“I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the U.S. Open … on Labor Day … on my dad’s birthday … on Arthur Ashe … on CBS … against Roger Federer. I am hours away from playing the greatest player of all time, for a chance at my best-ever result, in my favorite tournament in the world. I am hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career.
“I literally can’t do it.
“It’s early afternoon; I’m in the transportation car on my way to the courts.
“And I am having an anxiety attack.”
Mardy Fish, who rose to a career high ranking of 7 on ATP Tour, describes his bouts of anxiety before the most important match of his life against Roger Federer at 2012 U.S. Open.
He withdrew because of anxiety.
He didn’t play the most important match of his life.
In exams, too, we see examples similar to Fish, don’t we? Cases of extreme exam anxiety – complete mental black-out and inability to comprehend even simple instructions, among other symptoms.
Fish’s anxiety was of severe proportion, but even a mild one can thwart your campaign, ruin your weeks and months of hard work.
This happens in many walks of life, including academics, more so in high-stakes exams.
Have you ever sabotaged your chances in an exam because you were overly nervous?
Have you blanked-out, even for minutes?
Have you find it difficult to concentrate while taking a test?
Or, have you scored much less in the real test than what you used to in practice tests?
Burdened by expectations, fear of failure, and poor time management skills among other reasons, many students face these situations.
According to this study, 25 to 40 percent of students experience test anxiety. And, as you may have experienced, anxiety can have deleterious effect on your performance. One study found that highly test-anxious students score about 12 percentile points below their less anxious peers. This is average, though; some, of course, perform way below this.
You may be prepared to the teeth, but test-anxiety may still undo weeks and months of hard work in a matter of few hours.
When it probably matters the most!
Paulo Coelho, in his book The Alchemist, puts this succinctly:
I have known a lot of people who, when their personal calling was within their grasp, went to commit a series of stupid mistakes and never reached their goal when it was only a step away.
In this post, I’ll cover steps you can take to deal with test anxiety, which I’ve categorized under following four phases of test-taking:
Few hours before the exam,
Exam hours, and
Other posts on test-taking, you may find relevant:
What is test anxiety and what are its symptoms?
Parental expectation, fear of failure, poor study and time management skills, and poor past performances can make a test-taker anxious, resulting in negative thoughts, tense muscles, lack of concentration, difficulty in comprehending even simple instructions, trouble recalling relevant information, and even mental black-outs – last three being symptoms of extreme test anxiety, which are similar to the symptoms of a fumbling, nervous speaker while making a speech to an audience.
Emotionally, you feel fear. You think, “Will I be able to do this? What if I don’t make it?”
See how Dr. Bean gets fidgety when writing the exam, and makes a huge blunder (you’ll find that out only toward the end of this 6-minute, funny video):
It’s not just Dr. Bean who feels anxious, though.
Every test-taker does, just as every speaker who takes the stage feels anxious before an important speech. A bit of anxiety is probably good too, as it gets your adrenaline going, makes you alert for the big occasion.
But, unfortunately, not everyone can keep it in check, and that’s when it starts affecting your performance.
That takes us to the question that I set out to answer in this post: how to control test-anxiety?
Let’s start with the first phase.
Phase I: Preparation phase
Let’s be honest. If you haven’t prepared well, no technique in the world will help you lower your anxiety. And in a bit extreme case of lack of effort, in fact, you may not even be anxious, as you may be mentally prepared for the inevitable.
So, I’ll start with the assumption that you’re willing to work hard and prepare as best as you can. With that assumption, here are some of the things you can do to alleviate your anxiety in the days leading up to the exam:
Effective time management
You start with a plan to cover the syllabus (of the exam) in certain time period, but within days you start falling short on your daily targets, and backlog starts building up.
This happens despite your best intentions for one or more of following reasons:
Setting over-aggressive targets,
Veering away from your priorities without even realizing, and
Not allocating adequate time for revision in the last few days before the exam and scrambling to refresh too much in too little time
Stick with the schedule/ plan you’ve set; don’t fall behind. And you can do this by improving your time management skills.
Get used to exam conditions
Let me first state the obvious, which everyone invariably does right: get familiar with the test paper, which means going through past few year’s test papers and embedding the instructions and type of questions in your mind.
However, some students don’t take mock tests with the seriousness they deserve. Mock tests can be more effective if you simulate the conditions that you’ll face in the real test, which means taking full-length test and not mini-test of shortened duration, no breaks, no aids (such as calculator) which aren’t allowed in the real test, and taking it at the time when you’ll take the real test.
Moreover, taking mock tests under stressful conditions (or real conditions) also helps you preempt choking in exams.
Familiarize yourself with the pattern and instructions of the test, and practice mock tests simulating real conditions.
Take up physical exercise if you already aren’t into it
John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (the book delves into how exercise affects brain) mentions the research at University of Southern Mississippi which tested if exercise can reduce anxiety. Joshua Broman-Fulks, the researcher, randomly divided fifty-four college students with anxiety disorder (extreme anxiety, in other words) into two groups. One group was assigned six 20-minute running sessions on treadmills at an intensity level of 60-90% of their maximum heart rates; the other, walking sessions on treadmills at intensity level of around 50%.
Both the groups, overall, reduced their anxiety levels, but the group that worked at higher intensity reduced it more quickly and effectively.
Similar results were found in another study, done over nine months in 2005, of 198 15-year-old Chilean High School students.
Physical exercise – rigorous aerobic kind – can reduce anxiety, and can benefit you even in short-term. To quote Dr. Ratey:
The fact that aerobic exercise works immediately to fend off the state of anxiety has been well established for many, many years [emphasis added].
