When you take a standardized test, mental attitude, stamina, and coolness under pressure are important qualities if you want to perform well. In fact, studies have shown that if you panic before taking a test, you hamper your brain’s ability to remember essential skills and responses that will help you to perform well on the actual test.
What is test anxiety?
Experiencing test anxiety is totally normal, but the good news is, it's also manageable. There is a lot of pressure on students today to excel at everything, and testing can feed into a lot of that already existing pressure.
Related: Wiser Ways to Study
Tips to reduce test anxiety
In stressful situations, our brain goes into a flight-or-fight response. So, to crush your next test, try to relax (we know, easier said than done!). Take a deep breath and center yourself. Reframe negative thoughts into positive ones and trick your brain into going along with it.
As you prepare for your test, consider what triggers test anxiety for you and identify ways to help yourself overcome it. Maybe you need to remind yourself that you studied, so you got this! Maybe you need to recognize that if you're struggling with a problem, others are too, and find comfort in knowing that. And maybe you just need to pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and keep moving forward.
How to prepare so you can stay calm on test day
We have developed the following plan to help you maximize your scores. Please follow this plan carefully because it really does work! Please note that this schedule assumes that test day is a Saturday.
Go shopping! These are the things you will need to have with you when you walk into the test center: #2 pencils. We recommend regular #2 pencils and not mechanical pencils because sometimes proctors won’t allow them (you can find some advice regarding proctors at the end of this). Pens are NOT allowed. And in the time of COVID—have your favorite mask(s) ready. Extra batteries for your calculator. Two bottles of water and two snacks—no candy bars; something reasonably healthy with little sugar. Sugar crashes don’t help you to choose the answers!
We recommend completing as practice one section of the test, four nights in a row. So beginning Monday night, take an English (ACT)/Writing & Language (SAT) section. If you have a huge paper due or a major test to take, it is okay to skip one night but then get right back to doing the practice test sections the following night. This is more of a stress reduction technique than it is a study formula. By taking a test section every day, you will remind yourself that you do indeed know how to solve the problems on the test. Your anxiety will be kept in check if you do this.
Complete a practice Math section with your calculator. Also, make sure that you know where the testing site is. If you do not know where you are taking the test, please drive to the test site location to make sure that you know how to get there and that there is no ongoing road construction impeding your route on Test Day. You may also want to consider having a parent or trusted adult drive you on Test Day. You do not want to be distracted or preoccupied by anything, or have something annoying occur while driving that may derail you from your mission.
Complete a practice Reading section.
Complete a practice Science test (ACT) or math no-calculator (SAT) section. Thursday night is also when you need to get a good night’s sleep. Research shows that teenagers should be getting nine hours of sleep a night. You need to relax yourself before Test Day and Thursday is the time to begin doing so.
When you get home from school, do a few problems from each of the test sections. And that is it. If you’re writing the essay, use this time to brainstorm and outline a couple of essay topics. Do NOT think about the test again until tomorrow morning. We mean it! No cramming, no memorizing 50 vocabulary words, nothing. You should know by now that the ACT and SAT are not tests you can cram for. You are finished preparing. All that is left for you to do is to make sure your mental toughness is set at maximum level. Watch a movie with friends, read a book, take a walk; do anything except more test prep!
Friday night you should pack a backpack and lay out comfortable clothes to wear on Test Day. The morning of Test Day is usually hectic and we have activities we want you to complete before you leave for the test site. Please set your alarm after calculating the time you will need to complete the Test Day activities listed below (and please check to make sure your alarm clock is working!).
Saturday: How to stay calm the day of your test
This is an important morning and we want you to be fully awake!
- Please do 25 jumping jacks (once you are out of bed).
- Next, please take a shower, even if you are a night shower kind of person (and no, we do not care that you won’t have time to style your hair perfectly).
- Then, for the ACT, do either one passage from the English section or 10 problems from the section that you are most scared of. Or do a couple of each type of problem from the SAT. Any 10 questions will do; we just want to get your brain to kick into gear.
- Finally: eat breakfast. The test takes far more energy than does sitting in classes all day at school. Even if you do not normally eat breakfast, you should eat something this morning. If you normally drink coffee, please drink your usual amount. If you are not used to caffeine, then do not drink coffee or Red Bull or any of those types of beverages. Also, if you have a cold the morning of the test, make sure that any medication you take is something you have taken before and that it is the non-drowsy variety. In general, you should not drink, eat, or ingest anything that you have never taken before within 48 hours of the test.
At the testing site:
- Make sure to arrive at the testing site at least 15 minutes early and with your photo ID.
- You might now be feeling anxious: sweaty palms, racing heart, short of breath. Do you remember the last time you felt that way? Probably when you were about to do something fun, like ride a roller coaster, or about to do something challenging but also fun, like play in an important game for your sports team. The point is that when your body starts freaking out that is not a sign for you to do the same. Instead, it is a sign that you should remember this is an important—but not impossible—challenge you are facing, one that you have been working hard to prepare for as best as possible.
- When the proctor tells you that you may begin each section, take one deep relaxation breath and then begin. This test is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Taking that one deep breath will ensure that you are centered enough to be able to answer those first few questions correctly in a calm, clear manner.
- During the test you will probably be given two breaks. Eat one snack during each of them to prevent low blood sugar. Please make sure you also drink something.
A word about test proctors and rough spots
- Most test proctors are great: they are normal, sane teachers earning some extra money by proctoring the ACT/SAT. A few, however, seem to be on power trips and will attempt to make your life more difficult (such as not allowing you to use mechanical pencils). Some will allow you to keep a bottle of water on your desk. Do not be the guinea pig. What we mean is that if others have water bottles on their desks and the proctor has not told them to get rid of them, then go ahead and put your bottle on the desk. During the breaks, it is usually okay to eat a snack but a few times proctors have been known to make kids throw out their food or refuse to let them eat. Again, do not be the guinea pig: if others are eating, then go ahead. If not, walk toward the rest room, eating on the way.
- There are two rough spots you might experience while taking the test—one physical and one psychological—and you can prevent both of them from happening. If you eat during both breaks you will prevent the physical energy crash that happens sometime around the fourth section. Psychologically there will be a time when you feel exhausted by what you have already done and overwhelmed by how much more you have to do. If you let these feelings take over, you will lose focus and you will begin to get more questions wrong. You can get through the test without hurting your score if you refuse to think about how much more you have left to do on the test, and just focus instead on the question in front of you. Tell yourself that that particular question isn’t so bad. Move on to the next question and tell yourself the same thing. If you avoid thinking about what you have left to do for about 10 seconds you will have successfully weathered this psychological barrier. By tackling one question at a time, you will make it through. Here are some useful websites for each test:
A note on test center closings due to inclement weather:
If it looks like there may be inclement weather, you should check the test-maker's website the day before and/or the morning of the test.
Yay! You're done with the test. There are some other items to deal with: you may want to order a copy of the test and your answers if it's available for that administration. You'll have to pay a nominal fee and complete a form to do so. This is particularly helpful if you plan on taking that test again.
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