How to Overcome Test Anxiety

From classroom tests to final exams to large assessments like the SAT and next week’s AP exams, students have a lot of tests to take. Our school system starts testing students at a young age, and everyone knows the connection that test scores have to magnet and private school admission, college admissions, and overall academic success. With all of this assessment, and the importance we place on the outcomes of testing, it is understandable to see why students are nervous about big tests. However, some students are more anxious than others. Some have such profound anxiety surrounding testing that they lose all ability to focus, resulting in incomplete tests and consequently low test scores.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Test Anxiety in a Nutshell

Test anxiety is a reaction to the test environment (both physical and emotional), self-knowledge about the individual’s ability to handle those environmental factors, and cognitive views on the importance of test scores and how they will affect the individual’s future. Rather than fear, which is an emotional reaction to external factors that the individual knows they cannot handle, anxiety is the emotional reaction to uncertainty towards possible outcomes of a situation. This ambiguity elicits the fight-or-flight response.

As a fight-or-flight response, test anxiety releases excessive adrenaline to the nervous system. This causes increased heart rate, shaking hands, loss of focus, and in extreme cases students can even have panic attacks. In an environment that requires concentration and calm nerves, these symptoms limit a student’s ability to put forth the best answer to test questions. Students experiencing test anxiety will even occasionally “blank out” on a question, experiencing a phenomenon in which their thoughts seem to completely freeze and they are unable to answer the question. In this scenario, the students become even more flustered, and will either skip the question, hoping that the next one is easier, or stare at the question until they run out of time

Looking at an anxious test taker, it can be difficult to understand the struggle. For parents and friends of the anxious student, it is important to remember that this is a serious matter. Even if you cannot understand why the student is so overcome with anxiety, to them this situation could be a nightmare. Statements like “just get over it” and “Come on, this isn’t that big a deal” are not helpful. In fact, by showing how unconcerned you are about the exam, the student may feel even more anxious, because now they feel like they are the only person who is so concerned about the test. They may be worried about why they can’t seem to control their anxiety, when everyone around them seems so calm. After all, most students aren’t freaking out.

Why Some Students Get Test Anxiety

Early research shows that somewhere between 16% and 20% of students experience test anxiety. From what we can tell in psychology, test anxiety comes from focusing on the wrong aspect of schoolwork. All students experience negative emotions during courses, but not all students react to those emotions the same way. Most test takers will focus on test performance and subject mastery (developing a conceptual understanding of the material, beyond reciting information on the exam), students prone to test anxiety focus only on the immediate performance, to the point that they actually refrain from focusing on mastery. This is the opposite effect from what teachers intend, as most teachers would agree that it’s more important for the student to learn as a lifestyle than it is to perform well for a brief period.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Furthermore, a meta-analysis on test anxiety interventions (found here) has reported that behavioral changes in the students results in significantly decreased test anxiety, with as much as 75% of previous anxious students finding that they were later not anxious over testing. Behavioral changes are mostly dependent on the student studying in a way that promotes retention and mastery of the subject material, rather than simply memorizing facts to recite on paper, then forget.

Parents should note that the most successful interventions in the meta-analysis were truly interventions, in which an adult speaks to the student about the way they approach learning and studying. If you feel ill equipped to help your child understand this, or if you think your child will not internalize all that you talk about, consider having a teacher or skilled tutor help them in this. A few weeks of one-on-one assistance can help the student develop a new method of learning and studying that sets them up to excel on their own in the future.

How to Prevent Anxiety

To find how to prevent anxiety, we can look at the causes of anxiety, and remove those factors wherever possible. Because test anxiety is born out of misplaced focus, the obvious solution is to redirect that focus. However, this is easier said than done. These students have misplaced focus because their views of tests are skewed towards the outcomes. It is important to remember that many factors weigh into college admissions (see Further Reading below). College admissions counselors will often say that a standardized test score is never the sole determinant of college admission, but rather test scores, Grade Point Average, and extra-curricular activities in conjunction. Additionally, test scores are not even the sole determinant of school Grade Point Average, as perfect test scores will not get you an A if you have low homework grades and do not engage in class participation. So while tests are important, they are not as important as students seem to think when they are becoming anxious over testing. School is a marathon, not a sprint, and overall performance is more important than how many facts you can recite in a 30-minute test period.

101039755Another helpful preventative measure is to harness the anxiety of exams in the days before the actual exam date as a driving force for studying. If the student focuses on the upcoming exam, and is mindful of the anxiety they will likely experience, they may be more motivated to study ahead of time. The student should remember that the better they internalize the test material, the more comfortable they will be during the test. Organize study groups, skim through class notes every day, and start early! Not only does cramming (last minute studying) not work, it can make students feel much more hurried and anxious.

Anecdotally, it seems that students do not always use the best methods to study. It is common for students to read their notes multiple times, but we know from psychology that this is not the most effective way to internalize information. Rather, memory is built upon associations, so students who remember the most are students who mentally build up the most associations between the subject material and other facets of life.


While it may be difficult for the typical student to understand, many students find themselves overcome with panicky test anxiety when working on an exam. The earlier test anxiety is dealt with, the better.

  • Test Anxiety can seriously limit test-taking abilities.
  • Be careful when talking to an anxious student: words can make them feel more anxious!
  • Since test anxiety stems from a skewed view on what’s most important, fixing this mindset can help students remain calm during tests.
  • Test anxiety is also a product of feeling underprepared, so students should make sure to study effectively! ‘Cramming’ probably won’t help here.


Further Reading:

Retesting on Standardized Tests

Comprehensive Look at How College Admission Decisions Are Made

AP Exam Preparation: A Guide

SAT and ACT Prep Advice for the Changes Ahead


Guest Author Matthew Rottmann is a tutor for General Academic and a student of Psychology and Business. He has a passion using Psychology to make school and work more productive and enjoyable for people, and is working towards a career in business consulting.