We've all felt it: the nerves walking into the exam room, the racing heart waiting to get your test and the occasional flash of panic when you find an unexpected question.
Test anxiety happens to the best of us, and some nerves before a test are normal. But if those nerves keep you from performing your best on tests and exams (or they go way beyond what most of your friends experience) you need a little help to address them. And, thankfully, some prep work and easy test-taking techniques should cut down on some of your stress with very little effort.
So take a few calming deep breaths. Here's how to tackle test anxiety head on before we get into exam season and make this semester's finals the most stress-free of your life.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Okay, studying for your test may not seem like much of a hack. But it's the single most powerful way to prevent test anxiety. That's because trying to cram for your exam overwhelms your brain. And pulling an all-nighter to study all the material can actually make you perform worse, increasing your anxiety.
Instead, take the week or two before your exam to study the material gradually, so you have time to study the same info repeatedly before your exam.
Do one final test review the night before, pack your schoolbag – including your calculator, extra pens or pencils, erasers and any other supplies you need for the test – and set two alarms (your usual alarm, and one backup). Then call it an early night, and sleep soundly.
Stick to Your Daily Routine
If you get anxious the morning of your test, make sure you treat it like any other day. Instead of trying to fit in some last-minute cramming, do your typical AM workout or enjoy your usual toast with coffee for breakfast.
Just budget plenty of time to get to your exam location. Plan to arrive at least 10 to 15 minutes early, and seek out a few friends to chat and calm your nerves walking into the exam room.
Read Through the Entire Exam First
Reducing your overall stress leading up to exam day should help you feel a bit more relaxed during the test – but what happens if you draw a blank once the exam starts?
Cut through anxiety-induced brain fog by reading through the whole test. Chances are, you'll find one or two questions where you know the answer. Go ahead and start with those, then tackle the tougher questions after you've gotten off to a good start.
The same principle works for questions where you kinda know the answer, but you're drawing some blanks. Question asks for four abiotic factors of aquatic ecosystems but you can only remember two? Go ahead and write 'em down. You can always fill in the blanks later.
Talk Yourself Up
Your own thoughts and feelings are often the biggest hurdle when it comes to overcoming test anxiety. So if you find yourself thinking "I messed this up, I'll fail" and focusing on what you don't know, try a different approach.
Instead of focusing on how many questions you skipped in your initial run through (if any!), focus on the ones you did answer – they're proof you did study and you do know how to perform on the test.
Anxiety Canada, a mental health resource, recommends these prompts to trigger more positive thinking:
- “I just need to do my best.”
- “I’m not a loser if I have trouble with a test. Lots of students struggle with tests.”
- “I’m strong enough to do this test. I will do my best.”
Give them a try when you're feeling stressed to give yourself a mental "reset" – then continue on taking your test.
Get Help When You Need It
Most of the time, these simple preparation tips will cut through your nerves. But if it's not working for you – or your test anxiety is severe enough that you're experiencing physical symptoms, like nausea – talk to your doctor. Schools and colleges have programs in place to help students with medically-diagnosed anxiety, and they can help you get through exam time (relatively) stress-free.
About the Author
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.