Junior year is full of standardized tests—SATs, ACTs, SAT IIs, APs—but whatever the acronym, even the thought of sitting for hours filling in tiny scantron bubbles with a number two pencil can be enough to make your palms sweat.
Some anxiety before or during standardized tests is completely normal, but for many people, the anxiety can become so bad it begins to get in the way of their studying or their performance on the test itself. This is called test anxiety, and it can come with a whole slew of physical and/or emotional symptoms.
You may have experienced some of the physical effects of test anxiety before—headaches, nausea, sweating too much, feeling faint, your heart beating too fast, and more. In addition, test anxiety can make you feel fear, anger, helplessness, or disappointment. It can also make it difficult to concentrate, organize your thoughts, and retain information from studying.
Luckily, there are many ways to work towards overcoming your test anxiety—both on and before the big day—so that you can feel relaxed and do your best on any standardized test.
One of the most important steps in beating your test anxiety is figuring out how to recognize and then deal with the thoughts or beliefs that led to the anxiety in the first place.
The physical effects of test anxiety can be unpleasant and distracting, and sometimes they cause you to feel even more anxious. It’s important to learn to find ways to cope with the reactions your body is having and calm yourself down, but to do this, sometimes you need to start by understanding where those reactions are coming from in the first place.
For example, maybe you started thinking about taking the SAT. You begin to think about how your score will determine which college you can go to, which will determine what kinds of jobs you might get or which grad schools you can get into… Pretty soon, it starts to feel like one tiny test score is determining your whole future, and you start to feel anxious—sweaty palms, difficulty breathing, trouble sleeping leading up to the test.
Instead of giving in to this anxiety, however, try to think about the original thoughts that led to this physical response and about how they might not be completely accurate or how you can put a more positive spin on the situation.
There are a lot of things wrong with the thoughts in this example. For one, it’s true that SAT scores do have some influence on where you can get into college, but they are only a tiny part of the much larger picture that includes many other parts of your application—grades, essays, extracurriculars, interview, etc. Some colleges don’t even require standardized test scores, but even if your desired school does, you can always take the SAT again if you’d like to do better, or try the ACT (you can read more about the differences between these tests here). The next part of the original worry isn’t quite correct either—almost any college you go to is going to provide many amazing opportunities, so the idea that not getting your ideal SAT score will influence your entire future just isn’t true.
Obviously, everyone’s worries and anxieties stem from different thoughts. However, breaking down your thoughts and trying to figure out why you’re so anxious in the first place and then how to address incorrect or unproductive thoughts can help calm anxieties that are getting in the way of studying or taking tests.
Once you’ve been able to identify the thoughts that are leading to your anxiety, it should be easier to start to calm down. There are, however, some other strategies you can use to relax your body and further reduce any leftover tension. These include practicing various breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or drinking a very cold drink (the intense cold will help keep you focused and relaxed in the moment, as exposure to intense cold can be calming).
And for a few other ways to overcome test anxiety leading up to the SATs, ACTs, or other standardized tests, see the second part of this blog post!
For more information relating to test-taking, studying. or related anxiety, check out these posts: