Test anxiety refers to the nervousness you might feel just before or during an exam.
Maybe your heart beats a little faster, or your palms start to sweat. Perhaps you feel overwhelmed by all the material you’ll need to remember. As the test approaches, you might even start to get a little nauseous.
If so, you’re not alone. Test anxiety is very common, and it can happen with any kind of exam, from an algebra final to a driving test.
However, research suggests some factors make test anxiety more likely:
- School level. Research from 2019 estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of undergraduate students have test anxiety, compared with around 16 percent of children in grades 6 to 12. Among adolescents, those in grades 10 to 12 tend to have more test anxiety than those in grades 7 to 9.
- Type of test. A 2020 study involving adolescents in Spain found that multiple-choice exams tend to prompt the least anxiety. Essay tests lead to more than twice the stress of multiple-choice exams, while oral exams prompt the most anxiety.
- Subject matter. The same 2020 study found that math tests are more likely to cause test anxiety than general subject tests. A 2016 study involving students in Saudi Arabia suggests nursing students are more likely to have high levels of test anxiety than their peers in different majors.
- Stakes. Exams tend to induce more anxiety when the consequences of failure are higher. In other words, a final exam worth 20 percent of your grade will likely prove more stressful than a weekly pop quiz.
A little anxiety is typical, and it can even help you focus on studying for the test. On the other hand, 2019 research on students in Malaysia suggests that severe anxiety could hurt your score in the end. After all, you might find it tough to give a test your full attention when the fear of failing dominates your thoughts.
Searching for strategies to overcome test anxiety? It’s not always possible to completely banish anxiety, but the tips below can help you do your best on any exam you’ve got coming.
One way to do your best on a test may come as no surprise: Know the material. If you’ve kept up with your classwork all semester, you’re less likely to feel panicked or stressed on the day of the test.
That’s because studying isn’t just about learning — it’s also about practice. For example, if you solve an algebra equation in your homework, you get experience solving that particular kind of problem.
When you face a similar question on your test, then, you might think back to your homework. This doesn’t just help refresh your memory, it also offers some proof you’re capable of answering the question. What’s more, familiar problems often feel less intimidating than completely new ones.
While studying can make plenty of difference in your score, quality rest is important too.
A 2018 study involving high school seniors in Turkey considered sleep and test anxiety before university entrance exams. Students who felt they slept poorly the night before were more likely to have:
- a distorted view of their exam performance
- physical signs of anxiety like upset stomach, sweating, and rapid heart rate
- higher levels of test anxiety overall
Of course, test anxiety can make it difficult to sleep before an exam. A small 2020 study involving pharmacy students in the United States suggests students tend to get less sleep just before final exams.
Sleep deprivation, in turn, can have a negative impact on your exam performance.
To improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep:
- Put away phones, laptops, and other electronics at least half an hour before bed.
- Get in bed at a consistent time each night.
- Keep your bedroom quiet and cool.
- Limit your food intake before bed. If you feel hungry, try one of these bedtime snacks.
During exam season, you might find yourself increasing your caffeine consumption through coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks.
Caffeine can boost your energy, absolutely. But it can also disrupt your sleep, according to a small 2013 study, especially if consumed within 6 hours of your bedtime.
To put it another way, it may help to avoid consuming caffeine the night before the exam. If you want to use caffeine right before your test to make sure you’re alert, sticking to your regular amount is a good option.
A higher dose of caffeine may make you feel more alert than usual, but it can also cause symptoms like:
- faster heart rate and breathing
According to a 2020 study involving medical students in Saudi Arabia, those who drank energy drinks before an exam reported higher levels of test anxiety. In fact, they reported higher levels of anxiety and distress than students who took stimulant drugs.
Being late can make a stressful situation even more difficult. If your test is timed, you may feel extra pressure trying to answer all of the questions before the clock runs out.
Rushing to show up on time might only add to your stress. If you spend the 10 minutes before the exam scrambling to get to the right place, you’ll more than likely carry that anxiety (and the physical symptoms that come with it) right into the test with you.
Getting to the exam location early prevents those issues. Plus, it provides some time to transition from your everyday headspace to “exam mode.” A little breathing room can go a long way toward giving you a good start.
During the test, the answers to some questions will probably spring to mind right away. Other questions might seem like they came from a completely different class (one you didn’t take). Unless your test somehow prevents it, you might find it helpful to skip around and answer those easier questions first.
Every question you answer can boost your self-confidence and your conviction that you do know the material. You might not answer every question perfectly. But so long as you solve most of them, you can probably make out with a decent score.
When a question stumps you, you might want to give it a pass for the moment. You can always come back later if you have time at the end. If you stay stuck on one question too long, you might lose momentum and start doubting yourself again.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll get lucky and one of the later problems will offer a hint that helps you answer it.
When considering an exam as a whole, you might feel overwhelmed pretty quickly. You can make the test more manageable by breaking it up into chunks and tackling them piece by piece.
This strategy works for almost any kind of question:
- Multiple-choice questions. When working through a whole battery of questions, you may feel tempted to multitask or read ahead. However, this kind of distraction might just slow you down. You can typically work more efficiently if you give your complete attention to one question at a time.
- Short answer responses. A
2016 studyfound that test anxiety can lower your reading comprehension, making paragraphs feel like mental marathons. It can help to read and digest each sentence one at a time, underlining key terms as you go.
- Essays. Jotting down an outline can help you stay organized. It may help to pose a specific question in your outline and think of each paragraph as its own short response to that question.
When taking a test that could have an impact on your future, feelings of exam anxiety might quickly spiral out of control.
You may read a question you can’t answer and suddenly feel like the worst student ever. Your thoughts could jump to ever-worsening futures where you flunk the class, drop out of school, and never find it possible to succeed in anything again.
If these thoughts start racing in your head, you may want to put on the brakes. Consider the following:
- Do you know with absolute certainty that missing this single question will ruin your score?
- Or, is failure merely something you fear could happen?
- What if the opposite is true, and this single question won’t affect your score much at all?
Challenging your thoughts can keep your worries from consuming you. Once you feel a little calmer, give the question a second pass.
If all else fails and your test is about to begin, try a few slow, deep breaths. Slowing down your breathing can help short-circuit your fight-or-flight response. In other words, it can help reduce your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and let your body know it’s time to chill out.
Diaphragmatic breathing can be particularly helpful for easing anxiety, according to a 2019 review. To try it:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose.
- Let your abdomen expand alongside your ribs, rather than breathing through your chest alone.
- Bring your abdomen in, pushing the air up and out through your mouth.
- Repeat the cycle until you feel calmer.
Breathing may seem absurdly simple — after all, you do it practically every second. But it can be a surprisingly powerful tool to soothe anxiety.
Anxiety before a test tells you something important: The outcome of the test matters to you. Still, that knowledge may not make much difference as you try to calm your pounding heart and keep your sweating palms dry enough to hold your pencil or grip the steering wheel.
Giving yourself plenty of time to study and getting a good night’s sleep before the test can help ease anxiety and prepare you to give your exam everything you’ve got.
If you consistently experience test anxiety, to the point where you find it difficult to complete tests even when you know the material, professional support could help. A trained therapist can offer more guidance with personalized coping techniques to work through test anxiety.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.