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Test anxiety

It’s normal to feel nervous before and during an exam. However, if your anxiety is high, it can interfere with your ability to perform well on the exam. Feeling highly anxious is also no fun.

Causes of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety tends to increase when it feels like the stakes are high or when it’s possible you will not perform well. Causes can include:

  • Believing that your grades dictate your self-worth or intelligence
  • Perfectionism
  • Needing a certain grade to pass the class or get into a major
  • Under-preparing for the exam (ie. cramming or not studying)
  • Not succeeding on previous exams

How to Reduce Test Anxiety

Be prepared

Enter the exam confident that you’ve done the best you could to prepare.

  • Improve your time management skills if planning ahead is challenging for you. Cramming increases anxiety.
  • Use effective study techniques to ensure that you know the material and can recall it.
  • Know what to expect. Look at old exams and practice exams. Ask your professor what will be covered and how it will be formatted.
  • Study in the place where you will take the exam.

Avoid unnecessary stress before the exam

  • Gather everything you’ll need for the exam (pencil, calculator, etc.) the night before.
  • Arrive a little early to get settled and prevent additional anxiety about being late.
  • Anxiety can be contagious. That means our anxiety can be triggered or amplified simply by talking to someone else who is anxious. Avoid talking about your anxiety with other students before the exam begins. Instead, focus on grounding yourself.

Work with your thoughts during the exam

  • Keep redirecting your attention to the present moment. You can’t change the past and you can’t predict the future. Reserve your mental energy for the task at hand.
    • Examples:
        “I can’t change how much I studied. I’m going to focus on doing the best I can with how I prepared. Let me start with the multiple choice questions.”
        “Now is not the time to worry about my GPA. The most helpful thing I can do right now is start working on this problem.”
  • Aim to do well, not perfectly. Expecting yourself to get 100% on an exam can be both counter-productive and unrealistic.
  • Practice replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.
    • Examples:
        “It’s ok if I can’t answer this question. There are other questions I can answer.”
        “I may not get full credit for this problem but I can get partial credit.”

Take care of the fundamentals

Adequate sleep, movement, and nutrition are all essential to doing your best.

  • Take care of your health throughout the year.
  • Regularly get a good night’s sleep (7-9 hours).  One night of good sleep will not be enough.
  • Eat food that will help you keep your energy up during the length of the exam.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Limit caffeine. Too much caffeine can make anxiety worse.

What to Do When Anxiety Takes Over

There may be moments when your anxiety spins out of control and consumes all your mental energy. In those moments, you need to reset. You won’t be able to get rid of the anxiety completely but you need to help your brain shift focus back to the task at hand.

Get refocused with a helpful acronym: REST

REST model

Click for the HTML text of the REST tool.

After the Exam

It’s common to occasionally worry about your grade while you wait for your exam to be scored. However, post-exam anxiety can rise to a level where it interferes with productivity, relaxation, and self-esteem. Signs include:

      • You find it difficult to think about anything else
      • You prioritize trying to figure out how you did on the exam over other things you need to do
      • Your mood, motivation, or self-esteem is impacted
      • Your sleep is impacted

DO NOT try to figure out how you did

Many students hope that if they can get an idea of how they did on the test, they will feel better. But searching for this information before your score is released will use up your time and energy. It won’t give you a true answer. And it won’t help you do better in the future. The worst part? Trying to figure out how you did often makes your anxiety worse.

Why? Well, for a few reasons.

  • Talking about the exam with other students often increases anxiety. Remember, anxiety is contagious. Talking to other anxious students about their answers can expose you to more anxiety. On the flip side, talking to confident students can also make you feel more anxious. You may worry that you’re not as smart or prepared.
  • Trying to find answers to hard questions can increase anxiety. Getting 100% on all your tests is impractical so you probably got some answers wrong. This doesn’t mean you failed your test. Looking for answers to the problems you found the hardest post-exam can lead you to develop a distorted view of your performance. Curves, bonus points, exam adjustments, partial credit, etc. also make it nearly impossible to accurately assess performance.
  • How we feel affects how we perceive experiences. Our mood impacts what information we pay attention to and how we interpret that information. When we’re anxious, we tend to be hyperfocused on the thing we’re worried about. If you’re worried you didn’t do well, then you will probably pay more attention to signs that you did poorly. Rather than feel better, you’re more likely to feel worse.

DO focus on what you can control

Once a test is over, there is nothing more you can do with it until you get it back from your professor. But there are plenty of other things you can do.

  • Use REST! When anxiety spins out of control after an exam, you can use the REST model to get grounded. Coming up with your next action step can be a little more complicated than when you’re taking an exam so we’ve listed some ideas below.
  • If you are worried about your GPA. The exam you took is only one small part of your GPA. Your performance in your other classes matter too! Figure out what you need to do in the next 24 hours and channel your anxiety into doing well on those tasks.
  • If you are worried about doing well in the class. If you left the exam concerned that you don’t have a good grasp of the material, spend a few minutes problem-solving how you can fill gaps in your knowledge. Consider going to office hours or seek help at CLUE. Arrange a study date. If you got behind in your class, create a plan for how you’ll stay on top of the work. Do not spend more than 30 minutes creating this plan. Then focus your time and energy on taking action.
  • If you are worried that you didn’t study enough. Spend a couple minutes assessing what prevented you from studying enough. Time management problems? Procrastination? Difficulty managing a setback? Then come up with a game plan for how you’ll address the problem moving forward. Don’t wait for your next exam, start putting the plan into action immediately with your next task or assignment.
  • If you’re burned out. Feeling exhausted? Dreading all the work you have left? You may need some time to rest and recharge. Put some attention toward your sleep, movement, nutrition, or friendships to fill your gas tank before returning to work.

DO remember, your worth is not determined by your grades

Your grades don’t come close to capturing who you are as a human being. If you’re feeling preoccupied with your performance try refocusing your energy.

  • Reconnect with other things that matter. Take a few minutes to remember other aspects of life that give you meaning. This could include close relationships in your life, passions and hobbies, activism, sports, etc. Avoid assessing your performance in these areas. Instead, focus on what you find meaningful or fulfilling about them.
  • Practice gratitude. Feeling grateful is a good antidote to worrying. Come up with 2-3 things you feel grateful for and take a moment to write them down. These could be big things like appreciating a close friendship or small things like remembering that your favorite song came on the radio this morning or noticing a beautiful flower when you walk across campus. Practice gratitude daily as long as your worrying lasts.