12 Strategies & Tips to Overcome Test Anxiety

March 8, 2024

tips for test anxiety

It’s completely normal to experience some anxiety leading up to a test. For some, this anxiety is manageable, while for others, it can get in the way. Whether your anxiety is mild or extreme, continue reading for some test anxiety tips that can help you manage in the days leading up to that big exam. Before we dive into test anxiety strategies, let’s answer a basic question…

What is anxiety?

First of all, let’s define anxiety. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is an emotion that is characterized by “tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” On one hand, anxiety isn’t all bad. It means you care, and it can even make you more alert, helping you focus. On the other hand, anxiety can get in the way of your ability to focus.

The APA also distinguishes between anxiety and fear, noting that anxiety is usually long-term and associated with threats that can be difficult to pinpoint, while fear is shorter in term and generally associated with a clearly identifiable threat. Before taking a high-stakes test, you may experience both fear and anxiety. Yes, there may be identifiable reasons for fear, such as inadequate prep-time or difficulty with the material. But anxiety can also creep in, perhaps associated with a longer-term fear of failure that’s more difficult to pinpoint.

While many people experience anxiety, it’s important to note that anxiety is not always anxiety disorder. When anxiety is considered a disorder, it interferes with one’s ability to function. According to Cleveland Clinic, anxiety disorder leads to overreactions when something triggers emotions, as well as a lack of control over responses to situations. So, if you think you might have an anxiety disorder, it might be worthwhile to visit a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.

12 Test Anxiety Strategies

So, what should you do if you experience anxiety leading up to tests? Here are 12 tips that can help to ease your mind and body in a stressful situation.

1) Begin studying early:

It’s common that students become so worried about studying for a test that they delay studying for that test (same goes for writing an essay or preparing a presentation). We recommend that you begin studying well before your test. This can mean weeks or months, depending on the test we’re talking about, even if you can only study a little each day. Especially if you’re taking a standardized admissions exam such as the LSAT or GRE, or for high school students, the SAT/ACT or APs, you will likely want to give yourself several months of study time. Factoring in ample study time broken up into many sessions can ease the pressure of each study session, and it can prevent last-minute cramming (a particularly anxiety-inducing activity).

2) Build a study routine

 Once you begin studying, choose a time and a place for your daily study session. Studying systematically with a routine can help you to be more productive with your time, as you will begin to associate the setting with the task. Associating a place with the material (perhaps someplace quiet with few distractions) can also help you to recall information at the time of the test. All in all, if you know when and where you will be studying, you will spend less time thinking about it, and more time actually studying.

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3) Learn relaxation techniques

 Some techniques for relaxation include deep breathing and meditation. If you have trouble meditating on your own, there are an array of mindfulness apps to download that can help you out. Another good strategy is the body scan, which can take just a few minutes: close your eyes, and notice each body part one at a time, from head to toe (or vice-versa). Many therapists recommend this or similar techniques for noticing what’s around you (and within you) in moments of anxiety.

4) Eat and drink consistently

We sometimes forget that we don’t only need food for physical exercise. Your brain also requires fuel to operate. Additionally, anxiety sometimes makes people feel less hungry or causes them to forget to eat. So, factor food (and plenty of water) into your study schedule. Strive for meals that hit all the different food groups so that you can feel as nourished as possible. A few more tips on this:

  • While sugary treats can be great for providing quick energy when we need it, you may want to reduce how many sweets you eat, since they tend to cause energy to rise quickly and then drop.
  • From one coffee lover to the coffee lovers reading this: caffeine can worsen anxiety. If you experience a lot of anxiety, you may want to limit how much coffee, tea, and caffeinated soda you drink.
  • Take breaks for meals! While it can be tempting to eat in front of your computer, this can prevent you from enjoying your food, which can be meditative and relaxing. Try to eat while sitting outside, or reading a “for-fun” book, or talking with friends.

