We've all experienced nerves before an important evaluation, but for many of us the anxiety is much, much worse than a few simple jitters.
By all accounts, a significant percentage of students experience some level of test anxiety, ranging from significant but livable symptoms to the most severely debilitating manifestations.
Dealing with any level of test anxiety during the SAT or ACT is, at its best, the opposite of fun. This guide will explain what test anxiety is, why it happens, and what you can do to manage it.
Test Anxiety: What Is It?
The first thing to say is that test anxiety is real. It's not something you've just imagined, and it's not a simple matter of bucking up and pulling it together. It's also not a moral failing or a character flaw. It's a real and serious phenomenon, and it isn't your fault.
Test anxiety is frequently considered a subcategory of performance anxiety, which is characterized by excessive nervousness in situations where there's high pressure to do well. Of course, in the case of test anxiety, the excessive nervousness is related specifically to tests.
In clinical terms, text anxiety has also been identified as a specific way that social anxiety disorder or generalized anxiety disorder may manifest. This does not necessarily mean that if you experience test anxiety you would definitely be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. That's a conversation for a licensed mental health provider.
In short, then, test anxiety is experiencing worry about what might happen with a test that goes beyond the bounds of what society deems "normal". It's perfectly natural to be nervous, but test anxiety goes above and beyond basic nerves. Examining some symptoms may help delineate the difference further.
Not everyone with test anxiety experiences every symptom. This is a wide range of possible effects: you might have many of these, or only a few.
Let's assess what's going on.
Physical symptoms include headache; nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal upset; excessive sweating; high blood pressure; dry mouth; shortness of breath; rapid heartbeat; and lightheadedness, feeling faint, or passing out.
Emotional symptoms include dread, anger, fear, depression, feeling disappointed, and feeling helpless.
Behavioral symptoms include fidgeting, pacing, avoidance, and uncontrollable laughing or crying.
Cognitive symptoms include racing thoughts, trouble concentrating, negative thinking, negative self-talk, comparing yourself to others, and difficulty organizing thoughts.
Another symptom of test anxiety is experiencing panic attacks. During a panic attack, you may feel that you can't breathe. Otherwise, you might have symptoms of a heart attack, including severe chest pain. If you're experiencing these symptoms, don't brush them off. Whether it's a panic attack or a heart attack, it deserves attention. Go to the nearest emergency room and find out for sure what's going on.
All of these symptoms occur on a spectrum; some are easier to deal with, and some are a lot harder. You may have a headache, or you may flat-out faint. You may fidget, or you may break down crying.
These symptoms all contribute to making a hard test that much harder. Having trouble concentrating or difficulty organizing thoughts is a completely unfair disadvantage to have as someone with test anxiety. Not only are you totally uncomfortable during the test, your worst fear is coming true—the test is almost impossible to get through!
Test anxiety is incredibly cyclical in nature. As we've established, it basically boils down to excessive worry over doing well on a test. Being anxious also makes it very hard to do well on any test. The effect of that whole unfortunate fiasco is to make you less confident about your chances of doing well on a test—in other words, you get more anxious.
Causes of Test Anxiety
There a few reasons someone might experience test anxiety.
Why does test anxiety happen?
A lot of test anxiety stems from a fear of failure.
Some of us tend to be especially sensitive to the pressure to perform. This can lead to a connection between self-worth and the outcome of tests—a very unhelpful association, but one which is difficult to overcome.
Another trigger for test anxiety is lack of preparation.
It's very natural to feel anxious when you're not prepared for the test ahead. This can exacerbate an underlying tendency towards test anxiety.
Also, a poor history of testing experiences can contribute to test anxiety.
If you haven't traditionally done as well as you'd like on tests, then you're not going to feel optimistic about the possible outcomes of future tests.
There's also the definite possibility of a genetic predisposition.
Our brains are built off of our DNA. If you experience test anxiety as part of a larger, underlying anxiety disorder, genetics likely play a very large role in what's going on. Sometimes, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how good of a testing history you have, and no matter how confident you are that you're worthwhile independent of tests, you might just wind up developing test anxiety.
How to Manage Test Anxiety With Preparation
Remember how under-preparation can trigger test anxiety? That means that, if you experience test anxiety, you especially need to prepare for tests.
It's essential to prepare.
Give Yourself Plenty of Time for a Test Preparation Program
Don't try to cram starting a week before the test. This goes back to the lack-of-preparation trigger; the more thoroughly you've prepared, the better your chances are of feeling alright on test day.
Since you're starting the process early, the topics you cover in the beginning will get rusty by the time you're near the end of the list—unless you review them periodically.
Practice Under Exam Conditions
Doing your best to simulate the test ahead of time will get you exposure to at least some of the circumstances that tend to make you anxious, such as time limits.
Plan to Take the Test More Than Once (If Possible)
It sounds like it'd add to your stress, but it will actually help you calm down over successive test dates—if you practice the techniques discussed in this article. It will also take the pressure off of you for any particular test date.
Do your best on each test you take, but prioritize working through your test anxiety over what your score will be, especially on early run-through's.
