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Test Anxiety

It’s normal to be on edge before you take an exam—but severe dread or anxiety can impact your performance.


Many students experience some level of anxiety as they prepare for and take exams. While showcasing your knowledge in a test format can be nerve-wracking, stress can also motivate you to think more critically and prepare--which is a good thing! However, test anxiety, or overwhelming anxiety or fear before a test, can make it difficult to demonstrate what you know.

You may be experiencing test anxiety if you have racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, or feelings of dread prior to an exam. You may also experience physical symptoms like nausea, headaches, sweating, or a fast heartbeat. It's important to address these symptoms early so they don't impact your long-term success in school. Below are some suggestions for taking charge of your test anxiety.

Girl working on computer
Practical Study and Test Taking Skills
Improving the way you study for and take tests is the best way to overcome test anxiety. Try the following:

  • Study skills
    • Attend every class, participate, and take notes.
    • Plan and follow a regular study schedule. Don’t try to “cram” right before the exam.
    • Know what you’re studying for. Open-book? Multiple choice? Essay? This helps you know what and how you need to study.
  • Test-taking skills
    • Preview the exam and budget your test-taking time.
    • Read all directions and questions thoroughly.
    • Just start. Staring at a blank test might increase anxiety. Answering a few questions will build up your confidence.
    • Don’t be afraid to skip questions if you don’t know the answers. You can come back later.
    • Save time to review the test once more and make sure you answered everything.
Students studying together
Physical Needs
It can be easy to just focus on study and test-taking skills, but your physical well-being is just as important! Don't forget to:

  • Exercise! Regular exercise helps to reduce stress and has been proven to improve memory function.
  • Get enough sleep. Skipping sleep to study the night before an exam actually makes you more likely to do poorly on the exam.
  • Avoid caffeine. Caffeinated beverages, including energy drinks, can increase feelings of anxiety.
  • Eat right. Stay sharp by getting proper nutrition and hydration. Low blood sugar (from not eating) can impact brain function.
  • Wear comfortable clothes. You don’t want to be bothered by itchy material or too-tight clothing when you’re taking a test.


Deep breathing. Deep breathing can help calm a racing heart and/or mind. If you’ve never done deep breathing before, try the steps below:

  1. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 7 seconds.
  2. Slowly exhale the air through your mouth for 7 seconds.
  3. Repeat for a few rounds until you feel your body start to relax.

Progressive muscle relaxation. In this technique, you slowly tense and relax your muscles, one-by-one. This teaches you to consciously relax your muscles to feel calm. Here’s a brief overview:

  1. While inhaling, contract one muscle group (for example your feet) for 5-10 seconds, then exhale and suddenly release the tension in that muscle group.
  2. After giving yourself 10-20 seconds to relax, move on to the next muscle group (for example your calves).
  3. While releasing the tension, try to focus on the changes you feel when the muscle group is relaxed. Imagery may be helpful in conjunction with the release of tension, such as imagining that stressful feelings are flowing out of your body as you relax each muscle group.
  4. Gradually work your way up the body contracting and relaxing muscle groups.
Line of students taking test
Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is the process of changing your thoughts to change how you’re feeling. Some of the following ideas can help you restructure your thoughts:

  1. Use positive self-talk. Come up with a mantra that you can repeat to yourself like, “I can do this” or “I worked hard and am going to do my best.”
  2. Let go of perfectionism. There is no way to know or prepare for every possible detail, and that’s okay.
  3. Visualize yourself doing well. Take time to remember past successes.
  4. Put things in perspective. Your upcoming exam is important, but your entire future doesn't depend on it. It’s not a life-or-death situation.
  5. Don’t think about how you might be doing during the exam. It's hard to guess accurately, and thinking about your score will only increase your anxiety.
  6. Challenge unhelpful thoughts. If an unhelpful thought comes up, replace it with a more helpful one. For example, if you think, “I’m a failure if I do badly on this test,” try thinking instead, “I’m doing the best I can and if I do poorly, I’ll know what to study better next time.”
Girl giving a thumbs up.
After the Exam
You did it! Take a moment to celebrate that you made it through the exam. Remember that even if you didn’t do as well as you had hoped, one test does not reflect who you are as a person, or whether you will be successful in the future. You are far more than your performance on any one test.

Now reward yourself! Take the time for a much-deserved break and do something you enjoy before studying for your next exam or jumping to your next assignment.


Why we choke under pressure and how to avoid it

Ten ways to overcome test anxiety by the Princeton Review.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): A Positive Psychology guide.

Marty Lobdell. Study Less Study Smart.

*Please note that selecting any of these links will redirect you away from Ensign College's website. Because websites are constantly changing, Ensign College does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of this information.


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