Feeling stressed or nervous before a big test like the ACT or SAT is normal. Sometimes normal stress can become test anxiety: a physical, emotional reaction you cannot calm or control. The difference between stress or nerves and test anxiety is one’s ability to calm down and move on.
If you’re experiencing test anxiety, know you are not alone. Some signs of test anxiety could include: lower-than-expected test performance, forgetting test material, or physical discomfort.
Causes of Test Day Nerves
Feeling nervous during a test is not random; it is usually caused by mental stress. A few different stressors could be causing your uneasiness:
Lack of Preparation
Be honest with yourself. Have you prepared for the test? Are you doing well on your practice tests? Not preparing for a big test like the ACT or SAT (and knowing just how unprepared you are) can bring on test day nerves.
Perfectionism/ Fear of Failure
Maybe you have prepared – and you really don’t want to mess up. Perfectionism can be crippling when it comes to a big test with lots of room for error.
The silent room, the timed sections, the months of preparation, the cost of the test (not to mention the expectations of your friends or family) can create what feels like a high-pressure situation on test day.
Strategies for Feeling Confident and In Control During the Test
You can cope with nervous feelings and test anxiety through mental or physical exercises. No matter where you are on the spectrum, many of these strategies are great ways to approach stressful situations throughout your life.
Mental Strategies for Test Confidence
Prepare Well for the Test
If your test anxiety nerves stem from feeling unprepared for the test, then make a plan to prepare and take the test again. Find and stick to a study schedule that works for you. Get the help you need, whether it’s from a parent, friend, or teacher to do well on test day.
Keep in mind that how you care for yourself on the days leading up to the test makes a difference in how you perform on the test. So if test day is looming near and you did not do as much preparation as you had hoped, cramming is not the answer. You will be too tired to perform well.
Set Realistic Goals
Setting realistic goals can help you combat anxiety stemming from perfectionism, fear of failure, or pressure. How have you scored on previous exams or practice tests? How many questions did you get wrong and still get those scores? Remind yourself that you’re not shooting for a perfect score – you’re shooting for your goal score.
To take some more pressure off, think about all the test dates and when you can take the test again. You probably have more than one shot at the test.
Visualize Your Strategy
“Visualize” just means getting specific about how you’re going to achieve your testing goals.
You want to create a game plan for each section of the test: your pacing, the number you can get incorrect, what kinds of questions you know you struggle with. Rehearse this plan until you can “visualize” it from memory. When you are in the actual testing setting you can return in your mind to your state of calm and execute your plan!
Physical Strategies for Test Confidence
You can listen and feel your breath going in and out at any time. Focusing on your breath distracts your mind from worrisome or negative/unhelpful thoughts.
Consider beginning each section with 2 deep breaths. The seconds you spend breathing and clearing your mind will be recouped in the time you save later on as you fly through the questions stress-free.
Recognize and Replace Negative Thoughts (Cognitive Behavior Therapy)
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a method of recognizing and replacing negative or inaccurate thoughts with clear, positive thoughts. The most common method of CBT is recognizing the negative thought, interrupting the thought, and replacing it with a positive thought or action.
So when you are in a negative spiral, take a second to reorient yourself. Here’s one way to do so:
Stop. Put your pencil down. Sit up straight in your chair and check that your feet are flat on the floor. Roll your shoulders and take one breath. Say a positive helpful thought in your mind: “I’ve got this,” “I know what to do,” or, “follow the plan.” Then pick up your pencil as you breathe out and get started again. This only takes like 5 seconds and can really help soothe an attack of nerves.
Sometimes altering the way you view the test and its impact can radically improve your performance. No longer are you thinking of the test as your admittance ticket to the school of your dreams, but a puzzle you can solve! You have all the pieces, you know all the rules, and you are going to play and win!
Use the 5 Senses Calming Tool
The 5 senses calming tool is for when you are really freaking out – like having a panic attack or are about to have one. When you have a panic attack, you are so in your head you lose your sense of where you are. You need to reconnect to your physical body. This takes a bit more time but is very effective.
Stop, breathe, and go through the 5 senses. Find something in the room that you can see, that you can touch, that you can hear, that you can smell, and that you can taste. Do this slowly and take time to experience each sense. This activity takes you out of your head and back into the physical place.
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Own Your Test!
Remember whether you are just feeling nervous or experiencing test anxiety, there are several simple things you can do to feel more relaxed and confident.
You can prepare for the test. You can set realistic goals. You can create a plan for the test and review the plan until you can visualize the entire test. You can take a second when you need it to breathe. And you can take control of your attitude and recognize your abilities. This is your test! You’ve got this!
If you’re experiencing test anxiety, know you are not alone and there are many strategies to overcome test anxiety. Don’t feel shy about reaching out to someone for help. You don’t need to cope all on your own! A trusted teacher, mentor, or parent can help you cope with your anxiety or help you find someone who can help.