Today, I want to confront an issue that almost everyone encounters in test prep, but almost no one addresses in any meaningful way: test anxiety. 

There, I said it.

Test anxiety is the bane of students, educators, and parents, often because we feel so helpless against it. Students with test anxiety are paralyzed by a fear of the test material, a fear of the results, and a fear of the entire testing experience. And, the worst part is that the fears seem baseless and unreasonable. While the tester may be able to master certain skills or concepts in a non-test format, once a test comes up, everything goes blurry, methods and strategies go out the window, and disaster ensues. Furthermore, most “experts” address this topic with a series of meaningless platitudes that really don’t do anything for sincere test takers who want to overcome their anxiety.

Well, fear not—or at least not so much—dear testers. 

I’m here to tell you that there are concrete ways to face down your test anxiety. With my suggestions below, you may not completely rid yourself of your worries, but you’ll certainly be able to decrease your stress and anxiety levels and, more importantly, find ways to manage them.

Usually, when a student displays test anxiety, everyone says, “It’s in your head!” 

Technically, this is true, but that doesn’t mean it’s always helpful. Sometimes, instead of helping them overcome the obstacle, knowing that it’s a purely psychological block can frustrate students further. Beyond that, sometimes the obstacle is NOT purely psychological. Some fears may be well-founded. My first tip is to find out what you should and shouldn’t worry about. Own your stress and face your fears, but by the same token, take some time to probe what fears really are baseless. For example, you may think you struggle with a certain concept, but an objective look at your performance on those types of questions may show that you are actually fine or even good at it. This is one of the places that working with a tutor or a coach can really be helpful. He or she will be able to pinpoint where you struggle and where you excel, and potentially cut your worries in half.

Another approach is to gradually accustom yourself to test pressures, so that you can see for yourself that the testing experience needn’t be so scary. Try the following:

  • Do a lot of full practice tests. This will help you build your general comfort level with the test, as well as your endurance and familiarity with test questions and format.
  • Work under timed conditions. You can work your way towards the appropriate time limit if necessary (ie, start by giving yourself more time than the test allows, and gradually shave off time as you progress), but working under timed conditions will let you to practice and build good time management and pacing habits.
  • Practice in a somewhat noisy place. Guess what? Your testing center will have distractions. There will be sniffly students, loud breathers, street noise, and other things that can fray your nerves, so it’s best to practice from time to time in places that have similar distractions. You’ll get used to the noise level and your brain will find ways to tune it out. You can still study and prepare in a quiet, distraction-free zone, but make sure to maintain some distractions when you take full, timed practice tests.

Sometimes, your expectations of the test are informed by what you’ve heard about it and its importance for your future, or your own testing baggage that you’ve accumulated over the years. One of the best ways to combat this type of anxiety is to practice the skills needed for the test on something other than the test. For example, make up reading comprehension questions for the novel or newspaper article you’re reading. You’ll build your confidence in your abilities, and then you can try something in test format. If there’s an alternative test option you can take—like the ACT instead of the SAT—try working on materials for that other test. You’ll get practice with the skills you need, from content to timing, without the stress that seems to automatically come with the test. And, who knows—you might find out that the other test is better for you.

Finally, there are a lot of behavioral habits and skills you can develop that will help you manage your test anxiety:

  • Set a routine. Do regular study, practice, and tests at times relevant to your test situation. For example, if you know your test is going to be administered on a Saturday morning, do practice tests on Saturday mornings! Also, set up a routine for before your scheduled study time to get you in the right frame of mind. Eat a light breakfast, get good sleep for several nights prior, stretch, and do some warm-up problems before you begin.
  • Meditate and/or do focus exercises. Learning to quiet your mind is a skill that has benefits beyond your test. You’ll find more balance in your life, be more efficient, and stay in control of your emotions more easily, all without berating or judging yourself. Staying present is a major key to fighting test anxiety, as anxiety is all about fearing the future, or worrying that past bad experiences will recur. Instead, learn to keep your full attention on the material that is in front of you now.
  • Laugh before studying, practicing, or testing. Studies have shown that laughter releases endorphins and can boost your confidence.
  • Maintain good posture and an aggressive attitude towards the test. Sitting up straight will help you combat fatigue, and just as important, it will help you feel in control of the test. Don’t cower at your desk; instead, lean slightly forward and intimidate that test booklet!
  • Internalize the guidance of your tutor or coach. If you’ve worked with someone on the test material and strategies, do your best to internalize his or her voice. Then, when you feel that paralysis coming on, you can ask yourself, “What would my tutor say here?” and have an answer that will be helpful.

Remember, keeping things in perspective will also help you relax about your test results. For example, even though the SAT or ACT may seem all-important, you should know that most students take the test two or three times, and there’s much more to your college application than just your test scores. Start everything early—study well before you think you need to, and take your first test well before any application deadlines. This will give you enough time to study and work on other things without making your life too hectic. Don’t let a totally avoidable time crunch add to your stress.

Want to read more? We loved this article from the Harvard Business Review called "Overcoming Nervous Nelly."