Tips for managing test-taking anxiety

By: Christi Sabin

Photo by Jerine Lay, obtained from Flickr under CC license.

Photo by Jerine Lay, obtained from Flickr under CC license.

It’s that day–nobody’s favorite day–TEST DAY! But you studied hard, you know you know the material, so you should do just fine, right? In theory, yes, yet something starts to happen when you sit down with that test–your mind starts racing, your heart starts pounding, you feel so nervous and you don’t know why–then you suddenly cannot remember the material you studied! If this sounds like you, then you are experiencing test anxiety. Now, of course you will feel anxious if you know you are not prepared for a test–as you probably should be, but what I am talking about here is an inability to focus and concentrate on a test when you have properly prepared for it. I will discuss some ways in which you can overcome the overwhelming feelings of test anxiety and perform to the very best of your ability.

  1. Unload: Recent research has shown that students who write down their fears about the exam right before taking it tend to do better. This is because when you are nervous about taking your exam, your working memory becomes overloaded, so dumping out the fears on paper frees up space in your mind to better concentrate. The time allotted for writing was 10 minutes in these studies, so try to make time before the exam if you are able to.
  2. Just breathe: Deep belly breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing) can relax the physiological stress symptoms associated with stress very quickly. While you are sitting, just breathe in slowly through your nose and let the air come down to your belly, and let your belly expand fully, then slowly exhale through your mouth or nose. Repeating this a few times should decrease your blood pressure and heart rate, and leave you feeling more relaxed. I would recommend practicing this before test day so you know how to do it properly, it sounds easier than it is, we tend to breathe in more rapid and shallow breaths in our day-to-day hectic lives.
  3. Go to your happy place: Use visualization to imagine a calm, peaceful place, or just anything that brings you a sense of calm that you can imagine. This in and of itself can be useful, but there is also a technique called the ‘Palming Method’, which involves placing the palms of your hands over your eyes (without touching the eyes) and placing your fingers on your forehead so that you are basically cupping your hands over your eyes. Visualization with or without using the palming method in combination with the deep breathing described above can help to physically relax you even further.
  4. Combat negative thinking: If you tell yourself you are going to fail, you probably will. Make sure to keep counteracting this negative self-talk with positive statements, the power of your thoughts is indeed a powerful thing. If you practice the relaxation techniques above, you may find it easier to think positively when you are in a relaxed state.
  5. Start with what is easier for you: On a multiple-choice exam, start with the questions that you know right off the bat, and then go back to the ones you were not as sure of the second time around. By this time, you should be feeling more relaxed and confident, so you will be thinking more clearly.
  6. Don’t rush: It can be anxiety-provoking to see other students finishing their tests first, but that doesn’t mean that you should rush as well. I always go over my exam one final time to make sure I didn’t make any careless errors the first couple of times around.
  7. Go with your gut: Most of the time it’s better to stick with the answer you chose originally. Sometimes nervousness can cause us to second-guess ourselves, but only change your answer if you know that you got it wrong because you misunderstood or read it wrong the first time around, or maybe you guessed the first time and now the information has come flooding back to you since you are (hopefully) more relaxed.


Harvard Medical School. (2009). Take a deep breath. Retrieved from

Middle Tennessee State University. (n.d.). Survival Strategies for Taking Tests. Retrieved from

Nauert, R. (2011). Journaling Before Exam Can Relieve Test Anxiety. Psych Central.    Retrieved on October 24, 2013, from

University of Houston-Clear Lake Counseling Services. (n.d.). Test Anxiety. Retrieved from

University of Illinois at Chicago Academic Center for Excellence. (2012). Strategies of Multiple Choice Exams. Retrieved from

Worchester Polytechnic Institute. (n.d.). How to Reduce Test Anxiety. Retrieved from