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 5) Get plenty of exercise

 That said, physical exercise can help enormously when it comes to many kinds of mental health issues, including anxiety. Aerobic exercise (from running, dancing, or playing basketball, as a few examples) can help to reduce tension and calm nerves. Even a brisk walk can do the trick. Strength training and other kinds of exercise can also help, if you’d prefer to lift weights at the gym or take a yoga class.

 6) Stretch or dance or walk around

 Maybe you don’t have time to fit in a full workout, or maybe you did already, but you’ve been sitting for hours since then. Luckily, you don’t need a gym to move your body, and even light movement can help to decrease anxiety. Choosing two or three stretches to hold (for even a few seconds each, while breathing), could be enough. Are you studying in a space by yourself? Try blasting your favorite song and dancing to the whole thing (singing along can’t hurt). If stretching and dancing don’t appeal to you, try taking a quick walk for a bit of fresh air, or even just a lap around the room, before returning to work.

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7) Sleep regularly

 Whether you’re in your early teens or mid-40s, sleep is important for both academic productivity and mental health. Additionally, to feel most rested, experts recommend a sleep schedule, in which you get similar amounts of sleep from night to night. According to the APA, many people don’t get the recommended 8 (or so) hours per night, which leads to interference with learning and other daily tasks. Especially if a big test is coming up, a healthy sleep schedule can help you to focus and maintain a positive outlook.

8) Stay in your lane

 If you have peers taking the same test as you, it can be easy to slide into comparison and competition, which can heighten anxiety. While it can be useful to study with others, try not to compare. Everyone works at a different pace, in a different style. Just because a peer in your class is studying 10-hours a day doesn’t mean that you need to do the same. On the other hand, a peer might be a super-speed learner, while you just need more time. Do your best to shrug it off, and try to avoid the “stress Olympics” (slangily used refer to the pattern of students competing over who’s most stressed out).

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 9) Try to think positively

 Yes, we know, it’s easier said than done. But you can think of visualizing your own success on the test as a kind of rehearsal. We are creatures of habit, so if you mostly practice thinking negative thoughts, then these thoughts will become patterns, distracting you and feeding into your anxiety. On the other hand, if you rehearse positive thinking, you are more likely to stay focused on your goals and work towards an actual positive outcome.

Of course, this “practice” isn’t perfect. Nobody thinks positively all of the time, so if you have a negative thought, try to view it as normal, and let it pass.

10) If you get into a negative thought pattern, take a break

 Are you trying to break out of the cycle of negative thinking but the doomsday thoughts of failure keep coming? Stop what you’re doing and return later. Even if this break reduces your study time, less studying is better than no studying, which will likely be the case if you’re too busy thinking thoughts of failure. Here are some ideas of activities that can help you to reset:

  • Go for a walk
  • Eat a snack
  • Call a friend or relative
  • Take a power nap
  • Meditate for 5-minutes
  • Do a short yoga video
  • Listen to your current favorite song
  • Take a shower or bath
  • Rinse your face with cold water
  • Switch to an easier work-related task

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11) Seek help

 Especially if the difficulty of the material is adding to your pre-test anxiety, there is no shame in asking for help from a teacher/professor, professional tutor, or peer tutor. Getting help from an outside source can lift the weight of being the only person responsible for your success. Plus, someone who knows the material well might be able to provide some hints for success you wouldn’t have otherwise known.

12) Address mental health concerns and learning disabilities

 In addition to seeking help with the material itself, don’t be afraid to seek help when it comes to your mental health. Whether or not you have diagnosable mental health concerns, seeing a counselor can help you to understand the causes of your anxiety and find strategies for coping. Additionally, if you think you could have learning disabilities such as ADHD or dysgraphia, seeing a mental health professional could allow you receive time extensions and other forms of test-taking support, which could ultimately lead to reduced test anxiety and increased success.

12 Tips/Strategies to Overcome Test Anxiety – Further Reading

We hope this article has been useful as you address your anxiety and prepare for your upcoming test. For more information about mental health among college students, check out this article on college student mental health statistics. Does public speaking make you as anxious as a big exam? Here are tips for teens on improving public speaking skills (though these tips can apply to those of all ages).