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How to Beat Test Anxiety in College


Most collegiettes know the feeling: You sit down to take a test and you feel a few butterflies in the pit of your stomach. You go over definitions and formulas in your head one last time, take a deep breath and pick up your pencil with a steady hand.

But what if that’s not what happens? What if you sit down to take a test and your mind suddenly goes blank, your stomach twists itself into knots and you start to feel faint?

Sound familiar? You’re experiencing test anxiety, a very real type of anxiety that sets in before a test or exam. “Everyone becomes anxious before an exam,” says Dr. Roy Stefanik, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. “Some degree of anxiety helps in preparation and focus, but too much anxiety can cause poor outcomes.”

Test anxiety affects more college students than you might expect, but it’s not talked about very often. If you think you may suffer from test anxiety, you’re not alone, and we’re here to help you understand it and kick it to the curb so you can feel calm and confident for your next big test.

What causes test anxiety

Test anxiety has many potential causes, and understanding what triggers your anxiety can help you determine the best way to tackle it. It’s important to keep in mind thatanxiety can often be passed down from your parents, according to Dr. Stefanik: “Anxiety often has a genetic component, particularly in the offspring of anxious mothers.” If your siblings or parents struggle with test or performance anxiety, that could explain why you do, too.

If you’re the type of person who has a fear of failure and needs to excel at everything, test anxiety could be a result of your fear of not doing well. “Although obsessiveness can improve test scores, it can wreak havoc on one's emotional state, and a fear of failure (with either real or imagined consequences) can contribute to test anxiety,” Dr. Stefanik says.

If your train of thought before a test is something along the lines of, “If I don’t do well on this test, then my overall grade will probably drop a letter grade, and then that will knock my GPA down, and then I won’t be in the range of ideal candidates for my dream graduate school and I’ll end up living at home with my parents forever,” then you might have a fear of failure, which will cause you to be incredibly anxious about any exams or performance tests.

Similarly, a traumatic test-taking experience from the past, like bombing a calculus midterm or having a panic attack before the SAT, can leave a bad taste in your mouth and give you major anxiety about all future tests, says Dr. Stefanik, “particularly if the person bombing the test relies heavily on her academic performance as a measure of her self-worth.” Test anxiety can be your brain’s way of avoiding any more trauma by simply shutting down when faced with a similar situation.

The final common reason for test anxiety is unpreparedness. If you know you should have stayed in last night and studied but you went out anyway, you’re bound to have more than your usual amount of anxiety when you sit down to take your test the next day. Feeling underprepared happens to most collegiettes at one point or another, but if you feel that way before every test, your study skills (or lack thereof) might be to blame.

Signs and symptoms

Before we get into exactly what the signs of test anxiety are, it’s important to realize that there is a difference between the usual pre-test jitters most collegiettes experience and actual crippling test anxiety.

“Although there is no formal DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] diagnosis of test anxiety, it is a very real phenomenon,” Dr. Stefanik says. “When you have excessive uneasiness, worry, fear or apprehension about the outcome of an exam to the point that it hinders your performance or impairs the quality of your life, it becomes a problem.”

You may have test anxiety if your nervousness about an upcoming test keeps you from sleeping at night, affects your appetite or keeps you from enjoying activities you usually love. It’s normal to have a bit of trouble falling asleep the night before a midterm, but if you consistently struggle to fall asleep for several nights before a standard test, there’s probably a bigger problem at hand.

While there is no official diagnosis for test anxiety, your doctor or college counselor will be able to determine whether you suffer from test anxiety based on your symptoms. The telltale sign is “blanking out” during a test. It’s like everything you knew disappeared from your brain, and you can’t recall a single flash card or key term. This feeling of “blanking out” is one of the most common signs of test anxiety and often the most upsetting for collegiettes.

In addition to “blanking out,” physical symptoms of test anxiety can include headache, nausea, stomachache, excessive sweating, rapid heartbeat and light-headedness. It’s one thing to feel butterflies before an exam, but if you’re doubled over or you feel like you might pass out, it’s probably something more serious.

Mental or emotional symptoms like excessive anger, fear, helplessness or negative thoughts can all suggest serious anxiety associated with test taking. You may even experience panic attacks, which can show up out of nowhere and make you feel an intense fear or discomfort.

“Panic is a sense of impending doom, like something bad is going to happen out of nowhere,” Dr. Stefanik says. “Along with terrible emotional feelings, the physical aspects can be terrifying, including chest pain, shortness of breath, numbness, tingling, nausea or light-headedness.”

Some girls get panic attacks during particularly stressful situations, but if you experience these attacks before every test or exam, they’re almost certainly related to test anxiety.

How to cope

Any sort of anxiety is debilitating, but anxiety surrounding a heavily weighted test can be crippling. Luckily, there are a number of proven ways to ease your level of anxiety considerably, which means less stress and more success!

1. Eat and drink healthily

With all the studying you’ll be doing, it’s important to stay healthy and keep your body (and your brain) fueled!

Before you study, stop by the dining hall for a low-fat, high-protein snack, like Greek yogurt, grilled chicken or part-skim mozzarella cheese. These snacks will give you energy and keep you focused without causing you to crash later on.

It’s also important to stay hydrated to keep you healthy and avoid fatigue, so aim to drink eight to 10 eight-ounce glasses of water a day. You can use this CamelBak calculator to determine how much water is right for your frame and lifestyle.

