Test Anxiety: Three Tips for “The Day Before”

The day before a big test can make or break your test performance, especially if you suffer from test anxiety. You may think that you should spend that day cramming for the test, trying to cover every morsel of information you may have missed in your study efforts. This is the last thing you should do! To make the most of your last full day before the exam, try these tips:

If you have to work, study for no more than two hours. Planning a long cram session for the after-work hours can be demoralizing and anxiety-producing as your workday unfolds. Instead, aim for about two hours (or less, if you have been studying regularly). In the first hour, review your study plan and make quick notes of the important material you might not understand as well. In the second hour, quickly review that material, skimming the high points. If possible, ask your boss if you can leave early, or at least on time so that you have time for this review.

If you have the day off, plan for two short study sessions. Studying for a couple of hours before and after lunch can work wonders for your confidence and performance. Review your weak areas in the first session, and in the second session go back over your study guide for a good view of the overall picture. But don’t exceed a few hours – take breaks and don’t let yourself get tunnel vision. Make room for enjoyable activities in your day.

Three female students in jackets standing and smiling outside their universityGather what you will need for the test. This may include your test-authorization letter, pencils, erasers, photo ID, and any other necessary paperwork. Make sure to look up directions to the testing center and print out the route that will best work for you. Put all these items by the front door, in your purse, or wherever you will be sure to see them. Feeling prepared for the morning will ease your tension considerably.

Test-Day Emergency Plan

Here’s the worst-case scenario – despite your efforts to manage test anxiety by studying, it wells up again during the actual test, stronger than before. Your concentration is shot, none of the questions make sense, and you feel like you might throw up right there. Now what?

If this happens to you, it would help to have an emergency procedure in place. Panic makes it difficult to think clearly, so you should practice your emergency procedure beforehand, just as with a fire drill or any other emergency drill. There are three steps in the test-day emergency plan. If you can’t remember anything else for the test, remember these three steps. Here’s what to do:

Accept the anxiety. Test anxiety can be incredibly frustrating at a time when you would rather be calm, cool, and collected. But the physical symptoms that result from anxiety can actually help you do well on the test if you know how to manage them. So when you’re sitting in the testing center and feel the butterflies in your stomach and your palms begin to sweat, don’t fight it. Instead, decide to use the feelings as a tool for success. It’s a normal sign that your body is ready to fight for a good score.

Breathe deeply. Anxiety often causes shallow, fast breathing. As part of your test-anxiety emergency procedure, you should take several deep, cleansing breaths. When you inhale deeply, your stomach should rise slightly. If your chest rises instead of your stomach, you need to breathe more deeply from your diaphragm. Inhale as you slowly count to five, and exhale for the same amount of time. As you exhale, imagine all the stress melting into the floor. Do this several times.

Make a fist. Test anxiety increases muscle tension that reduces your concentration. After you welcome the anxiety and do some deep breathing, the final step is to make a tight fist with first one hand and then the other. Squeeze each fist as tightly as possible – put all your nervous energy into your hands as they make a fist. Then release and stretch out your fingers. Picture all the tension dripping off your fingers as your hands relax. Now you’re ready to look at the questions on the test again.

Test Timing

When taking any kind of test, it is important to stay within the time constraints imposed by the test proctors. If a particular test section grants thirty minutes before the test taker is instructed to put pencils away and prepare to take the next section, then it behooves you to use the thirty minutes wisely. The way to do this is to develop a strategy beforehand. Your test timing technique should be constant and strategic. In defining your strategy, you need to address the necessary components of test-taking. For instance, an important first step would be to thoroughly read the instructions. Some people may hurry through the instructions, spot reading or speed reading, believing they are saving time. The trouble with this method is that oftentimes, the instructions are not completely understood, requiring the test taker to go back and read them again. This doesn’t save time; on the contrary, it wastes time.

