Dealing with Test Anxiety

Most people feel some level of anxiety before taking an important test. This is normal. However, for some people, test anxiety interferes with their ability to either study for the test or to perform according to their abilities while taking the test.

Test anxiety can cause either physical or mental symptoms, or both and can be caused by a number of different factors.

Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of test anxiety include:

Nausea or upset stomach

Stomach cramps

Racing heartbeat


Perspiring or sweating

Tense muscles

Mental Symptoms

Mental symptoms of test anxiety interfere with the ability to take the test or to study for the test according to your ability. Some of the ways this occurs include:

Blanking out and forgetting knowledge you previously learned

Inability to organize thoughts

Difficulty understanding questions

Making careless mistakes

Forgetting key concepts

Reading material over several times without understanding

Inability to concentrate or focus while studying

Strategies to Help with Test Anxiety

Test anxiety, many times, is irrational. For most people, once they study for the test and have the ability to complete the test, a passing grade should be possible. Test anxiety can occur for several different reasons and strategies for coping with this type of anxiety would depend on why someone may become extremely nervous during test situations.

1) You feel nervous because you don't know about the test.

This most often happens on standardized tests. The test may be unknown and therefore scary. For these tests, information is normally available. The tester can find out basic information, such as; the number of questions, the form of the questions (multiple choice, etc), subject matter included in the test, and how the test is scored. This type of information can provide a small level of confidence to the tester. In addition, some standardized tests provide sample questions or preparation booklets to help you learn about the test.

2) You tell yourself you will do poorly on the test.

Negative thoughts can greatly interfere with our ability to take tests. The more we tell ourselves we will do poorly or that we are not smart enough, the more we begin to believe these things. Changing our thoughts is a difficult process but can be done. One way is to write down each time you have a negative thought and write down a replacement thought. For example, if you think, "I always do poor on tests" you can try to replace this thought with "I have developed a better way of studying and can use this to do better on this test."

3) You are not confident in your knowledge of the subject matter.

This can be true or not true. Before you reorganize your study habits, think about whether this is a "negative" thought process or if you are truly unprepared for the test. If you are prepared, but continue to tell yourself you do not know the subject matter, try to replace this thought with "I have studied and am prepared for this test." If you have not spent an adequate time studying, create a study plan to begin preparing for the test.

4) Physical symptoms cause you to do poorly on tests.

As much as you need to prepare for tests by studying, it is also important to prepare physically. Getting a good night's sleep and having a balanced breakfast before the test can help you to feel more prepared. In addition, relaxation exercises can help to relieve stress both before and during the test.

5) Frequent distractions take away from your ability to take a test.

It can be hard to concentrate when there is activity going on around you. This can interfere with either studying for the test or taking the test. For studying, find a quiet area where you will be able to focus on the material, away from distractions. If you are easily distracted while taking the test, discuss this with your teacher and see if you are able to take the test by yourself or you can sit in an area of the classroom with minimum of distractions.

6) Your mind blanks out when you sit down to take a test.

Nervousness sometimes causes people to completely blank out when they sit down to take a test. To avoid this from happening, take a moment when you get the test to prepare your test strategy. Look over the complete test before you begin to answer questions. If possible, write notes in the upper corner of your test. For example, when taking a math test, write formulas in the corner of your paper before you begin taking the test. This way, nervousness will not cause you to forget.

Test anxiety can create a great deal of stress. Tests are meant to measure the amount of knowledge we have mastered in any given subject, but often it does not. If test anxiety is interfering with your ability to succeed in school, talk with your teacher to find other ways you might be able to share the knowledge you have in order to improve your grade.


Test Anxiety, 1976, University of Buffalo, NY

Reducing Test Anxiety, 2006, Educational Testing Services

Test Anxiety, The Counseling Center, University of Missouri