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How to Manage Test Anxiety

High school student employs their test-taking strategy in a standardized test

The spring semester is the testing season! Whether you’re a sophomore preparing to take your first standardized test or a junior retaking the SAT or ACT to achieve your goal score, test prep and performing well is on the minds of many students this month. There is one thing that remains consistent for students of all ages, however: test anxiety.

From simple nervousness to crippling dread, test anxiety can seriously hurt students’ performance on in-class tests and college entrance exams. Since grades and test scores are two of the most important factors in the college admissions process, test anxiety can have a huge impact on students’ futures.

Is Test Anxiety Real?

Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety — a feeling someone might have in a situation where performance really matters or when the pressure is on to do well. Test anxiety can come in many forms and can manifest before, during, or after the exam.

However, it is something that can be proactively addressed and managed. By finding ways to deal with the anxiety before and during the test, you can confidently perform at the level you are capable of so that you’re able to reach your academic goals.

For many students, test anxiety causes them to “freeze up” during their test, either forgetting the information they know (in the case of an AP exam, for instance), confusing information (like mixing up math formulas!), or questioning their reasoning and knowledge (like in the Reading Comprehension section in the SAT or ACT).

How to Reduce Test Anxiety: 8 Test Anxiety Strategies to Overcome Stress

These exams tend to already be high-pressure for college-bound students, without the added stress of test-day anxiety. Luckily, there are concrete steps students can take to help ease the stress of exams and prepare to perform their best on test day. Our expert tutors have provided tips below to help students can combat and manage their test anxiety.


A lot of test anxiety can stem from students simply feeling unprepared. Students should keep track of test dates, both for regular courses and college entrance exams, and develop a test-prep strategy — and stick to it! Give yourself ample time to learn the material and quiz yourself with mock exams, flashcards, or other methods. Ample preparation can help students feel more comfortable going into a test — whether it’s a simple classroom quiz or the ACT or SAT.

Practice Test-Taking Techniques

On multiple-choice tests, knowing how to approach questions and problems strategically is key to earning an elite score. This is especially important for those preparing for the SAT or ACT — you need to take practice tests under timed conditions to get used to pacing, utilizing testing strategies, and getting a realistic idea of what to expect on test day.

Make sure to practice techniques like a process of elimination, answering the easiest questions first, knowing when to answer or skip a question, skimming passages for key information, and more. If you’re unfamiliar with any of these strategies, here’s a quick summary:

  • Use process of elimination. This is stressed on any multiple-choice exam: if you don’t know the answer right away, narrow it down by using process of elimination. If you’re used to the SAT, this will be a nice surprise! Instead of five answer options, the ACT only has four.
  • It’s okay to guess (on standardized tests). Great news! There is no penalty for guessing on the SAT or ACT. Scores are evaluated by how many questions were answered correctly, and no points are deducted for wrong answers. So, if you don’t know the answer, skip the question and come back at the end. If you’re still not able to determine the answer using process of elimination, guess by choosing the answer that you think is best.
  • Work backwards on the reading section. This is a huge time-saver. Instead of reading the passage then answering the questions, save time by first reading the questions then make note of the answers when reading the passage. By knowing what to look for first, you can better skim the passage for keywords and phrases.
  • Skim passages to save time. Skimming will work for nonfiction passages, but will not work for literature passages. For nonfiction passages, read over the passage and underline whatever stands out as important. It might take you a few tries to find your appropriate skimming balance. Some students go so lightly they don’t even get the framework of the passage. Others will read quickly but thoroughly and calling it skimming, which defeats the purpose of saving time. Practice at home to find a good cadence that works for you. And again, literature passages must be read in full!
  • Plan out your essay. The ACT writing test requires a complex essay evaluating different perspectives on a topic and how those intersect with the student’s own perspective. If you take the ACT with writing, make sure to take some time to effectively plan out your essay so when you’re ready to write, you have a clear picture of your thoughts and how you want to present them. Don’t just wing it.

Our team of expert tutors helps students master test content and utilize test-taking strategies to maximize their performance on test days. When completing the writing section of the SAT or ACT, or taking an essay-based exam, read the prompts carefully, consider all information provided, and plan out your essay before writing. These strategies will not only save time and energy but will also help you go into a test feeling confident and prepared, helping to alleviate some test-day anxiety.

Create a Test-Day Routine

The anticipation of a test can create a lot of stress and nervousness the day of. By creating a routine for the night before and the day of the exam, you can start to conquer your exam fears. First, make sure to eat a good dinner the night before and get plenty of rest. Filling yourself up with junk food for dinner can leave you feeling sluggish when you get up the next day. Rest will help you feel alert and refreshed the next morning. Get up early so you’re not rushed, and eat a healthy breakfast to wake up your brain and keep you nourished throughout the exam. Take a minute or two to review a couple of practice questions or information to get your brain going. Also, don’t forget to pack an energizing snack to eat during an exam break.

