Preparing for exams can be stressful, especially if you experience test anxiety. Here are some tips to help you make it through midterms (and finals).
What is test anxiety?
It’s normal to feel nervous about upcoming tests or exams. However, if you experience overwhelming anxiety or stress before and during tests, it may be linked to test anxiety.
Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. It can be triggered by perfectionism, high expectations, previous test outcomes, fear of failure or pressure to perform. This type of anxiety can be problematic when it impacts your ability to study or prepare, sit through exams, make it to class on exam days or think through exam questions.
Test anxiety can come up in different ways
Test anxiety can manifest in different ways for different people. It most commonly appears as a combination of physical symptoms and emotional reactions that interfere with your ability to perform well on exams. It’s also important to keep in mind that the intensity of these feelings or symptoms can vary from person to person.
Ways to prepare before exams
If you experience test anxiety, it can be helpful to prepare in advance. Here are some tips you can use to get ready for potentially stressful exams.
Start studying for your exams as early as possible. Test anxiety can often happen when we don’t feel prepared or don’t know what to expect on the day of our exams. Set yourself up for success by creating study guides, reviewing presentations or class notes, practicing homework problems and talking to your instructors about what content you should be reviewing.
When we feel anxious about a test or ruminate on our past performance, we can get trapped in a downward spiral of negative self-talk. Try to keep a positive outlook by catching yourself and replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones. Here are some examples:
When we feel anxious leading up to exams or projects, it can cause us to forget other important things in our lives, like self-care. As you prepare for your exams, try to make a schedule that includes meal times, study breaks, time with friends and basic self care tasks (i.e. hygiene, sleep, hydration, etc.). This will help you avoid feeling burnt out and completely drained when it comes time to sit down for a test.
Practice calming techniques
Calming techniques can be helpful to use during exams when anxiety comes up, but it’s important to practice them in advance, so you know what to do during your test. Here are a couple of different techniques you can try.
This breathing technique can offer a quick way to reduce anxiety by slowing your breathing and heart rate.
Start by closing your eyes and focus on your breathing.
Gently inhale through your nose, counting to four.
Breathe out slowly, exhaling all of your air while counting to four again.
Repeat this process as many times as you need to calm down.
As you start to feel better, open your eyes and return to your study session or exam.
45-second body scan
Body scans allow us to stay present in the moment. While most body scans span a number of minutes, you can also feel grounded in less time.
Close your eyes and tune in to the sensations of your body.
Start at the bottoms of your feet, feeling the weight of your feet against your shoes.
Slowly move up your body by feeling the sensations of your legs, hips, back, abdomen, shoulders, neck, arms, hands and head.
When you’re done with your body scan, take a deep breath and return to your study session or exam.
Pack your bag the night before
If your exam requires a test booklet, calculator, pencils, pens or other supplies, be sure to pack them in your backpack or bag the night before your exam. It can be helpful to create a checklist of all the items you need, especially if you have more than one exam. In the morning, double check your bag and add any items you may have forgotten. It may also be good to pack a water bottle or snacks.
Get there early
Running late can increase anxiety before you even make it to your classroom. Instead of leaving at your usual time, set your alarm 10 or 15 minutes earlier, so you can make it to the exam room with plenty of time to spare. This will allow you time to practice your calming techniques and get your materials ready. Plus, it can be a great opportunity to review your notes one last time before your test starts.
Ways to cope during exams
When you feel anxious during an exam, it can be hard to separate yourself from your emotions. Here are some tips to help you manage your anxiety and recenter yourself during a stressful test.
While it can be tempting to look at others around you, it can also increase your anxiety if you notice that you’re not as far into your exam or that you’ve spent more time on a question than others. Instead, try to focus on the exam in front of you. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, and it doesn’t matter what others are doing.
Set a timeline
If you struggle with time management, try to set a timeline for yourself. For instance, if your exam uses a scantron, try to think through how much time you may have per question. Keep in mind that some questions will come easier than others. If your exam also involves hands-on problems, try to leave yourself enough time to complete the multiple choice questions and more involved questions. Remind yourself that it’s also okay to skip questions if you feel like you’re running behind. You can always come back to them later.
Take a deep breath
Remember those calming techniques we talked about earlier? Now is the time to put them into practice. If you feel stressed about a question, take a pause. Remind yourself that a minute-long break is worth it if it helps you concentrate or work through problems more effectively.
Ways to reset after exams
Test anxiety doesn’t just rear its head before and during exams. It can also crop up after you’ve turned in your test. Here are some tips to help you decompress and reset after a stressful exam.
Allow yourself to relinquish control
Once you’ve submitted an exam, that’s it. Relinquish your control over the outcome and allow yourself to accept that it’s in your instructor's hands now. It can also be helpful to avoid ruminating over questions you may have gotten wrong or problems you didn’t finish. Instead, allow yourself to breathe a sigh of relief that your exam is complete.
Focus on positive self-talk
It’s normal to think about the things we could have done or should have done during an exam. However, this may not be the most helpful strategy in managing your anxiety while you wait for the results. Instead, try to practice the same positive self-talk you used when you were preparing for your tests.
Move your body
Moving your body and engaging in physical activity is a great way to reduce stress, especially after exams. Consider taking a walk, visiting the Rec Center or shaking it out with a quick dance session.
Review your results on your own terms
Some people like to see their results right away or talk about them in class. Others may prefer to review their scores privately or wait until they have a chance to calm down. Allow yourself to see how you did on your own terms. If you’re worried about your test scores or are anxious to see what they are, consider asking a supportive friend to review them for you and share them in a supportive and non-judgmental way.
Resources are available
Campus resources are available to help you prepare for exams and get additional support for test anxiety. Here are a few to check out.