Test Anxiety

Many students experience anxiety when they have a test coming up. This page provides information on test anxiety and gives advice on how to cope with it and keep it from controlling you.

Image of a male student in a large classroom holding his head.

Test Anxiety

Many students report that they experience test anxiety. For each person, the experience can be different. If we think of it as being on a continuum, then each person may rank their level of test anxiety as being at a different level of severity. Also, some find their anxiety to be more intense prior to the test and some find that their anxiety is most intense when they are taking the test.

When you look around the classroom just before the test, there are likely some kindred souls who are feeling what you are feeling about that test. Some are better at masking their emotions than others. Nevertheless, know that you are not alone.

Believe It Or Not, Anxiety Is Not All Bad

We can appreciate having some anxiety about a test because it means we care enough that we want to do well. We realize it has some value in challenging us to learn about something new and to demonstrate that we have learned it.

If you had no anxiety or worry about an exam, you could go to the opposite extreme and not study. You might even choose not to show up for the exam.

The problem is that those with test anxiety end up with too much of a good thing. If you think about rating your anxiety on a 10-point scale where 10 is the highest score, if your anxiety is at a 10, this can make you feel overwhelmed. Some even liken it to stage fright, where they feel frozen during the exam. Therefore, our goal is to reduce anxiety to a level that energizes you, but does not incapacitate you.

Tips for Coping with Test Anxiety

Preparation Can Help Reduce Test Anxiety

Some people cope with their anxiety about a test by avoiding thinking about the test. This means they also avoid studying as much as they need to for the test. This results in increased anxiety when they actually take the test since they really are not prepared for it.

Don’t let the anxiety control you. Instead, plan to study more in order to build your confidence about the material. If you are social, then plan to study in groups. If you are not sure what to study, ask your professor. Some professors will tell you if they want you to focus more on studying their lecture notes or on studying mainly from the books. It would be frustrating if you missed hearing a professor say they were not going to test you on a specific section of the book and that was where you had spent your time studying.

Study Smarter

You are more likely to retain information if you study in smaller increments over more days as opposed to cramming and trying to learn it all in one all-nighter. It can also help to quiz yourself. This helps you to retain the information and it also helps to prepare you for the testing environment since you are getting used to being quizzed. You can make flash cards by hand or you can make them electronically with quizlet.com. Practicing writing out essays helps you to retain what you have learned.

Do It Anxious

When you do what makes you anxious, that can help reduce the anxiety you feel the next time you do it. When you avoid what makes you anxious, that can increase the anxiety you feel when faced with the same circumstance. Therefore, by just showing up and taking the test, you are starting the process of reducing your test anxiety. Even if you don’t make the grade you were hoping for, you can still celebrate that you showed up for the test. You didn’t let your test anxiety win. Also, if you scored a 60 on the test, that is still easier to recover from than if you did not show up and received a zero.

Be Physically Prepared For The Exam

Often people go into an exam when they are not at their best. Some show up after pulling an all-night cram for the exam and they are exhausted. They may have consumed excessive caffeine and unhealthy foods in the process. When they start the exam, they might feel that energy crash.

The next time you take an exam, do what you can to feel physically well for the test. Plan to get enough sleep the night before. Even if you are anxious and have some sleep difficulties, at least let your body rest. Eat healthy foods that won’t cause your energy to spike and then crash. You might even find it helpful to take a walk outside before the test if that helps clear your mind of worry.

Pay Attention To What You Are Telling Yourself

Many people are critical of themselves when they are preparing for a test and when they are taking the test. They tell themselves that they will fail or that they aren’t smart enough. Sometimes they catastrophize the possibility of failure and tell themselves that if they fail the test they will fail out of school. With internal criticism like that, it is not surprising that a person feels anxiety when they take the test.

The first step in changing your self-talk is to notice it. You may not have realized how negatively you were treating yourself. The next step is to catch yourself when it happens and to replace it with kindness. Tell yourself the kind and supportive statements that you would tell a friend if they were nervous about a test. Sometimes we are much kinder to others than we are to ourselves.

Take The Test

When you are taking a test, it can help to re-read the instructions in order to make sure that your anxiety did not cause you to miss something in the directions. Don’t let yourself get stuck on an answer you aren’t sure of. In the interest of time, you might do best to give it your best guess and put a star by it so you can go back to it later if you have more time after completing the other test items.

Do breathing exercises to help you reduce anxiety to a manageable level and to focus more clearly. One way to do this is to imagine slowly breathing in the fragrance of a flower and then, when you exhale, imagine blowing bubbles. The key is to take in long slow breaths through your nose and then to exhale slowly through your mouth. This can create physiological changes in your body that reduce anxiety and can increase your focus.


After the test, congratulate yourself for showing up to take the test. That is the first step and the most important part of conquering test anxiety.

If you need more help and support as you conquer test anxiety, contact Counseling & Psychological Services in order to schedule an appointment. We are here for you.