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Exams can be terrifying. It’s easy to feel like the weight of the world rests in these moments – like this one test determines your grades and, in turn, your whole future – even if you know, rationally, that this isn’t really the case. What’s worse is that this fear and anxiety can make you do worse on the test. So, take a deep breath, and watch this video to walk you through some tips for beating test anxiety so that you can walk in on test day feeling refreshed and confident.

Exams can cause a lot of unnecessary stress, but you can reduce that stress in several ways. In this video, we'll look at several common worries you'll face as a student that cause test anxiety, and cover ways to deal with them.

This video talks through some techniques that will help make your exam blade become sharp!

This video explores tips to end exam anxiety.

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is so much more than experiencing the ‘butterflies’ at test time. Despite being fully prepared, students who suffer from this experience often have such emotional and physical stress when sitting down for a test that their mind goes totally blank, some students even feel like running away to escape such overwhelming sensations.

It is normal to feel some level of emotional activation when you are about to be tested because students know there is a chance they can pass or fail. This is good because it gathers your resources to work hard to prepare. It is when anxiety becomes more extreme that this level of emotional activation goes beyond helpful. It floods a student with anxiety and impacts their performance. Students may experience physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach, sweaty palms, a racing heart, etc. They may also have trouble recalling information and thinking clearly.

Tips to Help Overcome Test Anxiety

There are several relatively simple things students can do to ease their test anxiety. It’s important to remember, what works for one student might not work for another. Below is a list of suggestions and strategies that you can try before and during exams. Some are easy no-brainers; others might be surprising. Try one, some or all of these to find out what works for you.

Before the Exam:

  1. Put things in perspective. Remind yourself that your upcoming exam is important, but your entire future doesn't depend on this exam.
    • Also, it might be helpful to tell yourself that regardless of your performance on the test you will not be diagnosed with a terminal illness at the end of it.
  2. Remind yourself of past successes. It’s easy to lose perspective when you find that you are no longer the top student in the class. Intellectually, you understand that you're competing against many other bright students, but you may need to remind yourself of that.
    • Also, bring to mind your past successes on exams and remind yourself that the admissions officers know what they’re doing and they have “bet” on your success.
  3. Don't give a test the power to define you. An exam won't tell you whether you're the most brilliant (or least brilliant) student in your class. Your performance on an exam mostly depends on how effectively you studied for the test, the quality of your prior education, and the test-taking strategies you use. The exam does not define who you are!
  4. Visualize completing the test successfully despite your anxiety. Using vivid images, play the entire "tape" in your mind – from the moment you wake up on the day of the exam to the moment you finish the exam.
  5. Remind yourself that a certain level of anxiety is actually helpful in performing your best.
    • And remember: you can always use anxiety control strategies to moderate your anxiety level if it becomes excessive.
  6. Get a good night's sleep for several days before the exam. With adequate sleep, your ability to think clearly and to deal with anxiety will both improve.
    • You might try imagining yourself as a professional athlete: ask yourself how you would prepare yourself mentally and physically for an important game.
    • Doing a moderate workout early in the evening (5:00 or 6:00) may help you sleep more soundly at night. If you often have trouble sleeping, consult your physician.
  7. High anxiety can increase the impact of caffeine, so on test days reduce your intake.

During the Exam:

  1. Get to the test site a little early, but try to avoid talking with other students right before the exam. (Their anxieties may increase your own.) Instead, take a walk around the building and silently talk to yourself, meditate, breathe, and/or pray.
    • Moving your body can help rid you of some of the nervous energy you are experiencing.
  2. If possible, choose a seat in a place with few distractions (probably near the front). You might also want to bring earplugs to limit distractions.
  3. Remind yourself that you don’t know all the material that could possibly appear on the test and nobody else does either. Still, you can do your best to get some “mileage” out of what you do know.
  4. Expect a few curve balls on the exam. Remind yourself that you're not expecting to get 100% on the exam; you're expecting TO PASS.
    • Also, your sense of what questions should appear on the test is not going to match perfectly with what the writer of the test had in mind. Therefore, when you encounter a curve ball on the exam, don’t get upset and lose your concentration. Instead, you can either make an intelligent guess now or mark the question and return later.
  5. If you begin to have negative thoughts, say STOP to yourself and remind yourself of past successes.
  6. If you continue to feel overly anxious, do the following ANXIETY CONTROL PROCEDURE to reduce your tension. This exercise is so simple that you may be skeptical about its effectiveness. However, many students have found that it really helps lower their anxiety to a level that is helpful rather than harmful.
    • Close your eyes.
    • Breathe in slowly to the count of seven and exhale to the count of seven.
    • Continue this slow breathing until you actually feel your body begin to relax. (Most people find that it takes 2 to 4 sequences.)
    • Open your eyes and give yourself a positive, very specific self-talk (i.e., "You're sure to do well. You studied hard. You’re doing the best you can.") This whole procedure should take only about a minute and it's well worth the time.
  7. Move your body. Roll your shoulders, stretch your legs, get up for a bathroom break if it's allowed.
  8. Banish all thoughts of how well or poorly you might be doing on the exam. It's hard to guess accurately, and thinking about your score will only increase your anxiety.
  9. Most students prefer to carefully work through the questions once rather than rushing through the exam and leaving time at the end for checking. (Nervous test-takers are especially prone to changing correct answers to incorrect when they go back to check their answers.)
  10. Do not obsess about running out of time on the test. Check the time periodically, but avoid checking too frequently, as this will only distract you and make you more anxious. It can be a better strategy to sacrifice a few points by not quite finishing the test than to rush through the last several questions and thus miss many points.
  11. HERE’S THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP: Approach your studying seriously, but think of the test as a game. Your goal is to collect as many points as you can in the time available. Don't obsess about a particularly difficult question. If you're unsure of the answer, guess and move on. Remind yourself that you can miss several questions and still do well.

General Tips

  • Seek help at your school. Don't be afraid to ask for help from instructors, tutors or counselors. Anxiety disorders, including test anxiety, are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and those affected may qualify for test-taking accommodations such as a quiet room or additional time. Check out the college's counseling services; they may offer support and/or study groups.
  • Seek help outside your school. Make an appointment with your family physician to discuss whether medication might help alleviate your anxiety. Secure the services of a private therapist or look for support groups. Talking about your anxieties with a professional counselor or fellow sufferers may help defuse their powerful hold on you.
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