Appoint Dedicated Study-Time and Dedicated Break-Time
It's important that you get enough study time in, and the best way to do that is to schedule it, rather than trying to fit it in catch-as-catch-can.
It's also important that you don't completely fry yourself, so commit to taking breaks at regular intervals.
If you start to look like this, it's time for a break.
Use Your Free Time Wisely
If you've been typing an essay at the computer for three hours, a break that consists of checking your email and surfing the web will probably not rejuvenate you. On the other hand, getting outside or engaging in a conversation about something other than your work will probably perk you right up.
Find a Dedicated Study Space
Ideally, this space should not be your bedroom. Our brains tend to form associations with the environments we frequent. It's easier to study somewhere you've only ever studied than it is to study somewhere you've only ever slept, hung out, or played video games.
Keep Things Organized
When you're cleaning up, it may be a pain not to simply throw all your materials together, but you'll thank yourself later (when you're trying to sort through it all) for spending a few minutes maintaining some order.
Maintain a Positive Attitude Related to the Test
This may sound impossible at first. Start small, then, and reframe your self-talk to a more optimistic tone. Remind yourself often that you are more than your scores and that your self-worth should not be tied to test performance. Set reasonable expectations for yourself, be gracious when you fall short, and reward your own effort.
Get Your Proverbial Pencil Moving
Often, the first step we take is the hardest. Once we get going, it's a lot easier to maintain that momentum. If you're overwhelmed or uncertain, then sometimes the best thing to do is to start somewhere. It doesn't matter if it's the ideal place to start; it just matters that you're getting going.
Self-care is hugely important as you get ready to take the test. Make sure you're sleeping enough—sleep is hugely important for our brains. Eat healthily—don't diet, and don't binge on junk food; keep your nutritional intake balanced and satisfying. Exercise. Make time to rest and relax. Not every minute of your day needs to be about producing something; rather, downtime is productive.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away! Make sure you're eating well.
Devise a Routine to Follow Prior to the Test
This should involve things like having a good breakfast, checking your purse or backpack for all the things you need to take, and leaving with plenty of time to arrive early and get settled at the testing center.
It should also involve anything that makes you feel your best. Wear the right clothes. Some people like to dress up and feel more professional and presentable, like something important is going on. Others would rather show up in their sweats and a ratty T-shirt, hair unbrushed, and not be distracted by styling products or uncomfortable clothes. Either is fine: it's all about making you feel ready to take on the world.
Listen to music, if that gets you going. You might even create a playlist specific to test day. Do you meditate? Spend time in your practice. Whatever contributes to you feeling invincible, do it.
What to Do During the Test
We're all agreed that the test is stressful. Here are some tips on reducing that stress to a manageable level.
Use what you need, when you need it. These are options for you to try; not everything works for everyone, and I don't recommend running through every single one of these on every test unless you really need to.
Accept Your Anxiety
Anxiety is habitual and cyclical; it's extremely unlikely that it will just disappear. Expect to feel some level of anxiety, and give yourself the clear message that anxiety is OK. You still don't have to like it.
When you feel anxious, rather than kicking yourself or getting revved up further, acknowledge that you're anxious, and make a commitment to taking valued action anyway. Go through with the test, even though it's uncomfortable. Don't let your anxiety keep you from doing important things.
Your anxiety may well be there, like it or not. Learn to manage it—not strive against it.
Take deep, slow breaths. Ideally, count with a few of them, and see if you can make your exhale slightly longer than your inhale: for example, in on a count of four, out on a count of six. This helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, whose job it is to calm you down.
Focus on the Test
A big part of test anxiety is comparing yourself to other people. Our brains can only juggle so much information at once, though; if you're thinking about the other students, you're not thinking about the test—and vice versa. Use this to your advantage.
Every time your mind wanders, don't blame yourself or beat yourself up—just bring yourself back to the test. Sometimes, a simple bit of self-talk can help shift your focus: "Thanks, mind; I'm not playing that game today." The sharper you can keep your focus on the test, the less you'll have to deal with the unpleasantness of worrying about other people.
Realize, too, though, that sometimes coming straight back to the test is impossible; maybe your thoughts are racing too fast, or your experience of anxiety is too extreme. There are several tips here that address the process of grounding into the moment so that you're free to return to the test.
Use Positive Self-Talk
The idea here is to give yourself a message that comforts or inspires you. This can be abstract or specific, emotional or logical. The only criterion is that it has a positive effect on you. An example might be, "I am doing my best, and that is good enough."
Think of Something You Have to Look Forward To
Whether it's a treat when you're done with the test (which is an awesome idea, by the way!) or your favorite cousin's birthday bash in three weeks, think about what you have waiting on the other side of the exam. The test won't last forever.
Our bodies don't negotiate anxiety well while sedentary. Changing positions can be extremely refreshing, and it's a chance to get some of that anxious energy out. Besides, it reminds you of what your body feels like, and that's something we too often forget when we're so stuck in our heads.
Full-on yoga is not recommended while you're at the test center.
Tense (and Relax) Your Muscles
Dig your heels into the ground. Squeeze your fists. Get your muscles involved—this is another great way to invoke physical sensation. Don't keep things tense, though—this is counterproductive to the overall goal of grounded relaxation. Tension is the enemy of readiness: tension means being stuck. A moment of tension, though, can help you recalibrate to relaxation.
