Struggling with Test Anxiety? Fix It Now… BEFORE Finals!

With Spring Break in the rearview mirror, the rest of the semester will start to fly by, and finals begin to loom large. If you are one of the 20% of college students with TEST ANXIETY (yep, that’s 1 in 5 students!) then this post is for you.

Start with objectively deciding if your test anxiety is APPROPRIATE, meaning that you put in hours and effort studying, but when you sit down to the test, you do not know the answers (proportionate to your study efforts.) THIS IS SUPER COMMON, especially for freshmen who never struggled to make good grades prior to college!  Here’s what will help:

  • Go to office hours or set an appointment with your professor. Do NOT wait till finals week, GO NOW (if you haven’t already.) Let them know you are struggling to figure out the best way to prepare for their course, but also show an interest in THEM. Ask about their research or what they did for spring break, or why they chose your university- anything to show you are not there whining about a grade, but genuinely connecting.
  • ELIMINATE distractions from your study set up. Put your phone in your backpack. Close all open tabs besides your work. Set specific breaks to check social media, emails, etc., so you are only looking at class work during your study time.
  • Get a study partner from your class. Go over the power point lectures together, taking turns to ask each other what you think your prof would emphasize or put on a test as you look at each slide.
  • READING something is NOT STUDYING- even if you are highlighting. TAKE NOTES, write down questions, or write an outline on a word document or better yet, with pen and paper- it really does help. Then, go back and review your notes to refresh your memory.
  • DO OLD EXAMS and QUIZZES for practice, look online if they are not available from your actual course.
  • GO TO TUTORING! The biggest myth in college is that tutoring/academic advising is for struggling students. If you ask the kids with the highest grades, you will find nearly all of them go to tutoring in person or online, and they certainly attend review sessions.
  • Shorten your study sessions! Don’t try to grind out long study sessions or learn everything into one day. Studies repeatedly show you retain more by doing small amounts each day, rather than cramming.
  • Use checklists and whatever calendar works best for you. Start each week AND each day with a written plan of what you want/need to accomplish.
  • USE your university’s “student success” services! Realize that you are PAYING for these with your tuition, so take advantage of everything they offer such as printable hourly schedule planners to help organize your studying, and study skills classes (online or in person, one-on-one or group) that will teach you a handful of new study skills like “brain dumps” or the Pomodoro technique.

If you are fully prepared for your exams, yet still develop sweaty palms, numbness or tingling in your mouth and fingertips (that’s from hyperventilating), racing heart and thoughts, or simply going blank during tests even when you know the answers, that’s a different issue. Often this type of test anxiety begins when you are initially tripped up academically. You “bomb” a quiz (which may mean you made a B, C, D or F, depending on your personal expectations), and then…you CATASTROPHIZE. Your brain and emotions go from zero to 90 in seconds, telling you that now you will never make an A, or that you will flunk the course, lose your scholarship, drop out of school, and never amount to anything. Or perhaps you think your parents will jump to all these catastrophic conclusions if you tell them. Either way, it eats at you. Then during the next quiz, even though you are ready, you start to panic when you hit any question that you don’t immediately know the answer, and the cycle repeats.

What helps with this type of test anxiety?

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a very effective, very specific type of counseling that is short (often only a couple sessions), very goal-directed, and simply helps people recognize when they are unconsciously magnifying potential negative outcomes that then trigger the physical anxiety response.
  • Decrease all stimulants like CAFFEINE, decongestants, and nicotine. These substances make your heart rate climb and often trigger the panic response.
  • Daily EXERCISE can really help! Working out enough to get your heart healthily pounding for 20-30 minutes is an excellent overall mood boost. Many students find that scheduling a workout that finishes an hour or so before their exam helps them “work out” their nerves.
  • ARRIVE EARLY for your exam, which means planning ahead for bad weather, random bus schedule issues, traffic, etc. Running late will 100% magnify any anxiety that you have.
  • EAT a meal or snack with some fat or protein (not just pure carbs) within a couple hours of your test. A banana or apple with peanut butter is far better than eating the fruit alone, because the pure carbohydrate fruit can cause your blood sugar to jump up, then crash during your exam.
  • BREATHING exercises. I know, you know. We’ve ALL heard deep breathing is calming. But the fact is that if you spend a minute or two (literally 60-120 seconds) with focused, slowed breathing, it physiologically slows your heart rate, which in turn “tells” your brain that you must not be anxious since your heart is not racing. Try breathing in for a count of 4, breath out for a count of 10, and repeat for at least 6 cycles. Do this or listen to a focused meditation right when you arrive (you’re early, so you’ve got time!) and then take 30 seconds to do focused breathing right before your exam starts.
  • If you’ve tried everything above and are still struggling with panic symptoms during tests, please go see your doctor! We often prescribe a non-addictive medication (like name brand Inderal) that slows your heartrate and helps break the cycle. Make the appointment SOON, because campus clinics get swamped the last few weeks of the semester, so you might not be able to get an appointment later.

BOTTOM LINE: NOW is the time to address your test anxiety-  do not wait till FINALS!!

For more info and tips on test anxiety, fear of public speaking, insomnia, and more, check out The ULTIMATE College Student Health Handbook!

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