Learn to Tune Out Distractions

Staying focused during your exam is key to managing test anxiety. Distractions like looking around the room at other students, honing in on strange noises, or just paying attention to anything other than the test can not only eat up valuable time but also exacerbate test anxiety. Learn to tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand. Practice this when taking practice tests under timed conditions so you know what to expect and how to redirect your focus to the test when your attention is taken away. Taking full practice tests can also help build “test stamina,” which aids students in learning to focus on the actual test day and push back exhaustion and prevent lack of focus.

Practice Calming and Relaxation Techniques

Test anxiety can cause students a lot of mental, emotional, and physical distress. If you find yourself fidgeting, panicking, or moving anxiously in your seat, practice some calming techniques like taking deep, slow breaths, relaxing your muscles, and thinking of something calming and positive. Learn to counter your physical and emotional responses to test anxiety with calming practices that will bring your heart rate down and allow you to focus on the exam.

It may sound deceptively simple, but checking in with your breath can have a profound impact on your anxiety levels. Many studies support the notion that breathing techniques are effective against anxiety and insomnia. If you’re looking to give it a try, there are plenty of resources with simple breathing exercises on health websites like WebMD as well as videos that will walk you through techniques on YouTube. Once you’ve learned some breathing exercises that work for you, you can come back to them anytime and anywhere, including the day of your exam.

Maintain Perspective

It’s hard to stay positive in the face of anxiety, but a positive attitude can make all the difference. Remember, your self-worth doesn’t hinge on a single exam. While the pressure to make good grades and get into a good college is prevalent, focusing on the “what if I fail” scenario will only make your anxiety worse. Instead, focus on the positive. Imagine yourself succeeding. Reinforce your confidence by reminding yourself how you prepared, studied, and are going into this test ready to tackle it head-on.

Know Your Options

For many students who perform poorly on the ACT or SAT due to test anxiety, it’s important to know that this doesn’t spell the end of their college dreams.

Students should look into test-optional colleges, which are schools that either do not require standardized test scores or deemphasize them in the admissions process. For those whose anxiety might stem from a learning difference, make sure to explore options for the SAT and ACT accommodations like more time to take the test, alternative testing locations, and more. Seek help for severe anxiety by talking with a counselor.

Set Yourself up for Success

From how you sleep to the foods that you eat, there are so many different factors that can influence your anxiety levels and how you feel before a big moment. To create the ideal circumstances for test day, make sure you are well-rested the night before. Aim to go to bed earlier than normal in case you have any difficulty falling asleep. Set your alarm well before the start of your exam so you can have a relaxing morning with enough time to eat a breakfast that is balanced and nourishing. Pack your bag with your testing supplies and lay out your outfit the night before to minimize your to-do list on the day of the exam.

Relieving Test Anxiety on the Test Day

Your approach to test day can have a big impact on whether or not you feel anxious during your exam. Start the day off right by waking up early. Eat a nutritious breakfast before the test and pack smart snacks for ongoing energy. Eat foods that offer a steady stream of nutrients, rather than sugary snacks that only give you a quick burst of energy followed by a crash. Arrive early to the test so you have time to decompress. When you receive the test look it over in order to make a mental note of how much time you’ll need to spend on each section, read the directions twice, and then organize your time efficiently.

Don’t rush through the test, but work at a comfortable, pace and don’t worry about how far along your classmates are on the test. When appropriate or allowed, get a drink of water, eat a snack, or chew gum as an anxiety distraction and try to clear your mind. And most importantly – stay positive! Starting the day with a negative attitude can make it harder to keep a positive mindset during your exam – when you’re most likely to feel anxious or stressed.

How to Manage Test Anxiety During the Exam

Timing can often be the most stressful part of taking an exam. Without overwhelming yourself, watch the clock and how to pace yourself. If you find yourself falling behind your ideal pace, don’t panic. Instead, try to speed up by working through easier questions first – you can always go back and work on more difficult questions later.

It can also be helpful to try some de-stressing techniques if you feel anxiety building during the exam. Find ways to calm yourself when you feel yourself having a physical reaction to your stress, like nausea, sweaty palms, or elevated heart rate. Techniques like such as deep breathing, tensing and relaxing different muscle groups, or engaging in guided imagery for peace and serenity and positive self-talk can be very effective. And again, stay positive! Establish a positive mindset during your exam so that you can confidently tackle any challenges that come up during the test.

How to Reach Your Target Test Scores

Test anxiety, while a real and prevalent problem for many students, shouldn’t impact their confidence or chances of getting into their best-fit college. By utilizing some of these techniques, students should be able to effectively manage their test anxiety and perform to the best of their ability come test day.

At IvyWise, our tutors aren’t just subject experts, they’re also guides who help students not only learn the material but develop effective test-taking strategies and stress-relieving exercises to minimize test anxiety come time for the big exams.

If you need help preparing for an upcoming exam or the ACT or SAT, our expert tutors can help you master the material, implement test-taking strategies, and help manage any test anxiety you may be experiencing. See what you can get from our tutoring and test-prep services.

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