Any image can be helpful: imagine watching a flickering candle or running through a grassy field barefoot. Often it's especially helpful to use an image that implies moving past the experience of the moment.
Think of leaves floating down a river, or clouds floating through the sky. You can imagine that each leaf or each cloud carries one of your thoughts. Breathe in what you want in the moment, breathe out what you wish to let go. Close a book that full of your worry-thoughts. Change the channel on the TV of your mind. Hang up the phone on your inner monologue.
Describe Your Environment, Using All Five Senses
One way to ground yourself in the present moment is to make simple mental statements like, "The walls are gray. My desk is smooth and hard. I smell a freshly sharpened pencil." These statements should be factual and objective—avoid judgments, positive or negative. We don't want, "The walls are such an ugly color. This desk is too small; it's really uncomfortable. I smell a freshly sharpened pencil—that's such a nice smell!"
Stimulate Your Senses
Another path to rapid grounding is by purposefully stimulating the senses. Some senses (especially taste) might not work as well during the SAT or ACT. Your sense of touch, though, is an easy way to ground into reality. Try touching your clothes or feeling the underside of the desk. Concentrates on the sensations you feel with each new object.
What you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste can connect you to the present moment.
Recite a Saying, a Quote, or a Poem (Silently)
This shouldn't be something you compose on the spot; this is about recalling information. It doesn't have to be anything very meaningful, either; it can be the jingle from a fast-food ad. Focus on the words that are running through your mind. Recite the saying several times, if you need to; get a rhythm going, and let that soothe you. For an added twist, or if it's not engaging your mind enough, try spelling the phrase out.
Count to Ten or Say the Alphabet—Slowly (Silently)
In line with the task of reciting above, counting or saying the alphabet can distract you from rapid thoughts and give you something else to occupy your mind. Use this exercise as an opportunity to slow your mind down; see how slow you can get the pace without allowing the worry-thoughts back in.
Switch Tasks (for a Moment)
Yes, time is precious on the test, but take thirty seconds or so to do something other than the test. Reciting a phrase and counting to ten are themselves examples of this exercise; another option is the categories game. Think of a category (like "Famous Mice"), and name as many members of that category as you can (Chuck E. Cheese, the three blind mice, Mighty Mouse, etc.). An especially nice category to choose is "Favorite Things"; list your favorite bands, your favorite restaurants, your favorite people, and so on.
Think of Something that Always Makes You Laugh
For me, this is a particular still-shot from a movie; it was used for a caption contest online, and one of the submitted captions still cracks me up, years later. Think of what it is that always makes you laugh, and practice bringing it to mind in moments of anxiety.
Bring a Pocket Token
Having a small rock or a smooth stone in your pocket can be a great way to connect to something outside the test. Reach into your pocket and feel your token when you feel the anxiety rising. Use it to remind you of the positive intention you set when you chose it. Be careful what you choose, though: it should be small (something you can keep in your pocket throughout the test) and it shouldn't have anything suspicious—like the Pythagorean Theorem—on it.
Wearing a charm bracelet with a special charm can work, too.
Say a Safety-Statement (Silently)
A safety-statement is anything that both reassures you and reaffirms the experience you're having. Stick to simple, basic facts; for instance: "My name is (your name). I am at (test location). I am safe."
What If These Tips Don't Help?
Remember when I said test anxiety was linked to social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder? I'm not here to diagnose you, but if sustained, committed practice of the techniques described here doesn't get your symptoms to a relatively bearable level, it may be time to seek a professional opinion.
It's not as big or scary as it may sound; start by going to your family doctor and describing the symptoms and concerns you're having. First off, getting a little help can greatly improve your quality of life. Also, it may help you get accommodations that will make test-taking much more possible.
In most cases, it's very difficult to get accommodations on the SAT or ACT (such as an individual room or extra time) for test anxiety. For a lot of students, the trouble of getting the accommodations may be more of a hassle than it's ultimately worth—if the accommodations are even granted at all. For some, though, it's absolutely necessary—and some hard proof of the severity of symptoms is required (generally verified by a mental health provider).
Make sure you feel truly listened to by any medical professional you choose to see.
In this article, we've looked at some basic information about test anxiety and some ways to deal with it.
Important take-away's are the fact that it's very real and not anybody's fault, that there are many ways to combat it, and that professional help may be required. Sensory stimulation, deep breathing, imagery, and self-talk are huge ways to work with test anxiety. In addition, being prepared is one of the all-around best things you can do to help yourself out.
Though I never used the term "mindfulness" in this article, that's exactly what many of the techniques I described are all about: mindfulness. Learn more by reading our discussion of mindfulness and the SAT.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Vero is a firsthand expert at standardized testing and the college application process. Though neither parent had graduated high school, and test prep was out of the question, she scored in the 99th percentile on both the SAT and ACT, taking each test only once. She attended Dartmouth, graduating as salutatorian of 2013. She later worked as a professional tutor. She has a great passion for the arts, especially theater.