Managing Test Anxiety

Everyone feels nervous before an exam. That is only natural and normal. Everyone wonders if they will be able to answer the questions, if they have prepared enough, if they will remember what they have studied. In fact, a certain amount of nervous tension probably helps us perform to the best of our ability and produces a healthy rush of adrenaline that gives us what we need to stay alert and focused.

But too much anxiety can block thoughts, create a negative frame of mind and lead to panic and potentially poor exam performance.

What does test anxiety feel like?

  • Some students experience mainly physical symptoms, such as head aches, nausea, faintness, feeling too hot or too cold etc.
  • Others experience more emotional symptoms, such as crying easily, feeling irritable or getting frustrated quickly.
  • 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.
  • There are a number of things you can do to help manage exam anxiety and turn uncomfortable, panicky thought into more creative tension.

Basic Guidelines

  • Try to sty on a reasonably regular schedule of studying, eating, sleeping and relaxing. It is best to start preparing for an exam 1-2 weeks ahead of time. This may not always be possible but it is best.
  • Don’t attempt to study 24 hours a day; your efficiency and capacity to retain material will rapidly decrease.
  • Don’t force yourself to study beyond your normal limits of concentration. Short and regular study periods are more productive than lengthy single sessions.
  • Eat a well balanced diet and drink lots of fluids.
  • Don’t use drugs or alcohol. They can decrease your ability to think clearly.
  • Be conservative and reasonable about the demands you place on yourself.

Before the Exam

  • Relax. It’s hard to panic if you are feeling relaxed. Try to establish a routine that give you time to relax, especially right before you go to sleep the night before an exam. This could be different for everyone so experiment until you find what works best for you (e.g. a long bath, exercise, listening to music, relaxation tapes).
  • Prepare. It helps to feel as well-prepared as possible. To do this, time management is important. Do your best to give yourself enough to review the material. If you have difficulty knowing how to study, attend study skills workshops or meet with a tutor to get some tips.Find out as much as you can about the exam. Your instructor will likely give you the format of the exam ahead of time. Then you will know what to expect in terms of how many multiple choice questions there and how many long answer questions there are. Knowing as much as you can will also help you to relax. You can also ask your instructor if there are any practice tests that you can use to help you study. Often they are available.Preparing also means knowing what time the exam starts, how long you will have to write it, and where it will take place. Knowing this information will also set your mind at ease.
  • Think positively. Put yourself into a positive frame of mind by imagining how you would like things to go. Imagine yourself turning up for the exam feeling confident and relaxed – try to picture this in as much detail as possible. If you practice this in your mind, you can replace negative, anxious thought with more positive ones.
  • Don’t work to the last minute. Last minute cramming often leaves a person feeling muddled and anxious.

During the Exam

When you get into the exam room and sit down, the following can help settle anxiety:

  • Focusing exercise
  • Take a deep breath in and a long breath out.
  • Breathe in again and straighten your back.
  • Repeat positive thoughts in your mind such as “I can do this exam”.
  • Take another deep breath in and a long breath out.
  • Then breathe normally.
  • Read through the entire exam and do so thoroughly. If you begin to feel panicky again, repeat the focusing exercise. If you do panic, this will stop you reading carefully…so remember to breathe.
  • As you read through the exam, mark the questions you think you can answer for sure.
  • When you are finished this initial read through, go back and answer the ones you marked.
  • Do the ones that you are most confident about first. Make sure you understand what is required to answer those questions. Once you are finished answering the questions you know for sure, go through the exam again and begin answering the ones you are less sure of.
  • Any time your concentration wanders or you begin to feel panicky again, go back to the focusing exercise and do it again. If you feel that you don’t have the time to do that, remember that taking just a few minutes to breathe can save you spending the rest of the exam in a state of panic not getting anything done.