’t just come up during the exam. “Test anxiety is a cycle,” von der Embse says, and the three main stages are:
1. Before the test. This anxiety is a fearful anticipation in the days and weeks leading up to the test. “This impacts study habits and often leads to procrastination,” von der Embse says.
2. During the test. During the test, you may have the strongest physical symptoms — like a racing heartbeat — and your mind may go blank, even for questions you know the answer to.
3. After the test. This shows up as fear leading up to getting the test results and worry and disappointment upon getting them. Getting a lower score than you expected, may ‘confirm’ your worries, “thus increasing the likelihood of higher test anxiety and lower test performance on the next exam,” von der Embse says.
How to deal with test anxiety
There are several different strategies you can try to ease test anxiety, both during the test and in the days beforehand.
1. Study over time — don’t cram
If you have test anxiety, you may end up procrastinating and then needing to study a large amount of material the day before the exam.
Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t work — “‘Cramming’ is an inefficient and ineffective study technique,” von der Embse says. This is because your brain can’t encode large amounts of information into your memory that quickly.
“Instead, taking in smaller chunks of information over many shorter study periods is much more effective,” Norton says. This cuts down on the anxious feeling of ‘rushing’ and helps you feel more prepared on the day of the exam.
Here are some tips to avoid cramming:
- For smaller tests, give yourself around three to five days to study. For larger final exams, you should give yourself up to two weeks for studying.
- During the process of studying, make sure to take a short break every one to two hours, as your attention can start to fade over time.
- If you’re having a hard time with studying, “make an appointment with an academic resources officer at your school or institution to see if you can improve your study skills,” Norton says.
2. Take practice exams
Taking practice exams can help you get used to the process of taking a timed test, but in a lower-pressure environment.
“Many textbooks have practice questions, and many instructors are willing to share old copies of exams if you ask them,” Norton says.
Feeling more familiar with the process may help cut down on anxious feelings during the real exam.
Taking practice exams can also give you a chance to practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing during the testing process.
3. Get tested for learning disability
“A large percent of people who experience test anxiety don’t have a learning disability,” Norton says. But if you do have a disability, you might struggle more during tests and learn to dread them.
If you’ve tried taking practice tests and improving your study skills, but you’re still struggling on tests, “it might be worth investing in an evaluation for a possible learning disability to see if that might explain the difficulties,” Norton says.
If a psychologist diagnoses you with a learning disability, like ADHD or dyslexia, you may be entitled to certain testing accommodations that may make the process easier.
This can include:
- Extended time on tests
- An alternative, quieter room to take the test
- Using a computer to take the test
- An alternate test format (i.e. multiple choice vs. short answer)
4. Use relaxation techniques
There are several techniques you can use to reduce anxiety before and during the test. This can include:
1. Deep breathing
Getting to the test room early and taking a few minutes for deep breathing may help calm your nerves. You can also try doing this in the days leading up to the test.
In a very small study, students practiced half an hour of mindful breathing each day for a week leading up to an exam. Students who completed the breathing practice felt significantly less test anxiety, compared to students who did no breathing exercises.
2. Positive self-talk
Taking time to say some positive affirmations before the test may also help change your fearful mindset.
You can try using phrases like:
- “I know this material”
- “I’m going to do my best”
- “This is only one test”
3. Stay grounded
If you find yourself getting lost in worrying thoughts, you can bring yourself back to the present moment by engaging your senses. You can try:
- Taking a sip of water
- Feeling your feet resting on the floor
- Identifying five things you can see in the exam room
But don’t try these for the first time on the day of the exam — “it is critical to practice these skills before a stressful situation,” von der Embse says.
“There are many reasons why people experience anxiety around tests, and there are just as many ways to help them get past their anxiety,” Norton says.
Strategies like studying gradually over time and saying positive affirmations can help get your test anxiety under control and make the testing process easier.
And if you’re still struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. “Most schools, colleges, and universities have people available, such as school counselors and learning support staff, who have specific skills to either help you with your difficulties or put you in touch with professionals who can help,” Norton says.