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Test-Taking Anxiety for College Students (evidence-based strategies)

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

We've all been there. Sitting in front of a blank page, surrounded by our classmates, covered in sticky sweat, and wondering whether we have what it takes to do well on the test before us. That's test-taking anxiety for college students, in a nutshell.


Almost all of us will experience some anxiety about exams at some point or another, but for some college students, those feelings of unease during or right before the test turn into weeks of worrying and sleepless nights in advance of each and every exam.


As if the endless assignments and looming deadlines of a regular college schedule weren’t enough, exams can send stress levels over the roof. It’s not only students that feel the pressure, but their parents can, too. In a world where academic success is a top priority, the fear of failure can bring even the most confident students down. So, what can be done about test-taking anxiety for college students? In this blog post, we’ll dive into some effective strategies to help college students overcome test-taking anxiety and perform at their best.


How Prevalent is Test Anxiety in College Students?



nearly 40% of students are affected by test anxiety.

The good news? This means that the problem is relatively common and may affect your academic performance.


The problem is not just limited to college students; it can also surface in high school, graduate, and professional students.


Factors such as excessive pressure from professors, the weight of the exams, and fear of failure contribute to test anxiety.


Some more good news is that according to the Journal of Education and Practice:


There is little relationship between test anxiety levels and overall grade point average. Students who suffer from test anxiety tend to do just as well academically as those without it - but their test scores are often lower.

The long and short of it is that one test isn't going to make or break you. However, chronic stress, even in the form of test anxiety, can lead to other physical and mental health issues. Because of this, it's so important to nip your test anxiety in the bud before it gets the best of you.


Do you suffer from test taking anxiety?

  • Yes, all the time.

  • Sometimes.

  • Not very often, but I have before.

  • No, never.


Why Do I Get Anxiety When I Take a Test?

As a college student, taking tests is undeniably a routine aspect of life. Whether it is midterm exams or finals, it is pretty normal to feel anxious before and during a test.


However, what causes this anxiety in the first place - and why is it so bad for some people?


Pressure to Perform

One common reason why students get test anxiety is the pressure to perform. This pressure often comes from the thoughts of what will happen if they fail the test, especially if they have high expectations set by their parents, teachers, or even themselves.


The fear of not living up to expectations can create anxiety, which can, in turn, adversely affect test performance. According to researchers at UCLA,


...it's estimated that 40-60% of students have significant test anxiety that's caused by this pressure - and ironically, causes a reduction in overall testing performance.


Perfectionism

Students who are perfectionists are also more likely to experience test anxiety. Being a perfectionist means setting high standards for yourself, and when those expectations aren't met, it can create immense levels of stress.


For perfectionists, getting anything less than an A on a test feels like a failure, which ultimately leads to anxiety and stress.


Poor Test History

On the flip side, if you've performed poorly on previous tests, this can also contribute to test anxiety.


Negative experiences from previous tests tend to leave a lasting impression, which may result in negative thoughts and emotions about taking future tests, thereby heightening any existing anxiety levels you may have already had.


Lack of Preparation

Not studying enough or arriving at the test location with an incomplete review of the material can lead to feelings of unpreparedness, adding to the strong sensations of anxiety.


When you recognize you aren't prepared enough for a test, it creates anxiety that may erode your confidence levels and erase any knowledge of the test material you may have had in your head.


Low Self-Confidence

Confidence plays a critical role in test-taking performance. Students who lack self-confidence tend to worry more, be less assured of themselves, and, in turn, experience anxiety.


In situations such as a test where an even playing field of competition is critical, a lack of confidence can create intense fears of failure, leading to heightened anxiety levels.


Time Constraints

If you're taking a timed test, it can create panic and anxiety, leading to a distraction that profoundly affects the test score.


Not only that, but students who feel pressed for time tend to rush through the test, making crucial mistakes that could have been avoided.


What Are Exam Anxiety Symptoms?

So how do you know if you're suffering from exam anxiety? Here are some common symptoms.


Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms of test anxiety are some of the most common and may include sweating, shakiness, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dry mouth, dizziness, and headaches.


Severe cases of exam anxiety can also cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.


These symptoms can be uncomfortable and may affect your ability to focus on the task at hand, which is studying for and taking the exam.


Emotional Symptoms

These will likely be the symptoms you notice first - these emotional symptoms may include feeling anxious, overwhelmed, irritable, sad, or hopeless. You may also have trouble sleeping or have insomnia, leading to exhaustion and difficulty concentrating during the exam.


