If you’ve ever spent hours studying for an important exam only to feel sick and forget everything the minute you started your test, you’re not alone. Though test anxiety can affect your performance on exams, it’s incredibly common, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. While knowing that test anxiety isn’t unusual can help you feel less alone, learning how to manage that anxiety will allow you to perform to the best of your ability when it really counts.
Why you experience exam anxiety
How do you know if you have test anxiety? Well, you might experience some of the following symptoms:
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Heart racing and shortness of breath
- Feelings of disappointment or helplessness
- Difficulty concentrating or comparing yourself negatively to others
In general, exam anxiety can have a few different causes:
- When you encounter a stressful situation, your body releases adrenaline to help you cope. While adrenaline can help you manage a difficult situation, if your body releases too much, it can cause you to feel anxious and distracted. In turn, you may begin to feel your heart pound, or you may be nauseous--unfortunately, feeling these things can make it even more difficult to concentrate.
- Prior testing experience. You may experience test anxiety because of the experiences surrounding your text. For example, if you have a history of doing poorly on tests, you may worry that the test you’re working on will end in a similar result.
- Feeling underprepared. Feeling underprepared can also cause you to feel anxious--even if you’ve studied, sometimes you may wish you’d had more time to absorb the material, or maybe you feel you focused on the wrong things.
- Pre-existing anxiety disorders. If you have a pre-existing anxiety disorder, it may contribute to your test anxiety. Talk with your doctor about how to manage any additional anxiety caused by taking an exam.
How do I reduce exam stress before test day?
You may be able to reduce some of your exam anxiety by practicing good study habits. Don’t leave studying until the last minute--be sure that you’re taking good notes during lessons and are reinforcing what you’ve learned regularly between exams. And when you study, try to focus on the task at hand, since researchers have found a relationship between multitasking and poor memory. Physical activity may also help you keep stress in check. Though research hasn’t definitively shown whether physical activity can reduce test-specific anxiety, scientists have established a clear link between physical activity and reduced anxiety and depression. To reduce overall anxiety, try activities like
- Taking regular walks during the day
- Signing up for fitness classes at your local gym
- Joining a local hiking group that organizes weekend excursions
- Following along with free, streaming exercise videos at home
Tips to reducing stress while taking your exam
Preparing well may help you beat exam stress, but there are plenty of things you can do on test day to keep yourself calm, cool, and collected, too. Try some of the following strategies to alleviate anxiety while you’re taking your exam.
- Get physically comfortable before you begin your test. Wear non-restrictive clothing that lets you breathe easily, and plan to eat lightly beforehand so that you’ll have some energy and won’t be hungry during the test.
- Start with what you know. Preview the whole test first, and then begin with the items you feel confident about.
- Decode multiple choice questions by using the red/yellow/green light approach.
- If you get overwhelmed, take a moment to practice some breathing exercises to help you quiet your mind and get in tune with your body.
Test anxiety is real, and if you experience it, you’re not alone. Fortunately, by understanding what causes your stress and implementing strategies to reduce it, you can improve your performance when it matters most. Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom. Looking for more study tips to find success in school and in college? Read our article Writing Assignments: Tips for Success