How to Deal with Test Anxiety

Image © Charles M Schulz


I think I started feeling anxious about tests when I was in elementary school. Back when my family and I lived in Singapore, I was set to take the Primary School Leaving Examination in 6th Grade. I remember a lot of my classmates talking about how difficult it was and how stressed they were about it while we were still in 4th grade. Admittedly, I was previously unaware of this requirement exit exam and didn’t begin to worry about it until I kept hearing about the “horror” stories of failing it. Singapore is a great nation with an excellent education system that boasts high performance and achievement in Math and Science for as long as I can remember, and the world seems to agree based on recent global education rankings. When I found out that my parents and I were emigrating to the U.S. to avoid the upcoming recession, I was psyched to have avoided such an impending hurdle.

Little did I know then that this would eventually become a repeating story in my life–test taking and anxiety. It was a slow and insidious onset, but by the time I was in my 2nd year of college, my increasing concerns for test taking and anxiety was at its worst. I would cram and study as much as I could. Sometimes, I would do the opposite and procrastinate until the eleventh hour and engage in some self-sabotage. I couldn’t have possibly done any better, I didn’t have enough time! I would stop hanging around classmates after classes because talking about schoolwork just made me nauseous and irritated. Why can’t we talk about other things in our lives and not the upcoming class project? It can wait! I also disliked (but still begrudgingly attended) study group meetings because even though I didn’t enjoy competition and being compared to my peers with greater mental prowess, I felt that I had a social status to uphold. I failed a lot, messed up on midterms, and barely passed some courses. But I passed and that’s all that mattered. Until I didn’t pass. That was the worst feeling in the world–getting confirmation from others that yes, perhaps you are less than adequate in your abilities, and you don’t deserve to move forward.

Looking back now, I guess I carried that seemingly inappropriate and negative view of myself to other things. In turn, it made me self-conscious and afraid to take chances on things I had little to no control over. I became anxious about failure and began to believe that with each step back, I am proving to myself that I am no good.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. An estimated 40 million adults in the U.S., or 18%, have an anxiety disorder. Approximately 8% of children and teenagers experience the negative impact of an anxiety disorder at school and at home. Most people develop symptoms of anxiety disorders before age 21 and women are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men.

See more at: 

Let me be clear–I am an anxious person at my baseline level of functioning. That’s just how I’m wired. I tend to be more worried than the average person, and even though it doesn’t seem like it, I get anxious at the drop of a hat. I have learned how to use my high anxiety and extra jitters more adaptively over the years, but it is safe to say that I have yet to figure out how to make it all go away forever. I guess it is just one of those things that you have to work on for a lifetime, so I might as well adapt and figure out how I can use it for good. I am in no way saying that because of my first-hand experience with anxiety, I am an expert in telling others how to deal with it. Like many of you who share these symptoms of daily worries about random things, whose mind wanders nonsensically from one train of thought to another, and have tried all the ways to be zen…I have found that what works for one person might not work for the next. The only solution is to have a multitude of coping strategies and skills at your command.

Here are some tried and true strategies that I have come across to help me feel well-prepared prior to the actual test:

  1. Take notes of your notes: A great memory-building strategy
  2. Drawing it out: For visual learners, this helps encode and map out what you are learning about.
  3. Associations: This could range from words to random things that remind you of the subject.
  4. Mastery: Some people err on the side of over-learning rather than recognition. At times, this pays off handsomely. Others, not so much. Use with caution.
  5. Test/quiz self: If you want to learn something whoheartedly, make flashcards and take tests to challenge your knowledge.
  6. Exercise regularly: Various research studies suggest that in order to maintain optimal learning efficiency and improve one’s memory while studying, exercise should be a part of the daily regimen. (see Effect of Relaxation or Exercise on Undergraduates’ Test Anxiety)

On the actual test date, here are some strategies that have been highly effective in calming others with test anxiety:

  1. Arriving at the testing location at least 30 minutes ahead of time. Some people need about 30 minutes to transition from previous inactivity to a more demanding one, like a test or a job interview.
  2. Make sure to eat a regular meal beforehand. Nothing too out of the ordinary in order to prevent any upset stomach.
  3. Use the restroom prior to the actual event. This can also symbolize a personal ritual of cleansing and starting fresh.
  4. In case this still doesn’t work, try engaging in ujjayi breath or ocean breath. Mindfulness techniques are great, too.
  5. Positive self-talk is a must during test-taking situations. You cannot talk down to yourself during these moments. Positive and cheerleading statements help a ton.
  6. It also helps to learn some test-taking strategies and implement them during the exam. For example, if you are finding a lot of difficult questions and are lingering much longer than expected, it is best that you take notice of what is happening in the moment. Stop for a moment and realize that you are panicking about being perfect or getting a good score, and fall back to the current moment. Once you gather yourself, help yourself some more by eliminating answers and selecting one possible answer before quickly moving on to the next item. In this way, you are relying more on your gut instinct and what you have studied tirelessly. If need be, come back to the questions after you have completed the whole exam to double check your work.
  7. Request or bring your own noise-cancellation headphones or earplugs. This will help you tunnel down your focus and concentration if your test surroundings are unpredictable or loud.
  8. Acknowledge what you know and don’t know. Be honest with yourself, and don’t feel embarrassed that you don’t know everything. Make a note of it and move onto the next item. You can always come back to it when you have time later.

And after the exam, it is easy to become worried and linger over the questions that you may have missed or just flat out stumped you. Here are some helpful tips on what to do after the test:

  1. Leave it all in the testing room. Don’t take it with you. Avoid talking about the test and what the answer was for items 1, 2, 7, etc. The moment you walk out of the room, you should go home (preferably), change clothes, and do something else.
  2. Treat yourself by watching something you like, and try not to feel guilty about it. You will probably also start thinking about the test and how you did, but there is not much you can do at this point. So there is no use worrying. Go eat that ice cream or bag of chips that’s been waiting for you all week!
  3. Spend time with friends and family. Call up a buddy and catch up on their lives. Often, people can become withdrawn when they are worried about tests and feel that they are disciplining themselves by bearing down during school midterms or finals. Communicate with your loved ones and help preserve the social bonds you have by talking to them.
  4. Finally, whatever happens, tell yourself and believe that you did your b-e-s-t. And if you did well–then excellent! Be proud of your accomplishments. And if you didn’t do so well–acknowledge the loss in that moment. Grieve or feel sad about it, you have the right to feel what you feel. But do not linger. Find a way to utilize your strengths and coping skills to get back into the game and do even better the next time around. Sometimes, people just need a few tries to get it done. And that’s okay, too.