Cognitive or Behavioral Symptoms

These often blend into the emotional side of things, but cognitive or behavioral symptoms may include trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, negative thoughts, and difficulty making decisions. You may also find yourself procrastinating, avoiding studying, or engaging in other unproductive behaviors.


How to Reduce Stress and Anxiety During Exams

Now that you know what test anxiety is, what causes it, and what it looks like, here are some tips to help you deal with it on your next exam.


Study Smart

Be efficient with your study time! Plan out a clear study schedule ahead of time and know what you'll study, for how long, and when. Be sure to take frequent breaks during study sessions, as this can help to reduce stress and improve focus.


In fact, studies show that implementing planned-out study strategies result in a better performance overall. According to a study published in CBE-Life Sciences Edition:


students who reported having completed problem sets, explained concepts, self-quizzed, or attended review sessions earned 4.0–7.7% higher on average on [exams].

Don't Cram

Another key strategy for reducing stress during exams is to avoid cramming. Cramming may seem like a good idea when time is running out, but it often leads to increased stress and anxiety. It can also cause you to just memorize material rather than actually learn it - meaning you'll forget it the minute the test is over.


According to a study by Brown University:


We find that cramming does raise contemporaneous test performance substantially, but its impact fades out by about two-thirds the following year and by a further half the year after. Compared to fade-out estimates from other academic interventions, this is high.

So while you may find short-term gains from cramming, you really won't in the long run.


Instead, aim to study early and often. This will give you ample time to review materials and fully prepare for the exam. When you feel prepared, you're more likely to perform well and manage your stress levels a bit better.



Rely on Familiar Study Spots

Find a source of comfort in familiar study spots. By studying in locations that you're familiar with, you can reduce your stress levels and improve your concentration.


This place will look different for every student, but try to pick a spot and go back there each and every time you have work to do. It might be your bed in your dorm room, a certain table at the college library, or even a quiet table at your local coffee shop.


Have a Pre-Test Routine - and Follow it Consistently

One way to reduce stress and anxiety during exams is to have a pre-test routine. Your pre-test routine should include activities that help you calm down and focus your mind.


For example, you might spend 10 minutes meditating or doing breathing exercises before your exam. Take a moment to review your notes or listen to some music that relaxes you.


Whatever activities you choose, make sure to do them consistently before every exam.


Talk to Your Teacher and Attend Office Hours

If you're feeling stressed and anxious about an upcoming exam, don't be afraid to talk to your teacher about it. They might be able to give you some tips or strategies to help you feel better prepared.


Attending office hours is also a great way to get extra help and clarify any questions you may have - and you also win some serious brownie points with your teachers! It looks good when you advocate for yourself.


Just remember, your teacher wants you to succeed, so don't hesitate to reach out to them for help and support.


Put Test Dates on Your Calendar Ahead of Time

Another way to reduce stress and anxiety during exams is to plan ahead. Putting test dates on your calendar ahead of time will help you budget your time more effectively. This will give you more time to prepare for exams and reduce last-minute cramming sessions.


Plus, planning ahead will help you to avoid feeling rushed or overwhelmed during exam week.


Learn Some Relaxation Techniques

Learning some relaxation techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety during exams. Activities such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, can help you relax your mind and body.


According to recent research:


increases in mindfulness were related to decreases in test anxiety in this sample of college students.

Practice these techniques regularly, especially before exams, to help you calm your nerves and improve your focus.


Eat and Drink Well

The types of foods you eat can have a direct impact on your mood and energy levels. Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help you stay energized throughout the day. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding sugary drinks can also help keep you alert and focused.


Reduce Caffeine

While caffeine can be helpful when studying, it can also contribute to stress and anxiety during exams. Too much caffeine can cause jitters and nervousness, leading to procrastination and trouble concentrating. According to one study:

There was a trend toward increased current level of self-reported anxiety after caffeine on a visual analogue measure of anxiety.

Consider reducing your caffeine intake or perhaps avoid it altogether if you're feeling overly anxious.


Get Some Exercise

Getting exercise is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety during exams. Exercise releases endorphins, which can improve your mood and reduce stress levels. According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health:


... exercise can effectively relieve students’ exam anxiety.

Even taking a quick walk around campus or doing some light stretching can help reduce tension and improve your focus.


