As the director of a tutoring center, I work with students who are experiencing test anxiety every day. Most of us find that being confronted with an important test will make our heart beat a little faster, our palms get a little sweaty, and our stomach feel a little woozy. For a lot of us, this is actually good! The nervousness increases our adrenaline, which sharpens our focus and stamina and leads to increased performance on a long test. However, when too much adrenaline floods our system, the benefits quickly turn into hindrances.
If you’re not someone who experiences test anxiety, I’m here to tell you that it feels like your body and brain are sabotaging you. The increased stamina is depleted by the physical manifestations of anxiety and quickly turns to exhaustion. The sharpened focus is mitigated by the distractions of generalized worry and negative self-talk. The memory, even after hours of study, often “goes blank” in the moment when it is most needed. You might also feel nauseous, lightheaded, and unable to catch your breath. Not only is testing an uncomfortable ordeal, but, even worse, you are likely to get a grade that is lower than you deserve. To top it all off, text anxiety can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: you can get anxious about the anxiety itself, days or even weeks before the big test.
There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to test anxiety, but there are some things you can to do to minimize how it impacts your grades.
First, I would encourage you to discuss the idea of medication with your doctor. Many of my students have found this to a be safe and effective option. Psychologists and psychiatrists are experts at helping their patients manage anxiety and will have a lot of strategies beyond pills that can make a significant difference.
Accommodations for School-Based Testing
Next, you should ask for academic accommodations such as IEPs and 504 plans. Know that the overwhelming majority of teachers, administrators, and school counselors are committed to your success and want your grades to accurately reflect your learning. If you suffer from test anxiety, the most important accommodation you need to ask for is extra time on tests. Knowing that you will receive extra time takes a little of the pressure off by itself, but it also helps with that common sensation of your mind going blank during a test. It means you can take a moment to put your pencil down, turn the test over, close your eyes, stretch your muscles, or do a breathing exercise until the feeling passes and your knowledge comes back to you.
Accommodations for Standardized Testing
Since I’m an SAT/ACT expert, I often council students on how to get extra time on these tests if they need it. Most students with diagnosed test anxiety will qualify for time-and-a-half on both the SAT and ACT. It is also possible, but less common, to receive double time or unlimited time for extreme cases. First, make sure you have some sort of documentation about your anxiety, such as an IEP or psychologist’s report, and give that to your guidance counselor. For the SAT, your counselor takes the next step of applying for extended time on your behalf. Once that is approved, you should register for the test by logging on at collegeboard.org. You need to plan early because your counselor’s request can take 6-8 weeks to be approved, and once it is you will still need to register about 4 weeks in advance of your actual test day. Follow the same steps for the ACT, but in a slightly different order. First, register for the test day of your choice at act.org. When you do, you will notice an option for requesting extra time. If you select this option, an email will be generated to your guidance counselor asking for confirmation of your diagnosis.
It’s a sad consequence of the recent college application scandals that students who legitimately need testing accommodations to demonstrate their ability are viewed by the public with an enhanced skepticism. There have been multiple calls for the SAT and ACT to make it harder for students to apply for and receive accommodations. Please try to resist jumping on this bandwagon. The accommodations make the test more fair, not less, and the vast majority of students who qualify truly need the extra time to manage their symptoms.
Planning and Preparation
What if you experience test anxiety, but it’s not so severe that you need to go to a doctor or receive special accommodations? There is a great deal you can do on your own to manage the anxiety and prevent it from interfering with your grades. Research shows that the most important thing you can do is be as prepared as possible for an important test. Don’t wait until the night before to study. Instead, review your notes for a few minutes each night so you don’t feel overwhelmed by a looming deadline.
Many teachers will prepare a review packet that closely resembles the upcoming test, and you should use it fully. If you don’t get a study guide, ask your teacher specific questions about the test content and format, such as how many questions there will be and whether they will be multiple choice. Some teachers have a more open mind about this than others, so if your teacher becomes impatient with your questions or resistant to answering them, it’s best to respectfully explain why you’re asking them.
Practice for the SAT and ACT
Both the SAT and ACT are very predictable tests as far as the number and type of questions you will see and how much time you will have. They both have multiple official practice tests available for free on their websites. One of the best things you can do to prepare for test day is take several practice tests from beginning to end with someone timing you. I like to tell my students, “you can’t train for a marathon by running a mile a day.” I used to teach a class with four required, full-length practice tests. During the first practice test, the students were a mess. They had their heads on their desks, handed in their papers early, and generally looked miserable. However, by the fourth one, they came on time, chatted with each other, took their seats, and got to work. They used any extra time to check their answers, knew what to do during breaks, and were still putting in their best effort at the end of the three hour test. There was a very clear difference in their ability to cope with the marathon test after a few practice runs.
When you take your full length practice tests, try to make them as similar as possible to the real Test Day, and remind yourself to practice all the test taking strategies you are learning as you study for the test. If you are in the Allentown, PA area, you can come into Test Prep for Success just about any Saturday morning to take a practice test in a proctored classroom environment. Whether you take the practice test at home or in our tutoring center, we’re happy to grade the test for you and provide a detailed score report. This way, you will not only get the benefit of experiencing the test, you will also receive useful data on your strengths and weaknesses and an answer key that you can study from.
Meditation, Breathing Exercises, and Other Confidence Enhancers
Whether or not you have debilitating test anxiety, everyone can benefit from learning some skills to control our nerves. My favorite book on this topic is The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. I read this short, simple book in college and have never forgotten the advice about how to be present in the moment and at peace with your situation. I find the mediation techniques in The Miracle of Mindfulness to be especially helpful when worry is making it difficult for me to fall asleep at night.
Another very effective calming technique is breathing exercises. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, hold it in for a moment, and let it out through your mouth. The trick to a breathing exercise is to practice it when you are in a relaxed setting, so that you form a mental association between the activity and a peaceful feeling. Once you have trained yourself to feel calm when you are doing your breathing exercise, it can help control the mental and physical symptoms of anxiety when you need it the most. I use this technique myself so often that when my children notice me breathing out through my mouth they know they’ve pushed me too far.
If you are someone who experiences test anxiety as negative thoughts and self-talk that distract you as you’re trying to concentrate, practice being deliberate about being kind to yourself. Remind yourself that you are smart, prepared, and capable. If this is easier said than done, imagine that you are talking to a friend who is worried about a test. What exactly will you tell this friend? Composing a pep talk for someone else, whether you say it out loud to them or not, may be easier than composing one for yourself yet still effective for yourself.
The Day of the Big Test
My SAT and ACT students with test anxiety find it is important to do a dry run to the testing center a day or two in advance, so they don’t risk getting lost on Test Day and know exactly where to park. It is also important to wake up early, dress in layers, and have a breakfast that is low in sugar and caffeine. I assign these students a warm up activity to do in the morning just before leaving home that is challenging enough to wake up their brains but easy enough that it will build their confidence. They plan to arrive at the testing center with time to spare, but this also creates the a few minutes when they are waiting for the test to start that can be especially nerve wracking. Fortunately, my students and I have a plan for that, too! Before the test, we create strategy scripts, which are short reminders of the most important test taking strategies coupled with a positive, reassuring message. Mentally repeating the strategy scripts while they are waiting for the test to start can replace that negative self-talk and remind them to use all the test taking strategies they learned from me.
Test anxiety affects students of all backgrounds and abilities and often causes them to receive lower test scores than they deserve. Although there is no true cure, accommodations, planning, and strategies can go a long way toward mitigating its effects, so their hard work and true ability can shine through on Test Day.