On your way to a degree you will face many tests and exams—those few minutes to prove what you know. Many people feel anxious before an exam—the butterflies in the stomach, an outbreak of sweat, the total mind blank when all knowledge vanishes—but “anxiety” seems like too small a word to describe the experience.
Jitters before taking a test is normal. In fact, that little burst of adrenaline makes the mind sharper, ready to tackle those questions. You may have test anxiety if symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your ability to read, understand, and correctly answer test questions.
If you’ve experienced symptoms of test anxiety, take heart. Read on to learn ways to manage your test anxiety before and during an exam.
BEFORE THE EXAM
Learn what will be on the exam. It’s obvious, yes, but asking your professor how the exam will be structured is a perfectly legitimate question. Whatever the professor shares will let you know what to expect and how to prepare. Will questions be fill-in-the blank or multiple choice? Any essay questions? How long is the exam? How will different parts of the exam be scored? Having this information can remove unwanted nerve-inducing surprises on exam day.
Practice basic academic discipline. Attend class. Take notes. Read your textbook. Complete and turn in all assignments on time. Nothing conquers exam nerves like knowing your subject and knowing it well!
Make a list of your academic progress and add to it every time you accomplish a study task. Watch this list grow throughout the semester. It is a visual reminder that you are learning what you need to know—reviewing it can help reduce test nerves when you see what you have accomplished.
If you don’t keep up your learning progress, you can expect more test nerves and poorer grades on those exams. Day-in/day-out academic work is your foundation for good exam experiences.
Banish negative thoughts. “I’m not good enough.” “If I don’t pass this test, I’m a failure.” “There’s no way I can learn everything that will be on the test.”
These are a few common messages that may play in your mind. It’s time to replace those messages with new ones.
Try this: When one of the negative, defeating thoughts about an exam creeps in, jot it down on a piece of paper. Then, next to it, or underneath, write a positive thought to counter it.
“I can do this.” “I don’t have to get a A+, I just have to pass this exam.” “I know the material and studied hard, so I will be prepare for this test.”
ON EXAM DAY
Get sleep the night before. If you are well-rested before exam day you will have the mental capacity to focus on your test and manage your nerves about it.
Be sure to eat. You can’t think effectively if you haven’t eaten. The brain needs balanced nutrition to work at its optimum. Be sure to have some protein, whole grain carbs, a little fat, and a little sugar source (fresh fruit is great) so your mind is sharp, and your energy is sustained.
Exercise a little. You don’t need a full workout, but a short brisk walk or dancing to some favorite music are a couple of easy ways to get your circulation going and oxygen into your system. A little exercise will also help release the tension that can trigger more test nerves.
Do a pre-test “Pep Rally”. You know how athletes psych themselves up before a game? The coach gives them a talk to rev them up. They shake out the nerves and hype up by chanting and jumping. You can do a little of this yourself. If there are other students in your class, you can try it together.
If that’s too out there for you, before you leave for your exam, you can give yourself a pep talk in your car or your room. Maybe even record a “You’ve got this and you’re going to have a great exam” message to focus positively.
DURING THE EXAM
Stop and focus before you start. Remind yourself to take on the questions one at a time.
Scan the exam to see how it is structured before you begin.
Smile. Smiling triggers a powerful chemical reaction in the brain that lifts your mood, lowers stress, heart rate and blood pressure. (Try this out and feel what a smile can do!)
Breathe. If you start to feel the nerves growing, breathe deeply to relax and regain your focus.
Read directions carefully. Be sure you understand them before beginning.
Read questions carefully, too, so you know exactly what they are asking.
Prioritize. If you come to a question that you don’t know and your anxiety rises, skip forward and find questions you do know. Go back later to the questions you’ve skipped and try them again. Be careful to understand exactly what they are asking. More than likely, they will make more sense the second or third time through.
Congratulate yourself on your effort. If you prepared well, and put some of these tactics to use, your next test experience should be better. You’ll continue to build on that success in the future.
We hope that you find these approaches help you overcome test anxiety when it arises.
Not all test anxiety is easily managed. If your test anxiety symptoms are severe and you are incapacitated by them, please reach out for professional help. Your school counselor will have advice and resources to help.