2. Get enough sleep

Once you’re fueled and hydrated, it’s time to tackle your sleeping habits! “Although it's tempting to stay up and cram the night before an important exam, I find it much easier to relax during a test when I've had a full night's sleep the night before,” says Brianna, a freshman at Indiana University. “Look over [the] material, but know when it's time to call it a night!”

According to Dr. Stefanik, you should aim to get eight hours of sleep a night, particularly before a test. Plus, pulling an all-nighter is bound to leave you exhausted the next morning, and you’re more likely to reach for coffee or Red Bull, which Dr. Stefanik cautions against. “Avoid caffeinated drinks – they can worsen anxiety!” he says.

If you follow your study schedule, you shouldn’t be cramming the night before your test and you can get a good night’s sleep.

3. Exercise

If you don’t already, it’s a good idea to incorporate some light exercise into your daily routine to give your mind a chance to focus on something other than schoolwork. Dr. Stefanik recommends yoga to help ease anxiety.

Working out also increases endorphins, making you happier and less stressed. The next time you hit a study wall, head outside for a quick jog or a brisk walk to mix up your surroundings and take your mind off of the things that are stressing you out.

4. Visit your counseling center

While you obviously need to keep your body healthy, it’s just as important (if not more important!) to keep your mind healthy. If you suffer from test anxiety, it’s a good idea to visit your school’s counseling center to talk to someone.

College counselors can help you create a study schedule or plan of action for your next big test and may even help you receive extra time on your test if he or she feels as though you would benefit from it. Most college counselors can meet with you as often as you want, whether that’s once a week or just before midterms or finals.

If you consult with your counselor and find that you still experience test anxiety regularly, you might want to consider anti-anxiety medications. “If necessary, medications can be helpful,” Dr. Stefanik says. “[For example], there are beta blockers, which are used to treat blood pressure and reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.” Of course, talk with your doctor before starting any medications!

5. Study smart

To give yourself plenty of time to prepare, go through your class syllabus and add the dates of any important tests or exams to your planner ahead of time. You should aim to start preparing for a test at least a week in advance, but the more time you have to study, the better. You may find it helpful to make study materials, like note cards and study guides, two weeks before an exam and then spend the week before the test actually studying to reduce last-minute stress.

When it comes to study skills, experiment with a few different techniques to find out what works for you. Try color-coding your notes or making flash cards, or try reading your notes out loud or have a friend quiz you with your flash cards so that you can hear the material out loud. Alternatively, try going through your notes and highlighting the important material and then creating a condensed study guide. Having one or two pages of crucial study material is much less daunting than flipping through 20 pages of scribbled notes!

6. Practice

As important as it is to study, the best way to prepare is to practice! Create your own practice test by finding unassigned questions in a textbook, or look online for questions related to your study material. Professors will often provide a practice test or a link to past tests online, so take advantage of those.

If possible, Dr. Stefanik recommends “taking the test in the same room as the real one, with the same time constraints.” Simulate the test environment by turning off your phone and isolating yourself in your classroom or in the library, and give yourself only the amount of time you will be allotted during the actual test. Don’t pause to look at your phone or check Facebook, and try to treat the test like the real thing!

7. Keep calm the day of the test

Before you get out of bed on the day of your test, try to breathe deeply and relax your body to set the tone for the day. Try guided meditation apps, like the Simply Being app. It’s only $0.99 and it offers a guided meditation for anywhere from five to 20 minutes. You can choose to meditate with a soothing voice and relaxing music or the sounds of the ocean, rain or a stream.

As difficult as it might be, don’t talk about the exam with anyone else before you take it (try headphones on the walk to the exam). If you run into a classmate who says he or she isn’t worried at all, you might start to feel insecure or stupid (obviously not true!), while talking to a classmate who is freaking out will only reinforce your fears about the test. Either way, talking to your classmates will only stress you out, so don’t do it!

It’s a good idea to take this quiet time before the exam to give yourself a little confidence boost by being optimistic. “In the third grade, my teacher had all of us write down [encouraging thoughts] before a test,” says Anais, a junior at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “It sounds pretty simple, but positivity can help influence how well you take tests.”

You might feel silly, but actually writing out encouraging thoughts, like, “You got this!” or, “I’m super nervous, but I studied as much as possible, and that’s the best I can do!” can help flush out feelings of anxiousness before a test to help you be able to focus on the material in front of you.

8. Don’t forget to breathe!

When you get to the classroom or lecture hall, remember to breathe. Anxiety often causes our breathing to become more rapid and more shallow, meaning our lungs aren’t taking in as much air as they should. To combat this, Dr. Stefanik recommends breathing with your diaphragm. Close your eyes and place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest and take five slow, deep breaths, breathing through your stomach and keeping the hand on your chest as still as possible. Do this before you sit down to study and right before you take your exam to center yourself.

9. Treat yourself after the test

Take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back, because you did it! Treat yourself, whether that means buying yourself a decadent Starbucks latte, getting a manicure or even just having a sweatpants-and-Netflix night with your roomie.

As stressful as college tests and exams can be, a little nervousness can actually be motivational if it’s kept at a reasonable level. If you prep for your next exam by staying healthy, developing good study habits and having a game plan for the day of the test, you’ll feel like the confident and in-control collegiette you know (and we know!) you are. 

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