A more deliberate and reliable approach would require that the test taker or student calmly read through the instructions to obtain a full and complete understanding of how the test questions are to be addressed and answered. Once the instructions are completely understood, there will usually be little need to go back and read the instructions again. But the key to a full understanding of the instructions is to thoroughly digest the information before answering the questions. While a thorough reading of the instructions may seem a slow process, it will help you understand and analyze the problems you encounter on the test. If the instructions say that you are to analyze the logical arguments in a series of paragraphs, and you understand that from the beginning, then you will be better equipped to separate the “wheat from the chaff.” In other words, the instructions will help you see through to the logical arguments made in the paragraph and separate those arguments from the extraneous elements.

Another important strategic technique is to peruse the entire section to get a feeling for the length of time required to answer questions. During this quick eyeball “review”, you may identify areas of particular difficulty and areas that are easy for you to answer. It is very important that you have an idea, at the beginning, of the length of time you will need to a given number of questions.

A third and final stratagem is to move through the questions confidently and at a predetermined pace. This doesn’t mean you should shirk the difficult questions. Give them a try; perhaps they’re not as difficult as you imagined. However, should a single question obstruct you, then you should mark it and move ahead to the next question. Most tests measure your skills on the basis of the number of answers you can answer correctly, so do not hamper yourself by getting stuck on a single difficult question and thereby failing to answer some easy ones.

Test Difficulty

Smiling woman in a black sweater leaning against a wall and holding a bookTest difficulty is a relative phenomenon. Just because you’ve heard that the GMAT, LSAT, ACT or any other standardized test is difficult does not mean that you will find it so. A great deal of time goes into preparing for any kind of test. Testing is not based upon what you learned in the last week or the last month; it is based upon years of learning. Considering that you have chosen to embark on a path toward a particular career objective, it is likely that you will have learned a great deal about your chosen field. You will have developed an extended vocabulary, a skill of analysis within the context of a particular field, and a host of other skills that will help you overcome the difficult parts of a test.

Even so, there will be some test questions that will require additional effort. You should pay attention and orient yourself to the time interval allotted for completion of the test; also, you should move through the easier questions, note the ones that require more time, and go back to address them sequentially after you’ve answered the easier questions. Certainly, you will still find yourself unable to address confidently some of the questions. Don’t let the difficulty of a few test questions frustrate. Test examiners expect a certain number of wrong answers, and tests are designed accordingly. The intent is not to find the perfect person, but rather to find one with sufficient skill and reasoning power to fit a specific field of endeavor. While you might feel bad about your test performance, you will likely feel better when the percentile scoring report indicates how few students come close to a perfect score.

Score Submission

In most cases, the student who takes a test also chooses the schools or facilities to which the test scores are sent. The prototype of this type of testing service is the Education Testing Service (ETS), which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). A similar test devoted to college admission is the ACT, which stands for American College Testing. The ACT, based in Iowa, now provides testing in a wide range of areas and is not limited to college admission testing. On both the ACT and SAT, prospective college students are asked to select a number of colleges to which scores will be sent automatically. In the case of the ACT, the number of prospective college choices a student might select is four. Scores may be sent to additional colleges upon request and for an added fee. Test scores are immediately available online with these services, so it is important to keep your authorization code safe and secure.

While the ACT and SAT may be considered prototypical models of how testing services handle your scores, you would do well to research score information closely and individually. The Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) has a scoring anomaly that can handicap your application package. When a person designates a facility or school to which scores must be sent, the GMAT testing service is required to submit ALL scores received in the preceding five-year period. For any person who scored far better in later testing, it is important to know that previous scores also will be sent to the educational institution for consideration.

In addition to the conventional testing models noted above, there are a variety of tests that are atypical. In such cases, the test is administered by the educational facility that requires the score. High school placement testing (HSPT) is just one example. The HSPT is given to 8th-grade students and used to place them in an appropriate high school peer group setting. The same style of testing is seen in the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), required before high school students can receive a graduation diploma. The Candidate Physical Ability Test, required of firefighters, is conducted at authorized CPAT Testing Centers, and must be successfully completed before the written test can be given.

In conjunction with many testing services, there are one-stop agency services that provide the entire panoply of services to the student or applicant for a fee. These agencies guide the student through the entire application process, including delivery of scores and analysis of results.