Even the most confident students have felt butterflies in their stomachs before diving into a much-anticipated exam. A little bit of nervous energy is completely normal. In fact, one study found that 25–40 percent of U.S. students experience test anxiety.
But, for some students, this anxiety becomes an overwhelming or even debilitating feeling that prevents them from performing their best. If you’re wondering how to overcome test anxiety so you can feel confident before an exam, you came to the right place.
Keep reading to learn more about the causes and symptoms as you gather some test anxiety tips to help you reach your full potential.
What is test anxiety?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) describes anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. Test anxiety is considered a type of performance anxiety wherein students become excessively worried and upset before and during an exam.
At a low level, being nervous about an upcoming recital, quiz, competition, etc., can be beneficial. It motivates you to prepare and encourages your mind to focus on the upcoming task. But students who report high levels of test anxiety often suffer significant emotional, mental, and physical distress, plus adverse outcomes like:
- Impaired concentration
- Lower test scores
- Negative self-image
So, how can you tell whether your pre-test jitters are normal or whether they’re holding you back from fulfilling your full academic potential? Keep reading for a detailed list of test anxiety symptoms to watch for.
Physical symptoms of test anxiety:
- Panic attacks
- Tightness in the chest
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Trouble sleeping
Emotional indicators of test anxiety:
- Mind “going blank”
- Ruminating on past disappointments/failures
Cognitive symptoms of test anxiety:
- Difficulty focusing
- Negative thought spirals
- Chronic procrastination
- Impaired decision making
- Excessively comparing yourself to others
What causes test anxiety?
There is no singular or universal explanation about why people develop test anxiety. It’s complex and personal to each individual. But there are several common reasons that students cite as contributing factors, including:
- Imposter syndrome: People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe they are undeserving of their achievements. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might perceive them to be and that, soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.
- Insufficient preparation: Although it may seem counterintuitive, overwhelming test anxiety can actually cause you to study less. Even though you’re spending all your time thinking about the exam, you find yourself too scared of failing to actually begin preparing. Perhaps you’ve even tried to sit down and study but you couldn’t concentrate and got frustrated.
- Intense pressure: Pressure comes in different forms. This can be from an external source (family, coaches, teachers) or from your own internal expectations. Perhaps you need to hit a certain score in order to pass a class or graduate on time, and the stress of potentially falling short becomes debilitating.
- Perfectionist tendencies: Perfectionism may sound like a desirable trait, but it can actually be debilitating for people to try to live up to an impossible standard. People who identify as perfectionists are often also very self-critical. They can actually get in their own way by obsessing over minor imperfections instead of focusing on doing their best and finishing the task.
8 Test anxiety tips to try
If you can relate to some of the signs and symptoms described above, you’re not alone. The good news is that there are many ways to set yourself up for success and reduce your stress to a manageable level.
1. Learn how to study effectively
Staying up all night before an exam and cramming for hours at a time is not an ideal strategy for students who struggle with test anxiety. Completing shorter, regular study sessions and retrieving information in a variety of ways helps you understand information and retain it longer.
If you’re looking to shake things up in your test preparation techniques, check out our article “3 Proven Study Strategies for College Students.”
2. Plan out your study sessions
One of the best ways to combat test anxiety is to get organized and prepare ahead. You’ll be a lot less stressed if you know exactly when things are due, key dates for exams, etc. Plus, spacing out your study sessions is proven to boost memory retention, which will make you more confident on test day.
If planning isn’t yet your strong suite, get some tips in our article “Time Management in College: Practical Advice for Busy Students."
3. Prioritize sleep, nourishment, exercise, and hydration
Unfortunately, when people get stressed out they tend to neglect their basic needs. This creates a vicious cycle that could lead to burnout if you’re not careful. Getting six to eight hours of sleep, eating nutritious food, moving your body to release tension, and drinking plenty of water are incredibly important habits to prioritize—at test time and throughout the year.
For more advice on how to make time for self-care, check out our article “The College Student’s Guide to Balancing Work and School."
4. Put things in perspective
When you’re struggling with anxiety or your mental health in general, it can feel like getting a bad grade or failing a test is the end of your academic career. Remember that your goal isn’t to achieve a perfect score, your goal is to understand the material enough to pass the test.
One bad grade, whether it’s for an exam or a course, does not define your value as a person or a student. Instead of dwelling on it, focus on what steps you can take to bounce back and improve your performance on the next one.
5. Visualize positive outcomes
It’s easy to get trapped into patterns of negative thinking. If all you focus on is the worst-case scenario, you may even convince yourself that it’s the only possible outcome. This can have a seriously detrimental effect on your performance—a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy” that makes test anxiety even worse.
One powerful way to combat this cycle is to replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations and envisioned outcomes. For example, you might interrupt a stream of self-criticism before and during tests with phrases like:
- “I studied hard for this exam, and I am well prepared.”
- “I’ve passed many tests before this one and I know I can do it again.”
- “Even if I get this question wrong, it doesn’t mean I’ve failed the test.”
- “I don’t need to be perfect, I just need to stay calm and do my best.”
- “Tests are supposed to be challenging. It’s normal to answer some questions wrong.”
6. Reach out to your professor(s)
Be sure to open a dialogue with your professors and let them know if you’re struggling with test anxiety. They may be able offer advice or information that can help you prepare for your next exam. Sometimes, just acknowledging the thing you’re worried about can alleviate some of the stress and pressure you feel.
7. Take advantage of your school’s services and resources
Colleges and universities typically provide various kinds of support, but it’s your job as a student to seek out those resources. Students at CWI, for example, have access to the following resources:
- Computer / Technical Help
- Counseling and Wellness Services
- Latinx Student Services
- One Stop Student Services (admissions, financial aid, and more)
- Testing Services
- Tutoring Services
- Work-Based Learning Center
- Writing Center
8. Seek professional guidance
If you try some of the test anxiety tips outlined above and are still struggling, consider enlisting the help of a therapist or counselor. Talking through your issues, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a safe and supportive environment can help lessen any shame or anguish that may be holding you back from better habits. Qualified mental health professionals can also prescribe different therapies or even medications to help you mitigate the worst of your symptoms.
Put these tips to the test
Now that you have some advice on how to overcome test anxiety, start applying some of these tips. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach—it’s all about finding the techniques that work best for you.
If you’re a CWI student looking for support—for testing or anything else—check out the Current Student Page to familiarize yourself with all of the services available to you.