Timed tests are stressful! Add in the pressure of college acceptance that is (sort of) riding on your test score, plus your natural desire to do your best, and it’s easy to understand why so many students feel anxious before – and during – tests like the SAT and ACT. Helping you handle this anxiety and stress is one of my main tasks as a tutor – and I’m finally sharing ten tips on the blog that REALLY work.
First, eliminate any surprises from your test.
1. Be prepared for the test content.
Here’s what you need to do to get prepared to face the content of the test:
- Take at least one full practice test so that you’re familiar with the test content and format.
- Learn the sections that will be on your test and the time you will have for each section.
- Use your practice test score to tell you what, if anything, you should practice, and then find a tutor or another reliable source to help you improve in those areas.
2. Be prepared for test day.
Use this test day checklist to make sure you’re ready. Don’t wait until the night before!
Set aside a few quiet minutes and mentally walk through the morning of the test, step by step from the time your alarm goes off until you arrive home from your test. Be detailed – eat breakfast, get dressed, gather your items, drive there, go through the test section by section, etc. If you run into anything that is uncertain – maybe you don’t know how to get to the test center, or maybe you forgot which test section come second – write that down and come back to it when you’re done.
Do this visualization several times before the test. You should see yourself doing well and finishing the test with a smile!
Next, let’s handle the tough stuff.
4. Accept that you will be stressed.
It’s unreasonable to think that you’ll walk into this test as cool as a cucumber, but know that literally everyone feels like you do. Stress doesn’t have to be bad! Stress doesn’t have to mean that you’re anxious about your test.
Instead, know that the “stress” you’re feeling can help your test score by giving you an extra boost of focus and energy to tackle your long exam. So, when you wake up feeling jittery, be glad and thank that boost of adrenaline for helping you make it through your 2, 3, or 4 hour test.
5. Don’t panic if you don’t know something.
If you did step 1, there shouldn’t be too many surprises on the day of the test, but no matter what you will encounter questions that look unfamiliar. That is just part of the test, and the test maker does it on purpose!
Since you know that a surprise or two is just part of the test, there is no reason to panic. You might have to skip the question or passage for now and come back to it later on, or you might just have to reread the question. The question might sound strange to you, but know that the concepts behind it are things that you have already seen on your practice test.
If you’re running low on time, that’s an even better reason not to panic – panicking takes too long. Just take each question one at a time and do your best. (And if you’re taking the ACT or SAT, use your last 20 seconds to bubble in any questions that you didn’t get to, since there’s no wrong answer penalty.)
6. Stay Positive.
Don’t be mean to yourself when you practice, and don’t be mean to yourself during the test. Telling yourself how slow you’re going / how wrong your answers are / how much more you should have studied won’t do any good, and it will take up time that you don’t have to spare. (Tip #8 has more strategies for how to refocus if you start to stress.)
Anxiety-Proof Your Test Day
7. Plan to take the test more than once if you can afford to.
Boom, lots of stress gone! Most schools superscore (take the highest score from each of your test sections, even if you get those scores on different test dates), so if you do great the first time you sit for the test, you can take some or all of that success with you – and take a lot of the pressure off. Register early and give yourself 2 or 3 chances to take the test. (Most students see a small – 1-2 ACT points or 20-40 SAT points – increase in their scores just from taking the test more than once and being familiar with the test day environment.)
8. Practice managing your anxiety.
Literally: get nervous while you’re at home doing some test-related homework or thinking about the test, then turn your feelings back around. Yes, you will have time to use these strategies during the test, too, if you still need them! Some ideas to practice:
- breathing (nothing crazy, just make sure you’re breathing regularly)
- relaxing your neck and shoulders with a few small stretches
- bringing your attention back to the present moment and out of your head by briefly doodling, coloring in part of the test page border, counting how many times the word “the” appears on part of your test page, using your finger to trace around a diagram or image on the page, and/or gently moving each one of your 10 toes and fingers one at a time. (These are all things you can do on the day of the test without calling any extra attention to yourself.)
- reminding yourself that you’ve practiced and put in a lot of effort, and that you know what you’re doing.
9. Build positive associations.
Why not make your test prep fun? Use stickers or colored pens when you do your work. Keep something citrusy around (real oranges work, or citrus essential oils do the trick if you’re into that thing), since citrus scents make us happy. Start your practice ahead of time so that you can just do a few questions a day and not have to try to cram (also good because cramming does not work for these tests). Get together with friends to study, if that’s your thing. Celebrate your successes along the way – every question you can get right is another point in your favor! Maybe even reward yourself every time you do your test prep homework – a cup of your favorite tea or a 10 minute break when you’re done, or a bigger reward if you do all your homework for the week.
10. Don’t talk about it…
…with your friends or anyone else who might stress you out during the week before the test. That story about how your friend’s cousin’s brother failed the SAT because an elephant escaped from the zoo and stepped on his pencils probably never happened. Your friends who all got perfect scores might not be telling the truth either. And that guy who shows up late and is freaking out about the new calculus-Russian-art history section on the ACT definitely doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You’re already well-prepared and you know your stuff, and if your friends want to know why you keep changing the subject you can just send them this post.
Do you have any crazy tips that help you stay calm under pressure? Leave a comment and let us know!