Managing Test Anxiety

What does test anxiety feel like?

  • Some students feel mainly physical distress symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, faintness, feeling too hot or too cold, etc.
  • Others express more emotion, wanting to cry or laugh too much, or feeling angry or helpless.
  • The major problem of test anxiety is usually its effect on thinking ability; it can cause you to blank out or have racing thoughts that are difficult to control.
  • Although many, if not the vast majority, of students feel some level of anxiety when writing exams, most can cope with that anxiety and bring it down to a manageable level.

What can you do to control test anxiety?

  • Be well prepared for the test.
  • Include as much self-testing in your review as possible.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle -- tough to do when you have to study for exams: get enough sleep, good nutrition, exercise, some personal "down" time, and a reasonable amount of social interaction.
  • As you anticipate the exam, think positively, i.e., "I can do OK on this exam." "I have studied and I do know my stuff."
  • Do some serious "thought stopping" if you find that you are mentally comparing yourself to your peers or thinking about what your parents, partner, children, or other significant others may say about your performance on this exam.
  • Before you go to bed on the night before the exam, make sure to collect together anything that you will need for the exam -- pen, pencil, ruler, eraser, calculator, etc. Double check the time of the exam and the location.
  • Set the alarm clock and then get a good night's sleep before the exam!
  • Get to the exam in plenty of time.
  • Don't talk to friends about the exam material just before going into the exam.
  • Sit in a location in the exam room where you will be distracted as little as possible.
  • As the papers are distributed, calm yourself down by closing your eyes and taking some slow deep breaths.
  • Make sure to read carefully any instructions on the top page of the exam.
  • As you work on the exam, focus only on the exam, not on what other students are doing.
  • If you feel very anxious or even panicky in the test, take a few minutes time out and calm yourself down. Stretch your arms and legs and then relax them again. Do this a couple of times. Take a few slow deep breaths. Do some positive internal self-talk; say to yourself, "I will be OK, I can do this." Then take your time and get back into the questions.
  • If the exam is more difficult than you anticipated, try to focus and just do your best at that point. It might be enough to get you through, even with a reasonable grade!
  • When the exam is over, treat yourself. If you do not have any other commitments, maybe you can go to see a movie with a friend. If you have other exams to study for, you may have to postpone a larger treat, but maybe a half hour for a coffee with a friend or a quick swim in the pool will be the pick up that you need.

You can take control of test anxiety so that your performance on a test reflects your real standing in that course. If test anxiety seems to persist, however, talk to a counselor and share your concerns and get some specialized help.

This article was produced originally by Student Development Centre's Learning Skills Services, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada by UWO Student Development Centre's Learning Skills Services. Reprinted with permission.