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Strategies for Overcoming Test Anxiety


Most students experience some degree of anxiety when taking the ACT or SAT. These exams contribute significantly to a student’s acceptance into the college of his or her choice, so it is natural to feel nervous and anxious. However, sometimes anxiety becomes so severe that it adversely affects a student’s performance on the test. If you are one of these students, the following strategies will help you to reduce and more effectively manage your test anxiety on the ACT or SAT.


Laying the Groundwork

Being prepared for ACT or SAT can go a long way towards reducing anxiety on either exam. We’ve covered preparation strategies in depth in the past, but here is a quick recap:

  • Set a regular time to study
  • Chose a study location free of distractions
  • Break the test material into manageable chunks and take studying step by step
  • Review previous tests (both practice and real) to determine where you need to focus to continue to improve
  • Memorize test directions (These never change!)
  • Create a time budget for each sub-section and practice until you can consistently meet your budget
  • Address outside factors that may be contributing to your anxiety (stress over grades, extracurricular activities, friends, family, etc.)
  • Do not cram right before the exam; this doesn’t work for the ACT and SAT and can actually be counterproductive
  • Eat healthy and get regular exercise


Before the ACT/SAT

Here is what you should and should not be doing in the days and hours leading up to the ACT or SAT:

  • Create a checklist of what you’ll need for test day
  • Assemble everything on your checklist the night before
  • Review your notes the night before and then set them aside
  • Do something you enjoy that has nothing to do with the ACT/SAT
  • Go to bed early
  • If you can’t sleep, read a book, exercise, or do another activity that does not involve a backlit screen
  • Stay positive to avoid creating a negative feedback look that amplifies your fears
  • Get up early enough to have a light breakfast
  • Arrive a few minutes before the exam so that you have time to relax and center yourself
  • Pack a small, healthy snack and a drink for the break
  • Limit your intake of caffeine and sugar the night before and morning of the test


Preventing Anxiety during the Test

These strategies all about staying focused and in the moment to lessen the chance of test anxiety occurring:

  • If you cannot answer a question, move on to the next and come back at the end of the section
  • Focus on just the section you are working on; don’t think about the other sections until you get to them
  • Ignore other students; you are not competing against them


Coping With Anxiety during the Test

If anxiety begins to rear its ugly head during the ACT/SAT, use these strategies to get back on track:

  • Relax
  • Take slow, deep breaths
  • Take a moment to refocus on the task at hand
  • Use positive reinforcement: tell yourself that you have done and are doing your best


After the ACT/SAT

A post test self-assessment will help you figure out how you can improve on the next ACT or SAT. Be honest with yourself, but do not linger on the negatives:

  • Review how you did
  • Write down what did and did not work
  • Hang onto what did work for future ACTs/SATs
  • Create a plan to work on the areas you need to improve in
  • Stay positive: focus on how far you have come and not how far you have yet to go


Seek Out Additional Resources

While these strategies can help reduce test anxiety, they cannot eliminate it completely. If you still experience significant test anxiety after trying these strategies, there are additional resources that may be able to help. Check with your school for programs and counseling options specifically designed to help manage test anxiety. If your test anxiety is especially severe, consider talking with your doctor. Many students find that beta blocks help to reduce test anxiety, but only a medical profession can determine if this is the right choice for you.


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