Getting past test anxiety
True story: My freshman year at college, I almost passed out in the middle of my first statistics exam.
It was a humongous lecture hall and my desk was approximately three inches from my neighbor’s. The teacher had a cough that day, and it annoyed me so much I couldn’t concentrate for more than four seconds at a time. I remember it being a 90-minute course and somewhere around minute 60 it hit me.
I was going to fail this test.
I got up mid-exam and went out into the hallway to hang my head between my knees. The teacher came to check on me, but didn’t offer too much sympathy. “You’d better get in there and finish,” he scolded me. “The test is almost over.”
Sound like your worst test nightmare?
Sophomore year, in a much smaller class, one of my professors noticed me sweating bullets in the middle of his exam and asked me to stay after class when the test was over. “Test anxiety, huh?” he said. “My wife had that in school, too. Why don’t you come in tomorrow and let’s try this thing again.”
Guess what? The next day I got a 90 on his test. My score the first time? 65.
Things got better from there and eventually, I learned to do well on exams when I was prepared for them (what a concept). I’m certainly no expert on test anxiety, but I can tell you this – it’s real, and it’s very debilitating. What I wish I’d known then is that there are ways to overcome this problem so it doesn’t negatively impact you the rest of your college years. Here are a few tips to help you through those dark test moments:
This sounds silly, but as someone who has literally hyperventilated during tests before, it’s important to breathe when you feel yourself panicking. Breathing exercises really can calm you down so that you can think clearly. When you’re breathing too quickly and/or not enough, your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, causing you to feel lightheaded and nervous. Deep breathing is proven to relieve stress because it triggers relaxation in the body.
Another no-brainer here, but I will admit now, years later, that some of my test freak-outs probably stemmed from the fact that I peeked at an exam and discovered it had questions on it that I hadn’t studied. Yikes. That’s a bad feeling. So, how does it feel to open up an exam booklet and see that you’ve studied this material, that you’ve read about it several times these past few weeks? It feels good, right? It gives you confidence. So, prepare well for your exams. Talk to your teacher well ahead of time to make sure you understand tough concepts. Don’t cram and don’t expect to learn four weeks’ worth of material in one or two nights. If you need help developing good study habits, talk to your teacher or advisor about it. Your college probably has a tutoring center, too. Use the resources available to you.
Play mind games.
Ever heard about the power of positive thinking? When feeling panicked, it’s very easy to start thinking about how stupid you are, how a bad grade is going to ruin your life, etc. Learn to control your negative thoughts and instead send yourself positive and reassuring messages.
Investigate the cause.
Lack of preparation, a bad test experience in the past, negative thinking – these are all sources of test anxiety. It’s easier to fix a problem when you know where it stems from. If you bombed a test once and the memory seems to creep into your head every time you take one now, you need to work on putting the past behind you, giving yourself permission to let it go, and focusing on only what is in front of you.
If you find yourself afraid of tests because of self-induced pressure and irrational thinking, the counseling center at your college might help you learn to change your frame of mind and boost your confidence. Again – take advantage of college resources! If you need help, ask for it. There are offices on campus dedicated to helping students deal with test and school anxiety. Use them.
Have you had test anxiety? How did you overcome it? What was the most valuable resource on campus in helping you?