Conquering Test Taking Anxiety

  By Linda Suen

(Test Preparation (ACT/SAT/SSAT/IELTS/TOEFL), English, Business & Management tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

In my last blog, I talked about the importance of practice. So you did everything you’re supposed to in preparation for your standardized test (SSAT, SAT, ACT, etc.) You took the Edge’s test preparation course, you’ve practiced a lot (you might have even taken our Drilling, Boot Camp, or Power course). You walk in, sit down to take the test, and you start to panic: your heart races; you experience cold sweats; your mind goes blank; you can’t remember any of the CQs or strategies you’ve learned… and you “choke” on the test! You think this is the end of the world!

Read more on Linda’s previous blog “Practice Makes Perfect!

student looking worried while taking a test in a classroom

Why does this happen? What can you do to combat this problem?

Here are 10 tips to help you with conquering test taking anxiety:

1. Don’t panic!

When I was completing my MBA at Thunderbird School of Global Management, the singularly hardest course I took was advanced managerial finance. We would spend hours preparing for our exams, where one question could take up to 30 minutes or more to answer. The best advice I received from my finance professor? Step number 1: don’t panic!

This is excellent advice because, accordingly to Malcolm Gladwell in his article The Art of Failure, “Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short-term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on.” See? Practice can even alleviate panic!

2. Don’t spend too much time on any one question

In the Art of Failure, Gladwell also mentioned, “Panic also causes what psychologists call perceptual narrowing.” That means people have a tendency to focus or obsess on one thing when they are under stress. When you find yourself spending more than a minute on a question and you still haven’t eliminated any answer choices, guess, mark the question with a large question mark so that you can return to it later if you have time left at the end of the section, and move on!

3. Take advantage of the strategy of “bootstrapping”

In a Psychology Today article, it encourages the tried and true strategy of “bootstrapping”. The idea is to answer the questions you’re sure of first, and then go back to answer the ones you weren’t so certain of previously. This is because answering easier questions can help to jog your memory or warm your brain up so that you can answer harder questions. Bootstrapping can help you “get in the zone” so to speak.

4. Always have a time management strategyTime is chasing a man

In order to combat “perceptual narrowing”, always have a time management strategy before you even walk into the test. Work this out section by section, as time management might be different depending on test content. Break up the timing within sections to create a sense of urgency so that you don’t spend too much time focusing on any one question.

5. Trust your instincts

In his book Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein defines instinct as “Intuition is the use of patterns they’ve already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns.” Always stick with your instincts on an answer choice unless you’re certain that the revised answer is correct, or if your first answer was just a guess to begin with. The jury is still out as to whether or not first impressions are always correct, but in my experience with test preparation, they usually are.

6. Don’t pay attention to the pattern of answers

A lot of students have a tendency to overthink standardized tests. Sometimes they answer the same letter for three or four questions in a row and they start to question the pattern of answers. According to this blog on the psychology of multiple choice tests, don’t pay attention to the number of letter that you’ve answered. “I’ve had 4 As in a row; the next answer can’t be A again.” If you’re thinking like this, you’re most likely over-analyzing the test.

7. Use context to help you retrieve informationTeacher writing test materials on blackboard

When you encounter a question that you can’t remember how to apply the appropriate strategy, think about where you were physically when you learned about that Classic Question or where in the Essentials book the strategy for this CQ lies. Reimaging where you were when you learned the strategy or CQ might help you relive that experience, and the strategy.

8. Confident and positive thinking really works

In this Psychology Today article by Dr. Scott Kaufman from the University of Pennsylvannia, confidence matters just as much as ability. The majority of research indicates that when people are placed in circumstances in which they are expected to fail, they will. On the other hand, when they’re put in situations where they’re expected to win, their performance shoots back up. Same person, different expectations, completely different results. So, adopt a confident and positive attitude at the beginning of your standardized test and keep it throughout the test: ignore the nervousness, alleviate pressure on yourself and pretend like you’re doing just another mock test.

9. A good night’s sleep can make a huge difference

Kid fall asleep during his test preparation in classAccording to this article from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, research suggests that sleeping helps learning and memory in two distinct ways: sleep-deprived people can’t focus attention optimally and sleep plays an important role in consolidation of memory. Lack of adequate sleep can have a negative effect on mood, motivation, judgment, and perception, all important qualities to have during a standardized test. Research even suggests that sleeping is more important than studying. My prescription? Get at least 7 hours of sleep a night the week before your test, or always.

10. Last but not least, back to practice – don’t cram

In this article from Social Psychology Network, spaced practice is better than cramming. Suppose you have a week to practice for the SSAT, SAT or ACT, is it better to study for 5 hours the night before the test, or an hour a day for 5 days? Research suggests that spaced practice is more helpful than cramming. Even though studying an hour a day for 5 days is the same total amount of practice as 5 hours the night before the test, ceteris paribus, spreading out practice throughout the week helps with learning and retention. So, try to avoid cramming.

Keep these tips in mind when you’re taking your next standardized test. Just remember, there’s always the next test. “Choking” on one test is not the end of the world.


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