It’s normal to feel a little nervous when taking a test – in fact, some studies have suggested that a touch of nerves actually boosts performance. But for a large portion of American students, nervousness becomes outright fear. In fact, one 2010 study showed that anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of students suffer from test anxiety.

How can you tell if your fear of tests is normal?

If an upcoming SAT makes your heart pound as if you just locked eyes with the clown from It, you might have test anxiety.

If timed tests make your head spin around like the girl from The Exorcist, you might have testing anxiety.

If the ACT makes you want to hide under the bed (even though there’s almost certainly a monster under there), you might have test anxiety.

Officially, the symptoms of testing anxiety include:

  • Physical symptoms like headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, excessive sweating, or shortness of breath
  • Emotional symptoms like feelings of anger, fear, helplessness, and disappointment
  • Cognitive symptoms like difficulty concentrating or recalling information

When is test anxiety a problem?

Testing anxiety isn’t the same as being nervous because you aren’t prepared for the test – testing anxiety is being nervous in spite of being prepared for the test. When test anxiety starts to get in the way of your performance, it’s a problem.

Make no mistake: severe test anxiety can hurt your performance. High anxiety levels limit working memory capacity, and by some measures, moderate to severe test anxiety can produce a 12% decline in test scores.

How can you take the fear out of testing?

First things first: Make sure you’re well and truly prepared. If you’re already prone to testing anxiety, feeling unprepared will only make things worse. Here are some great resources to help you build better study skills so that you can feel prepared on test day:

Don’t Let the Fear Build

Recognize the earliest signs of anxiety so that you can nip it in the bud. It’s much easier to put a stop to test anxiety before you start to panic.

Practice Behavioral Relaxation Techniques

It might sound like mumbo jumbo, but studies have shown that consistently practicing relaxation skills reduces anxiety. The University of Michigan has a great resource for developing relaxation skills to combat anxiety.

Mind Over Matter

Learn to talk to yourself (in your head – we don’t want people to think you’re crazy) in ways that reduce test anxiety.

  • Remind yourself that you KNOW the material.
  • Don’t fall into the perfection trap. If you expect perfection from yourself, you’re only going to heighten your anxiety. Do your best, take the score you get, and move on from there.
  • Identify the threat. Anxiety is a reaction to a real or perceived threat. If you suffer from testing anxiety, you must view the test as a threat in some way – a threat to self-esteem, parental approval, college aspirations. Identify the threat and remind yourself that it isn’t that dire. You’re not defined by your test scores, your future will not be forever ruined, your parents will not force you to live in a cardboard box in the backyard, and colleges will not point and laugh at you.


Take care of yourself so that you show up on test day in the best possible shape to succeed. Get a good night’s sleep, have a balanced breakfast, and make sure you’re hydrated. A well-rested, well-fed, and well-watered body is one that is less prone to the physical symptoms of testing anxiety.

Don’t let fear get in the way of your test scores. Take steps to battle your testing anxiety so that you can truly do your best on test day. If you think you need help preparing for the SAT or ACT – whether you need to learn key material or figure out how to battle your testing anxiety – contact your local C2 Education center today.