Test Anxiety

Information about and tips for students to help reduce test anxiety


What is Test Anxiety?

Feeling anxious at test time is very common among college students. Most students experience some level of stress when anticipating or taking an exam. A little nervousness can actually help motivate you, but if the stress becomes too intense, it can affect your concentration and exam performance. It's called test anxiety.

Test anxiety may be part of a general anxiety disorder, but it can also be specific only to a testing situation. Either way, some students, even though adequately prepared for an exam, may experience the following symptoms:

  • Physical — headaches, nausea or diarrhea, feeling light headed or faint, being too hot or cold, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, dry mouth
  • Emotional — excessive feelings of fear, disappointment, anger or depression, uncontrollable crying or laughing, feelings of irritability or helplessness
  • Behavioral — fidgeting, pacing, substance abuse, avoidance
  • Cognitive — racing thoughts, "going blank," difficulty concentrating, negative self-talk, feelings of dread, comparing oneself to others, difficulty organizing thoughts

All anxiety is a reaction to anticipating something stressful. Like other types of anxiety, test anxiety affects both the body and mind. Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety, a feeling you might have in a situation where performance really counts or when the pressure is on to do well.

If your self-esteem is too closely tied to the outcome of any one test or grade, the results can be devastating. In this situation, you might find yourself spending more time focusing on the possible negative consequences to NOT doing well than you are in preparing to succeed.

Test anxiety can become a vicious cycle. The more you feel anxious about performance, worry about not living up to your own or your parents' expectations or focus on the bad things that could happen, the greater the possibility that you will not perform well on an exam.

Methods to Help Reduce Test Anxiety

Preparing for the Exam

    • Attend class regularly and complete all of the assignments in a timely manner.
    • Make and take practice tests.
    • Study well in advance of the exam and AVOID CRAMMING.
    • Use good study habits. Consider taking a class on time management and study skills.
    • Don't overplay the importance of a grade. Your grade in a class is not an overall reflection of your self-worth.
    • Replace negative thoughts such as "I'm going to fail" with "I've studied hard, and I know this material. I'll do the best I can."
    • Reward yourself after the test. Spend time with friends, go to a movie, etc.
    • Exercise regularly.
    • Get plenty of rest the night before the exam.
    • Eat healthy and avoid foods high in fat or sugar. Avoid too much caffeine.
    • Try to do something relaxing the hour immediately before the test. 
    • Arrive at the test location early and calm yourself before you get the exam in your hands.
    • Select a seat located away from doors, windows or other distractions during the test.

During the Exam

    • When the test is passed out, review the entire test and read the directions TWICE.
    • Organize and budget your time during the test (work on the easiest portions of the test first).
    • If you "go blank," skip the question and go on, marking it to come back to later.
    • Don't rush through the test. Wear a watch and check it frequently so you know how much time you have left to finish as much as you can.
    • Don't panic when other students start handing in their exams.
    • If you find that you won't be able to finish the whole test, concentrate on those portions you can answer well.
    • Recheck your answers if you have extra time and only if you're not feeling anxious.

After the Exam

    • Don't dwell on the mistakes you've made.
    • Be sure to follow through on the reward you set up for yourself for getting through the test.
    • List what strategies worked for you and what things you still need to work on. Continue practicing these anxiety-reducing strategies until you become a pro at them.
    • When the exam is returned, review it carefully. If you don't understand what you didn't do well, make an appointment to talk with your instructor about it.
    • If you want to discuss your particular situation with test anxiety, see a JCCC counselor.

Hints for Specific Types of Test Questions

Essay Questions

    • Construct a short outline of your answer.
    • Begin your answer with a summary sentence to help you avoid rambling and repetition. 
    • Make sure that all of the important points in your outline are included in your overall answer.

Short Answer Questions

    • Answer ONLY what is asked. Be short and to the point.
    • If you can't come up with the proper terminology, explain what you can in your own words. Show what knowledge you can.

Multiple Choice Questions

    • Read all of the options first, and then eliminate the most obviously incorrect choices.
    • If you're unsure of the correct response, choose the best of the remaining alternatives.
    • Rely on your first impression, then move on quickly.
    • Beware of tricky words such as "only," "always" or "most."