Get a Good Night's Sleep

Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night leading up to the exam. A lack of sleep can cause irritability, fatigue, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating, which all have a harmful impact on exam performance. It's also cyclical because:


...sleep and anxiety feed one another, as a reciprocal process, that collectively impairs academic performance, with direct effects on academic performance, but with implications for overall student health.


A regular sleeping schedule with a consistent bedtime can help improve sleep quality.


Rule Out Learning Disabilities

Undetected learning disabilities such as ADHD or dyslexia can impact exam performance - so if you've tried some of the other tips in this article and haven't had much success, you may want to get yourself evaluated.


These disabilities can make it hard to focus, read, and complete exams within the allotted time. Try to get diagnosed and get accommodations for the conditions if they exist. An appointment with the college disability services office can really help in reducing exam stress and anxiety.


Write Down Past Successes

When we're taking tests, we tend to develop tunnel vision and focus only on the negatives - which causes self-doubt and stress. Make sure you take some time to recognize your past successes, as these can motivate and affirm you. According to a study in PLoS One:


Long-term expressive writing of positive emotions appears to help reduce test anxiety by using insight and positive emotion words.

Write down a list of everything you've achieved so far - don't be afraid to get specific! This can motivate you to perform better and focus on your personal strengths, rather than your weaknesses.


Try an App for Stress Management

With technology advancing every day, there are many apps that can help with stress and anxiety management. The Calm app, Headspace, and Pacifica are some examples of stress management apps that help users stay calm, focused, and less anxious.


By teaching you to take deep breaths, relax, and do meditation, these apps can help reduce stress and anxiety levels.


Put the Test Into Perspective

Exams shouldn't be the sole measure of our intellect or self-worth. Understand that success in life is not solely reliant on getting good grades. While doing well in exams is essential, it should not be the sole focus.


Setting broader goals and looking towards the future can help put the exam into perspective, reducing the anxiety and stress that exams bring.


Make Plans to Do Something Fun After

Schedule something fun or relaxing immediately after the exam. This could be anything from going for a walk, having a meal with a friend, or indulging in a new hobby.


Having something to look forward to can make the test feel like a less significant event, and can help take mental pressure off of the exam.


Use Visualization and Deep Breathing Exercises

Visualization and deep breathing exercises can help prepare the mind and body for test-taking and can be done either before the exam or during breaks.


Studies support this. Researchers from Stockton University found that:


...a simple, feasible, and sustainable exercise aimed at reducing test anxiety is effective; and findings support the interference hypothesis in that test anxiety can reduce working memory capacity causing a decrement in performance on difficult problems.

Imagine your success in the exam and visualize the positive outcome that you desire. Inhale deeply and slowly count to 5, hold it for 5 seconds, then exhale slowly, counting from 1 to 5. Repeat and think of peace and relaxation.


Practice Good Test-Taking Strategies

Be strategic in tackling your exams. One good strategy is to start by answering questions you know first. If you come across a question that you don’t know the answer to


Also, avoid tensing up; instead, take a deep breath, relax, and move on to the next question. If it's a multiple-choice question, you can rule out the wrong answers to give you a higher chance of a correct guess.


Every now and then, do head-to-toe body scans to remind your body to remain calm.


Consider EF Coaching to Kick Your Test Anxiety to the Curb

Are you tired of feeling anxious before every exam? Do you struggle to focus during tests or find yourself forgetting everything you've studied? If yes, then it might be time to consider getting some EF coaching to kick your test anxiety to the curb.


As a college student, it's normal to face stress and anxiety during exams. However, if these feelings become overwhelming, they can hinder your academic performance and have a negative impact on your mental health.


Executive function coaching is a form of individualized coaching that focuses on enhancing the executive functions of a student - which are mental processes that help you plan, organize, and complete tasks.


The purpose of EF coaching is to help you build crucial life skills that lead to both academic and personal success. These include goal setting and planning, time management, monitoring progress, managing emotions, and prioritizing tasks.


They can also help build your working memory, which is essential for reducing test-taking anxiety:


One study from the British Psychological Society found students with good working memories good improve test performance even if they had anxiety!

EF coaching can help students learn how to manage feelings of test anxiety by providing them with tools that make it easier to manage time, break down large tasks into smaller steps, and monitor progress.


Ready to get started? You owe it to yourself to ace that next exam (with as little stress as possible) - and executive function coaching can help.


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About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

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