Surprisingly, only about 15% of Americans fear clowns, which doesn’t exactly explain the popularity of Stephen King’s It. Far more common fears include public speaking, heights, and bugs. But I bet that if we surveyed only American teens, we would see a different set of fears, and testing would come out on top. According to a 2010 study, test anxiety affects between 10 and 40 percent of all students.
It is normal to feel a little nervous when taking a test, especially a high stakes test like the SAT or ACT, but test anxiety goes far beyond nervousness to outright fear. If an upcoming SAT makes your heart pound as if you just locked eyes with Pennywise in a dark and creepy basement, you might have testing 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 your bed (even though there’s almost certainly a monster under there), you might have testing anxiety.
The official signs 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
A few nerves during a test is actually a good thing – performance is best at moderate levels of anxiety. Testing anxiety becomes a problem when it hinders performance.
When we talk about testing anxiety, we’re not talking about being nervous because you know you aren’t prepared for the test – we’re talking about being nervous in spite of being prepared for the test. If you find yourself struggling with preparedness, here are some great resources to help you build better study skills so that you can be better prepared for tests:
- Creating the Perfect Study Environment
- The Best Way to Study
- Using Technology to Boost Study Skills
- Tests Make You Smarter
True testing anxiety occurs even when you know you’re well prepared for the test. In this case, there are steps you should take beyond improving your study skills, including exercising relaxation techniques, practicing certain cognitive strategies, and focusing on building test-taking skills.
Don’t Let the Fear Build
A fear of testing builds on itself. It starts as a niggling little bundle of nerves and can quickly build into an all-encompassing terror. You need to learn to recognize the earliest signs that your anxiety is about to rear its ugly head so that you can nip it in the bud – it’s much easier to put a stop to anxiety before you’re facing a full-blown meltdown.
Practice Behavioral Relaxation Techniques
Roll your eyes if you like, but relaxation techniques really do work if you practice them often enough. These techniques help you to relax your body and focus your mind so that the anxiety can’t take over. Don’t wait until test day to try these techniques, though – like any skills, relaxation techniques need to be regularly practiced in order to be effective.
- Deep Breathing: You can easily do this in a classroom or testing room without distracting others. Sit up straight. Take a deep, slow breath from your diaphragm and hold it for a couple of seconds. Slowly exhale, still using your diaphragm. Exert control over the entire breathing process, making it a deliberate act that requires brainpower to complete.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This can also be done unobtrusively. With this technique, you briefly tense and then consciously relax different muscle groups one by one. Like deep breathing, it’s important that the actions be conscious so that your mind is forced to focus on relaxing your body rather than on the source of your anxiety.
- Visualization: Think of a happy place: lounging on the beach, sitting by a fire, watching a terrifying movie about talking dolls – wait, no, not that last one! Imagine yourself in that relaxing place, using all of your senses to add detail to the image. Breathe slowly and deeply.
Learn to talk to yourself (in your head – we don’t want people to think you’re crazy) in ways that reduce anxiety. Part of the problem with testing anxiety is that you convince yourself you’ll fail, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You must counter these negative thoughts in order to change your perspective.
- Remind yourself that you KNOW the material – you’ve prepared long and hard, so you know what you need to know
- Don’t hold yourself to perfect standards. If you walk into test day demanding a perfect score from yourself, you’re bound to increase your anxiety. After all, no matter how much preparation you’ve put in, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll perform perfectly. Lower your standards to lower your anxiety – you know enough to get a good score. Do your best, take the score you get, and then decide how to go from there.
- Identify the threat. By its very nature, anxiety is a natural 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 improvement, college aspirations. Identify the threat and remind yourself that it isn’t exactly dire. Your future will not be ruined by a bad test score. Your parents will not kick you out and force you to live in a cardboard box in the backyard. Colleges will not point at you and laugh.
- Do NOT cram. Cramming does not improve scores but it will increase your anxiety.
- Sacrificing sleep for study time is self-defeating. Sleep helps you to remember what you’ve studied; without sleep, you’ll not only be more prone to anxiety, but you’ll also remember less of the material.
- Dress in layers. Many students who suffer from testing anxiety find themselves becoming too hot or too cold (or both in turns) during the test. Plenty of layers can ensure that you’ll be able to find your optimum comfort level.
- Take practice tests. The more often you take a similar test, the more familiar you become with the test’s format, question types, and structure. Familiarity can help reduce anxiety.
- Use the timer to your advantage. Answer all the questions you know first, then go back and answer the questions that require more thought. This ensures that you get all the “easy points” if you run out of time.
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.