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Tips for Dealing With Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is defined as excessive worry about doing well on a test, either before the test or while taking a test. Test anxiety is the same as performance anxiety that triggers a range of physiological symptoms in response to stress or threat. Test anxiety can hurt test performance by causing memory lapses, physical and emotional agitation, disorganized thinking, poor judgment and impulsive decision-making. Having SOME anxiety is inevitable and can be useful because it can increase energy and concentration. The following are some tips on reducing test anxiety.

  1. Being well prepared for the test is the BEST WAY to reduce test anxiety.
  2. Anxiety can also cause you to PROCRASTINATE and avoid studying leading up to the test which then can INCREASE your test anxiety. If procrastination is an issue for you, talk to your parents and/or school counselor about it and get help as soon as possible.
  3. Spread out your studying over several days or weeks before taking the test and continually review the study materials. Don’t try to learn everything the night before. “Cramming” is not the best way to remember information. Several shorter study sessions are better than a few longer sessions.
  4. Try to maintain a positive attitude while preparing for the test and during the test. Being positive is a way to encourage yourself and believe in your abilities. In other words, be a good team player for yourself.
  5. Exercising each day for a week before the test will help reduce stress. Try imagining taking the test while you are exercising. This will reduce anxiety and prime your brain to learn the material when you study. If your anxiety is still high the morning of the test, try doing some moderate exercise, but not to the point where you tire yourself out.
  6. Get a good night’s sleep before the test. Try reviewing the test material right before you go to bed to let your brain absorb the information during sleep. Make sure you eat breakfast in the morning before taking the test.
  7. Get to the test site early so you won’t have to worry about being late. You want to reduce any and all distractions that can interrupt your focus on the test.
  8. Try to stay relaxed and focused. Learn a simple relaxation technique. If you begin to get nervous, close your eyes, take some slow, deep breaths and then slowly exhale through your nose for 15 minutes.
  9. Read the test directions slowly and carefully. If you don’t understand the directions on the test, ask the teacher to explain it to you.
  10. Skim through the test first to see how many questions there are and how it is organized. Quickly calculate how much time you have for each question. Essay questions usually require more time.
  11. Write down important formulas, facts, dates, definitions and/or keywords in the margin first so you won’t worry about forgetting them later on.
  12. Answer the easy questions first to help build up your confidence before answering the harder questions.
  13. Don’t worry about how fast other people finish their test; just concentrate on your own test.
  14. If you don’t know a question skip it for the time being (come back to it later if you have time), and remember that you don’t have to get every question right to do well on the test. If you are going to miss any questions, you want it to be those that are the hardest or the ones you have no idea about.
  15. Focus on each question, one at a time. Don’t let your mind wander to other things. If that happens, redirect your focus back to the question. Taking a test is like building a brick house—each question is like laying a brick, one brick at a time, brick after brick after brick.
  16. If you’re still experiencing extreme test anxiety after following these tips, try these more advanced techniques:
  17. Managing Negative Self-Talk. If you have performed poorly on tests in the past, expect some self-doubt about tests in the future. When negative thoughts come into mind, try “thought stopping” which is simply saying to yourself “I’m going to stop this negative thinking right now, it’s not helpful”. Then tell yourself that you can handle the anxieties differently this time. You can also try “reframing” which is shifting your thinking from the negative to the positive. Tell yourself “I can use these techniques to give me an advantage that I never had before.” Or, “Learning how to test well is like learning any new skill and I can do it.” Another reframe is to imagine that you are the underdog at taking tests and you are about to score a big upset by doing better than ever before. Be careful about perfectionism. Your goal is simply to try to improve your ability to manage anxiety—not eliminate it completely the first time out.
  18. Mindfulness Meditation. This is a basic relaxation technique. Close your eyes, sit in a quiet place and focus on your breathing. Let your mind come to a rest. Let thoughts and images that come into mind just be there. Don’t engage with them. They will float in and out of awareness. Just be with yourself and experience whatever your mind generates. Try meditating for 20 minutes per day.
  19. Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal. This advanced technique combines aerobic exercise (running, biking, swimming, elliptical trainer) with imagery or visualization. While you are exercising (heart rate around 140 beats per minute, imagine walking into the test, sitting down and starting to read the test questions. Let whatever anxiety about test taking come into mind—don’t fight it, INVITE IT! As you continue to exercise, keep imagining how you will read each question, understand what is being asked and go through the answer choices until you “lock” into the correct answer. Then do the same for each question, question after question until you come to the end. Visualize how you will concentrate, imagine all the information you have studied will become available to you. You will gradually feel more relaxed while maintaining your concentration and focus. You will feel a mental sharpness which will lead to a feeling of mastery and confidence. Do this technique once a day leading up to the test.
  20. If you are still having test anxiety after trying all these tools and strategies, think about getting professional help. There are other tools available to help reduce anxiety but they require meeting with a mental health professional. If necessary, try it.

Dr. Patrick Gannon is a licensed psychologist and specialist in peak performance in San Francisco for the last thirty years. Visit his website at His office telephone number is 415/751- 8927 and his email is [email protected].