Mind, Advice

This is how I overcame my test-taking anxiety

I used to be filled with crippling anxiety when taking a test, to the point that I became sick.

Just like many high school juniors across the United States, I was anxious about how well I would perform on the Preliminary Standardized Test, aka the PSAT. While these scores are not used for university admissions, the PSAT is used to identify National Merit Scholars. Being the overachiever that I was (and still am), I wanted to do really well on that exam.

The night before, however, I couldn’t sleep because I was so nervous. During the PSAT itself, I couldn’t stop shaking because I was so stressed and overwhelmed. Over a month later, I received my PSAT results and they weren’t good.

I bombed the test.

I had debilitating test-taking anxiety from seventh grade until my sophomore year. I was convinced that I was going to fail every exam. And, in some cases, despite being prepared for and having studied hard for tests, I still failed. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test-taxing anxiety is a “form of performance anxiety,” and can be triggered by fear of failure, lack of preparation, and/or poor test history. 

While I still do have test-taking anxiety, it is not as bad as it was just a few years ago. Here are four things that I did which helped me get over my severe anxiety relating to exams, and hopefully they will help you too.

1.  Recognize that your self-worth isn’t tied to test results

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It took me a long time to accept this, but test-taking is just not my strength. While it is always good to improve skills, holding myself to score high on tests is not healthy for me mentally. Someone’s self-worth, including my own, is not tied to test scores.

technically am talented in areas that should make me a good test-taker – I’m a strong writer, have developed analytical skills, and study for hours – but I don’t perform well on exams. I use those skills to do research for and successfully execute class projects.

In my opinion, although many people may disagree with me, tests measure how good people are at taking tests. That’s it. There must be a reason why top institutions like the University of Chicago do not require students to submit standardized tests anymore.

2. Chat with friends or colleagues who may be experiencing similar things

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When I was experiencing severe test-taking anxiety, I was afraid to talk to anybody about it. I was worried that my friends would judge me and the impact my anxiety had on my test-taking ability.

Turns out, I was not alone. If you have test-taking anxiety, I assure you that there’s someone you know who’s experiencing the same thing.

I found it helpful to find ways to think of strategies to conquer exam-related anxiety with a friend – or a classmate that I barely know (both work!).

3. Request extended time on tests

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Anxiety can make it difficult for even the smartest people to perform well on tests. That’s why accommodations at most schools and for many standardized tests exist.

I benefit greatly from extra time on tests, as I’m able to use breathing techniques and take a break when I feel overwhelmed by exams. I’m then able to refocus and resume taking the test. Although I do not end up needing extra time on tests, it is mentally comforting to know that I’m able to take a pause and still have enough time to finish my test if I need it.

Depending on your school, it may take a while to receive accommodations. This is why I recommend applying for accommodations as early in the semester as possible, or even over the summer.

4. Practice taking exams in a comfortable setting in advance

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Before I take a high-stakes standardized test, I try to take many practice tests in places that make me feel comfortable. This includes in my favorite coffee shop, on my bed, or in a library.

When I then take the actual test, I find myself to be in a more relaxed mindset. I’m still slightly anxious when I take tests – which is normal – but my anxiety revolving around test-taking is no longer debilitating.

When I was able to incorporate these four stress-relieving methods, I started to perform better on exams. Hopefully, some of these strategies will help you defeat, or at least minimize, your test-taking anxiety too!