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Test Anxiety

Almost every student who takes a test feels some sense of anxiety. However, sometimes the feeling can be so intense that it affects performance, and sometimes with serious consequences. Test anxiety can be managed if you understand what causes it as this helps to gain control. 


Generally our anxiety stems from actual negative experiences, unrealistic expectations or perceptions that we hold. Part of the problem with test anxiety is it becomes a cycle of fear, avoidance and more fear. These positions can unfortunately make you frantic by creating images of catastrophic scenarios which have the ability to negatively impact your performance. These must be identified before you can work to reduce this power over you. Possible sources could be

  • A previous test experience that was negative
  • The thought of failure, ridicule and scolding etc.
  • Self doubt - statements like "I never do well in tests or I've never done Maths" etc.
  • Pressure: I need to get into my major or admission to medicine 


  • Recognize how you typically respond to stress (physically, emotionally, and cognitively).
  • Acknowledge your stress levels the days leading up to your test and on the day.
  • Respond to your stress. Determine what you need to do to reduce your stress and do it.
  • Remember - some anxiety or stress is normal and can actually enhance your performance


Whilst performing poorly on tests can have negative consequences; it is rare that a student's life or career is totally ruined by poor test performance. Spend your energy identifying what is creating the anxiety and poor test performance and try to improve on these. Work in advance and consistently, this will assist in your preparation and reduce anxiety. Possibilities include:

  • Look at ways to improve your study skills so you can prepare more effectively.
  • Practice stress management on a regular basis and before each test. Stress management includes relaxation techniques, good health habits, and positive self-talk.
  • Talk with lecturers or a counsellor.
  • Consider coming to the Counselling and Careers Development Unit (CCDU) if you feel you require professional assistance to deal with anxiety.
  • Identify, acknowledge and address negative thoughts that increase your anxiety. 


  • Get adequate sleep before a test. Cramming all night may get you through some tests, but in the long run, it's ineffective for adequate university performance. And, for some subjects, cramming just does not work to learn the material.
  • Start your day with a nutritional breakfast.  
  • Limit your intake of substances, including energy drinks. These tend to negatively affect concentration.
  • Wear comfortable clothing.
  • Do a ten-minute relaxation exercise before you leave for a test. This can be visualization, meditation, muscle relaxation, or deep breathing.
  • Listen to music that has a relaxing effect on you as you walk to class or wait in the classroom.
  • Come to the test early, with all materials necessary such as paper, "blue book," plenty of writing utensils, etc. Take some time to relax, stretch, breathe deeply.
  • Don't do last minute cramming or "obsessing" with classmates before a test. This is guaranteed to increase your anxiety and do little to substantially improve your test score.


  • Relax - take a few deep breaths before starting, increasing your alertness and reducing tension.
  • Pay close attention to Instructions, both oral and written - read carefully.
  • Skim the entire exam before answering anything, then plan your time according to the difficulty and value of each item.
  • Answer the easy questions first, then go back and do the more difficult questions. Pay attention to information in questions that may help in other parts of the exam.
  • Watch out for qualifier words in questions (e.g., none, some, frequently, never, most, etc.)
  • Watch your time management.
  • Focus on your work, not on what your classmates are doing. Even if some people are working faster than you, it doesn't t mean that they are more prepared. 
  • BREATHE! Ten deep abdominal breaths will help release tension and enhance your focus, especially if you run into a tough question during the test. Close your eyes, breathe, think to yourself, "I can do this. Relax", and resume work.


If you think more rational thoughts, you will automatically feel and act in more positive ways, despite your level of belief in what you say. The more you practice thinking rationally, the easier it becomes, and you will eventually believe it. Ideas to eliminate irrational thinking include:

  • Mentally yell "STOP!" when worries or fears cause you to become anxious.
  • Accept that you will feel anxious in a test. Accept that you will run into questions you can't answer, so there is no reason to get upset when it happens.
  • Daydream before a test. Fill your mind with pleasant thoughts to push out the anxiety.
  • Visualise before a test. Mentally rehearse what it will be like to succeed. Visualise taking the test successfully.
  • Focus. If you can't answer a question, focus your thoughts on answering the next one instead of 'catastrophising' that you won't know the remaining questions.
  • Praise yourself with thoughts like, "I can do this."; "I m doing fine."; "One question at a time."; "This isn't as bad as I thought." Even if you don't fully believe this, your mind doesn't really know that.
  • Catastrophise. Exaggerating the negative things that you think could happen can have a positive effect. You may see the absurdity in your thinking, and thus create more rational thoughts and take corrective actions.