You know the feeling. It’s the end of the semester, and finals are looming over you, like storm clouds threatening to ruin a sunny day. You can’t do poorly on this next exam or you won’t pass the class.
So you study hard. You’ve spent hours buried in textbooks but simply don’t feel prepared. Then, when the day finally comes and you sit down to take the exam, you feel that familiar pit form in your stomach and you freeze. Your mind goes blank, and the long nights spent studying feel wasted.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably experienced test anxiety before. And you’re not alone. According to the American Test Anxieties Association, between 16 and 20 percent of students have high test anxiety, and it is becoming increasingly prevalent.
While it is normal to experience some butterflies before an important exam, high test anxiety has been shown to negatively affect academic performance.
But you don’t have to let test anxiety control you! These tips can help you manage your test anxiety and rest easy before the big exam.
1. Study early
Cramming the night before a test is never a good idea. Trying to cover a semester of material in a single night is nearly impossible for most of us, so do yourself a favor and start studying well ahead of an exam. Getting an early start on preparing for an exam can help you internalize the information better and give you that much-needed confidence when you walk into the exam room.
Try to budget your time well by setting aside a portion of time every day to review the material. Make a schedule, cover a new topic each day, and stick to your study plan. Doing so will help you understand the material more thoroughly.
2. Meet with others — your professor, TA, or other students — to prepare
Your teachers are there to help. Many professors provide office hours to meet with them. Taking advantage of these kinds of resources can help you focus your study plan on the most important information.
If you don’t have this kind of access to your professors, create a study group with other students. Comparing notes and study guides will help you and your colleagues feel more confident about your preparation.
3. Don’t be a perfectionist
Remember, nobody’s perfect. In all likelihood, you won’t get every question correct, and you don’t need to! Equating success with perfection is more likely to build up your own stress than help you perform well on an exam. Put forward your best personal effort and be satisfied with the result. As the late, great actor Robin Williams once said, “There’s no shame in failing. The only shame is not giving things your best shot.”
Setting appropriate standards and realistic expectations can go a long way in calming your nerves and helping you perform to the best of your ability.
4. Get a good night’s sleep
Don’t stay up all night studying for the exam. Going into an exam tired and irritable will only make it harder to think. Go to bed early and wake up early. Leave some time to go through your morning routine, which will help you feel calm and collected when it’s time to take the test.
Staying up all night frantically preparing for an exam will only ramp up your anxiety and make you dread stepping into the exam room. Getting a good night’s sleep will make sure that you go into the exam feeling fresh and focused.
5. Stay positive
Combat negative thoughts with positive ones. Counteract the self-defeating voices in your head telling you “I can’t,” or “I don’t know the material,” with self-affirming ones (“I can!” “I do know the material!”).
If you have performed poorly on exams in the past, it can be too easy to focus on old struggles. Rather than dwelling on the past, set your sights on the preparing for this exam as well as you can. Just because you failed a test before doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of performing well in the future.
6. Identify your source of stress
Test anxiety is often a result of over-inflating the importance of an exam. Think about the specific reasons you are worried about the exam. Are you worried that underperforming on an exam will affect your self-esteem? Your parents’ approval? Your scholarships? Your career prospects?
Remember that your life does not hinge on this one exam. Success can come in many fashions and grades don’t dictate your value as a human being. Viewing an exam as a threat, whether to your self-worth or your future success, is not only inaccurate, but actively heightens your feelings of anxiety. Targeting the source of your worries can help you put the exam into perspective and calm your nerves.
7. Practice relaxation strategies
One of the best ways to deal with anxiety of any kind is by taking advantage of relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation. Certain kinds of exercise, such as running, swimming, or biking can also help with dealing with stress. Getting outside, taking in the sunlight, and breathing in the fresh air can do wonders in helping you achieve a sense of calm.
Try out a variety of these techniques to find out what works for you. Making relaxation strategies a part of your everyday life can do wonders to improve your mental well-being and help you achieve a state of calm.
8. Keep a clear and focus mind during the test
Once you begin taking the exam, be sure to stay calm and focus on the task at hand. If you feel unsure about a question and start to feel a sense of anxiety creeping up, take a deep breath and try to achieve a sense of calm. Read the directions carefully and answer each question with care and intention.
Time management and deliberate planning is an effective tool in trying to stay focused during the exam. Remember to keep your eyes on the clock and don’t let yourself fall too far behind. Taking a quick look over the exam before you begin can help you decide how to allot your time and energy. Answer the questions you are confident about first and then move on to the more challenging ones. Staying on track will help you avoid that last-minute sense of panic.
9. Don’t stress over a little anxiety
Understand that a little bit of anxiety before a big exam is a natural feeling. We all get butterflies before exams. As long as you don’t let it overcome you, it can even help motivate you to work hard and take the exam seriously. Keep things in perspective, work hard, and be satisfied with your effort. Doing so will ensure that you put your best work forward.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.