Sweaty palms, rapid heart rate, trouble concentrating… you know the feeling. You’re sitting in front of THE TEST. Everyone has experienced test anxiety at one time or another, but for some people it’s a regular occurrence that often can hinder performance, even if you thoroughly know the content. Next time you or your child is faced with test anxiety, give these strategies a try.
Before the test
- Study like Batman. Study in the same place, at the same time each day. Your brain interprets those cues as meaning it’s time to study, which can improve discipline and focus.
- Choose more sleep. Sleep trumps cramming in terms of improving test scores. Regardless of how much you study in a day, if you sacrifice valuable sleep to study more than usual, you are more likely to have problems taking a test the next day.
- Practice visualization. Marathon runners use this trick when they are training to help them mentally prepare for long distances. While you are quiet and relaxed, imagine walking into the room where your test is taking place. Picture yourself sitting down, relaxed and ready. Then repeat one or more self-affirming statements (e.g., “I’ve got this”). Imagine confidently answering the test questions. After you get really good at picturing everything going smoothly, imagine that you are faced with a difficult question. Let the anxiety flow through your body; then, practice calming yourself using your favorite coping technique. Envision yourself finishing the test and turning it in. Continue practicing visualization until you can easily complete this process. On test day, you will be surprised at just how easy it is to calm yourself using these methods.
- Know what’s in your control. Anxiety often surfaces because we perceive we have lost control over our situation. Try this simple exercise to bring back into focus what you can control. Draw a picture of yourself on a piece of paper. Draw a large circle around the picture. Inside the circle, write down all the things you have in your control about this test. These can be things such as the ability to study, how much you can learn, or the ability to relax. Outside the circle, write all the things outside of your control. These can be the type of test (multiple choice versus essay), what the questions are, or how the teacher grades the test. Focus on what’s inside your circle, which you can control, rather than the things outside of your control.
- Create a mantra. This can be anything that speaks to you. “I will do this,” or “I am awesome,” or “I can do hard things,” are all great options. Pick something meaningful that sounds authentic to you. Try to keep it short for ease in repeating it silently to yourself during the test.
- Journal about the upcoming test. Worrying can diminish your processing power by affecting your working memory. One study revealed that students who wrote their concerns about a test for ten minutes improved their scores by one grade point.
- Write five of your greatest strengths on a piece of paper. Keep the paper with you during the test to remind you that your value is not dependent on how well you do on the test. You can also lean on your strengths for creative problem solving during the exam.
On the day of the test
- Arrive early. Nothing messes with your test-taking mojo like dashing in at the last second or, even worse, being late.
- Let yourself be excited rather than anxious. Research shows that when you reframe performance anxiety into excitement, you are likely to perform better. Instead of thinking, “I’m a ball of nerves,” say, “I’m excited! My body is preparing me to do well on this exam.”
- Stay away from jitterbugs. There are always students who are anxious before a test. You need to be careful of the ones who are giving into their nerves and generating more anxiety in the people around them. Instead, focus on your own abilities, your own preparation, and your own visualizations of the test.
- Keep it in perspective. Tests are meant to be a demonstration of learning. Remember, this is one test. Even if it is worth a large portion of your grade, your value is not contingent on how well you do on this test.
- Bring the right clothing. Have you ever tried to write an essay when your hands are shaking from the cold? It’s nearly impossible. Likewise, it’s hard to concentrate when you are sweating under a heavy sweater. Dress in layers so you can add or shed layers to be physically comfortable.
- Eat well before leaving for the test. Again, it’s hard to concentrate when the rumbles from your stomach drown out your powers of deduction and concentration.
- Carry a lucky charm. Do you have a lucky t-shirt that you wear to your team’s sporting events in hopes of affecting the outcome? Researcher Robert Biswas-Diener calls this “magical thinking.” His research shows that carrying an item or wearing jewelry that gives you peace—what people call lucky charms—consistently boosts self-assurance, which in turn improves performance.
- Strike a power pose. Studies show that “power posing,” or holding a posture for two minutes that appears confident even when you don’t actually feel that way can have a tremendous positive ripple effect. A power pose might involve raising or opening your arms, moving your hands away from your body, or drawing yourself up to your full height (picture Wonder Woman).
During the test
- Read the instructions well. There is nothing worse than writing an essay on a topic before realizing it doesn’t answer the question that was asked. Reading instructions and looking over the test not only will help you avoid costly mistakes but also will help you gauge how much time you can spend on each question to finish the test on time.
- Use your mantra. Repeat.
- Focus on the big picture. You are not your test score. This is one test, and chances are you will do better than you think you will. Even if this is a college entrance exam, remember that it is most likely only one portion of your college entrance application.
- Remain in the present. If you find your mind wandering, take a breath, readjust your seating position, and repeat your mantra to bring yourself back to the present task. You can also check in with your five senses as a quick mindfulness exercise (e.g., “What do I see, taste, touch, hear, and smell right now?”)
- For multiple-choice tests, remember the answer is in there. Take your time and think about the material. You will find the right answer.
- Skip the tough stuff, at first. It’s OK to skip difficult questions and come back to them after you have finished the rest of the test.
- Talk to your negative thoughts. “Hey thoughts, I see you’re here and thanks for worrying about me, but I’m fine. This is just a test.” By addressing your anxious thoughts, you are acknowledging them without giving into them. This allows your brain to move on to other tasks.
After the test
- Evaluate the strengths you used during the test-taking process. Think about what went well during the pretest phase and during the test and how you applied your character strengths. Identifying strengths is a powerful intervention correlated to increased academic success and life satisfaction.
- Savor your success. Take a minute to savor the success of completing the test. Do a happy dance or take a little nap!