You've done all of your homework and studied hard, and you think you have a grip
on the material. But then the day of the test comes. Suddenly, you blank out, freeze
up, zone out, or feel so nervous that you can't get it together to respond to those
questions you knew the answers to just last night.
If this sounds like you, you may have a case of test anxiety — that nervous
feeling that people sometimes get when they're about to take a test.
It's normal to feel a little nervous and stressed before a test. Just about everyone
does. And a little nervous anticipation can actually help you do better on a test.
But for some people, test anxiety is more intense. The nervousness they feel before
a test can be so strong that it interferes with their concentration or performance.
What Is Test Anxiety?
Test anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety —
a feeling someone might have in a situation where performance really counts or when
the pressure's on to do well. For example, a person might have performance anxiety
just before trying out for the school play, singing a solo on stage, getting into
position at the pitcher's mound, stepping onto the platform in a diving meet, or going
into an important interview.
Like other situations in which a person might feel performance anxiety, test anxiety
can bring on "butterflies," a stomachache, or a headache. Some people might feel shaky
or sweaty, or feel their heart beating quickly as they wait for the test to be given
out. A student with really strong test anxiety may even feel like he or she might
pass out or throw up.
Test anxiety is not the same as doing poorly on a certain test because your mind
is on something else. Most people know that having other things on their minds —
such as a breakup or the death of someone close — can interfere with their concentration
and prevent them from doing their best on a test.
What Causes It?
All anxiety is a reaction to anticipating something stressful. Like other anxiety
reactions, test anxiety affects the body and the mind.
When you're under stress, your body releases the hormone adrenaline,
which prepares it for danger (you may hear this referred to as the "fight or flight"
reaction). That's what causes the physical symptoms, such as sweating, a pounding
heart, and rapid breathing. These sensations might be mild or intense.
Focusing on the bad things that could happen also fuels test anxiety. For example,
someone worrying about doing poorly might have thoughts like, "What if I forget everything
I know?" or "What if the test is too hard?" Too many thoughts like these leave no
mental space for thinking about the test questions. People with test anxiety can also
feel stressed out by their physical reaction: "What if I throw up?" or "Oh no, my
hands are shaking."
Just like other types of anxiety, test anxiety can create a bad cycle: The more
a person focuses on the negative things that could happen, the stronger the feeling
of anxiety becomes. This makes the person feel worse and, with a head is full of distracting
thoughts and fears, can increase the chances that he or she will do poorly on the
Who's Likely to Have Test Anxiety?
People who worry a lot or who are perfectionists are more likely to have trouble
with test anxiety. People with these traits sometimes find it hard to accept mistakes
they might make or to get anything less than a perfect score. In this way, even without
meaning to, they might really pressure themselves. Test anxiety is bound to thrive
in a situation like this.
Students who aren't prepared for tests but who care about doing well are also likely
to have test anxiety. If you know you're not prepared, it's a no-brainer to realize
that you'll be worried about doing poorly. People can feel unprepared for tests for
several reasons: They may not have studied enough, they may find the material difficult,
or perhaps they feel tired because didn't get enough sleep the night before.
What Can You Do?
Test anxiety can be a real problem if you're so stressed out over a test that
you can't get past the nervousness to focus on the test questions and do your best
work. Feeling ready to meet the challenge, though, can keep test anxiety at a manageable
Use a little stress to your advantage. Stress is your body's warning
mechanism — it's a signal that helps you prepare for something important that's
about to happen. So use it to your advantage. Instead of reacting to the stress by
dreading, complaining, or fretting about the test with friends, take an active approach.
Let stress remind you to study well in advance of a test. Chances are, you'll keep
your stress from spinning out of control. After all, nobody ever feels stressed out
by thoughts that they might do well on a test.
Ask for help. Although a little test anxiety can be a good thing,
an overdose of it is another story. If sitting for a test gets you so stressed out
that your mind goes blank and causes you to miss answers that you know, then your
level of test anxiety probably needs some attention. Your teacher, a school guidance
counselor, or a tutor can be good people to talk to test anxiety gets to be too much
Be prepared. Some students think that going to class is all it
should take to learn and do well on tests. But there's much more to learning than
just hoping to soak up everything in class. That's why good study
habits and skills are so important — and why no amount of cramming
or studying the night before a test can take the place of the deeper level of learning
that happens over time with good study skills.
Many students find that their test anxiety eases when they start to study better
or more regularly. It makes sense — the more you know the material, the more
confident you'll feel. Having confidence
going into a test means you expect to do well. When you expect to do well, you'll
be able to relax into a test after the normal first-moment jitters pass.
Watch what you're thinking. If expecting to do well on a test
can help you relax, what about if you expect you won't do well?
Watch out for any negative messages you might be sending yourself about the test.
They can contribute to your anxiety.
If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts ("I'm never any good at taking
tests" or "It's going to be terrible if I do badly on this test"), replace them with
positive messages. Not unrealistic positive messages, of course, but ones that are
practical and true, such as "I've studied hard and I know the material, so I'm ready
to do the best I can."
Accept mistakes. Another thing you can do is to learn to keep
mistakes in perspective — especially if you're a perfectionist or you tend to
be hard on yourself. Everyone makes mistakes, and you may have even heard teachers
or coaches refer to mistakes as "learning opportunities." Learning to tolerate small
failures and mistakes — like that one problem you got wrong in the math pop
quiz — is a valuable skill.
Take care of yourself. It can help to learn ways to calm yourself
down and relax when you're tense or anxious. For some people, this might mean learning
a simple breathing exercise. Practicing breathing exercises regularly (when you're
not stressed out) helps your body see these exercises as a signal to relax.
And, of course, taking care of your health — such as getting enough
sleep, exercise, and healthy eats before a test — can help keep your mind
working at its best.
Everything takes time and practice, and learning to beat test anxiety is no different.
Although it won't go away overnight, facing and dealing with test anxiety will help
you learn stress management, which can prove to be a valuable skill in many situations
besides taking tests.