The night before a recent SAT, I had a text-message conversation with a student that went something like this (translated from text-speak):
Me: Hey, just wanted to check in to make sure you’re feeling good and are going to get a good night’s sleep! You’re going to rock it tomorrow!
Student: I just took a practice section and realized I don’t know any vocab and I suck at math.
Me: You had a practice section with both vocab *and* math?
Student: Okay, it was two sections. But oh my god, it’s hopeless, I have to stay up all night studying and I’m still going to fail!!! This always happens and then I fail the next day!
Me: Okay, take a deep breath. Inhale, exhale. You have worked hard and you *are* ready for this. Do you believe me?
Student: I know I’ve done a lot of work but I’m so afraid that I’m going to fail because I’m just bad at tests and then I won’t get in to college.
Me: Remember what we talked about? Breathe and be positive. Repeat this to yourself: I am ready and I can do this.
Student [5 minutes later]: Okay, done, but what do I do tonight?
Me: At this point, you usually stay up all night to cram?
Me: And then how do you do the next day?
Student: I usually get a really bad grade which sucks because I know the material when I’m not taking the test.
Me: So, staying up all night clearly doesn’t work. Let’s try something new. You up for it?
Me: Put your books away, set your alarm, get in bed, do some relaxation exercises, and go to sleep.
Me: Not kidding! Trust me, okay? Get some sleep! I promise you’ll feel better in the morning. Breathe and relax during the test and you’ll be fine.
Student: You’re really telling me to *not* study?
Me: I really am.
Student: Okay, I’ll try it, but I can’t promise that I’ll be able to sleep.
Yes, it’s true that this student hadn’t read my article on what to do (and what not to do) the night before a big test, but even if she had, it might not have helped her. Anxiety this severe is a vicious cycle. Each time this student panicked, crammed all night, then bombed a test, her anxiety before and during the next test was even worse, making another panic session even more likely.
Thankfully, my student did fall asleep after our conversation and also did well on the SAT, but her experience with test anxiety is, unfortunately, not unique. It doesn’t take much to set off a bout of test anxiety, and once it’s going, it’s hard to stop without specific strategies. But, with practice, it is possible to break the cycle. This will be the first of three articles describing ways to combat test anxiety. First things first:
- Don’t confuse test anxiety with being under-prepared. A lot of people get nervous before a test because they didn’t have enough time to study, or because they have not yet developed effective study habits. If that’s what you’re here to read about, be aware: I don’t consider that to be genuine test anxiety. That is a very rational fear of doing poorly on a test that you haven’t adequately prepared for. The way to calm those nerves is simple: study harder and/or study better. But if you feel irrational fear despite having amply studied, find that your mind still goes blank on the test despite knowing all the answers before and after it, and/or make many careless mistakes despite being well-prepared, the rest of these tools could be useful to you.
- See a doctor. First, I strongly recommend that anyone suffering from severe test anxiety see a licensed medical or mental health professional. Depending on your situation, you may be referred to a specialist for further testing. This is not just a legal disclaimer: I have had students whose test anxiety was rooted in an undiagnosed medical condition or learning disability. Once they were diagnosed, they were able to take steps to combat the underlying cause, and their test anxiety was greatly reduced.
Over the next week, I’ll describe various methods you can use to ease test anxiety and even prevent it altogether. But for now, if you suffer from test anxiety, take heart in the fact that you are not alone. Many others like you deal with the same thing, and the solutions they have found can help you, too.