And it’s even more impactful if someone has milder anxiety (this form is less severe and more common). To quote Dr. Ratey again:
Exercise can have an even more dramatic effect on milder anxiety, the kind that isn’t bad enough for medication but is still troublesome [emphasis added].
Exercise also improves learning, concentration, alertness, and mood, which will again impact your academic performance positively. You may learn more on this at A Surprising Study Hack for Students – Physical Exercise.
However, not all types of exercises will give you the same benefits. As seen in the studies above, cardiovascular exercises such as running, cycling, stair-climbing, and skipping, that up your heart rate, work the best.
Include 30-odd minutes of cardiovascular exercise into your schedule. This time away from studies can yield far greater output than what you’ll get when studying.
Although not necessary, you may do a reconnaissance of the test center a day or two before the test day so that you don’t get anxious on the day of the test thinking about an unknown variable (how to reach the place)
And last, but very important, get adequate (at least six hours, and preferably eight hours) sleep the night before, as lack of sleep can affect your memory and concentration
Phase II: Few hours before the exam
Don’t skip exercise, and have a breakfast that will last you the distance
Exercise even on exam day.
You want to be in peak state, physically and mentally, on this important day, and exercise is one of the best ways to accomplish it. Better concentration and better energy level won’t necessarily lower your anxiety, but it may prevent its ill effects from exacerbating.
For the same reason, have a breakfast that doesn’t crash your energy level, and leave you fatigued, just after an hour or so.
So, eat a breakfast (assuming the test is in the morning) that’s heavy on carbohydrates and has low Glycemic Index (GI). Low-GI carbohydrates release energy slowly in your body, avoiding sudden rise & crash in energy levels that high-GI foods entail. Learn more on this at What to Eat When Studying for Better Focus and Energy?
Don’t skip exercise on the exam day and have a breakfast heavy on low-GI carbohydrates.
How not to choke in exams?
(Majority of the steps you can take in this regard are done before the exam begins. Therefore, I’ve included this topic in pre-exam drill.)
Many choke (perform below their potential) in exams, and undo weeks and months of hard work.
Choking (or panicking) is the worst manifestation of test anxiety, but it can be controlled. You can take following steps to preempt choking:
Improve your self-worth. If you’re beset by low self-esteem and/ or a negative stereotype, then you need to come out of it
Improve your self-efficacy. Recall your past success and draw inspiration from others similar to you who’ve done well in such exams
Offset the self-imposed pressure. It’s only an exam, and if you work hard and learn from your mistakes, you can achieve your goals despite poor performance in a test. So, minutes before taking your seat, say to yourself, “It’s only an exam. If I under-perform, it’s not going to be the end of the world. There are other paths too which will take me to my goal.”
Sportspersons at the highest level have adopted this strategy to fend off pressure to perform
Write your worries down in an expressive, open form minutes before taking the test. Research supports this method
Calm yourself through relaxation exercises
Make mock tests as real as possible
If you’re prone to panicking, write down quick steps in rough sheet when attempting multiple choice questions. This will help you create more space in working memory, and make you less prone to panicking
Now, you may not understand why some of these things work, but there is science behind these steps, which I’ve covered in Faced Nerves and Panic Attack in Exams? Learn 7 (Research-Backed) Ways to Control It
If you’re prone to panicking, you may take one or more of seven aforesaid steps to control it. I recommend you read the entire post on the topic.
You would have heard these before, but to reinforce things some of which get ignored and can become a source of anxiety:
Reach the exam center in time
Resist the temptation to have one last look at the ‘most important stuff’. It’ll only stress your mind. And if at all you’ve to do it, finish it well before (say, at least an hour) the exam starts
Avoid meeting nervous test-takers
Phase III: Exam hours
It’s just before an exam that we are most tensed. So, once you’re seated, take few deep breaths in the few minutes before the test begins. It will help you calm your nerves. (You may do this even during the test, if you start getting nervous.)
You may find this YouTube video useful in learning deep breathing for relaxation:
As a way to relax, you may also close your eyes and transport yourself mentally to your favorite activity (say, swimming) or place (say, a serene lake or a beautiful beach) and stay there for a minute or two.
Mr. Bean, for example, should’ve taken one of these relaxation exercises instead of showing off his pens and arranging his good charms just before the exam. 🙂 (This part of the video precedes what you saw in the earlier Dr. Bean video.)
After you get the test, either pen & paper or on computer, don’t rush into answering it. Read the instructions carefully (you would’ve heard this thousands of times by now) because you never know some new instruction may have sneaked in this time innocuously buried at #6.
Calm your nerves before the test starts, and read the instructions.
Manage time well
Falling behind on time in an exam can shoot up your anxiety, choking you in the worst case.
You may go through the section on time management during the exam in 13 Test Taking Strategies (for Students) Top Test-Takers Use to learn how to manage time efficiently in exam hours. There, you’ll also learn one of the key time-management strategies of top test-takers: they strive to stay ahead of time.
Don’t stay with time, stay ahead.
What to do when the exam is overly tough?
The key to control your anxiety in such situations is to remember, if it’s tough… then it’s tough for everyone.
Other similarly-prepared students too would be struggling. Rarely is evaluation in an exam absolute; it’s invariably relative, which means you’ve to outscore others – and not get some magical marks – in order to do well.
Because most would panic in a tough exam, the ones who stay calm, try their best, and salvage whatever they can, will have an edge. Don’t the calmest sports teams win in tough situations?
So, if partial marks are awarded for answering part of the question, answer them to the extent you can. Remember, if you don’t attempt, you get zero. Eliminate as many options as possible and make smart guesses in case of multiple choice questions.
Learn how I made comeback in two extremely difficult exams and what lessons I learnt in the process:
If the exam is tough, then it’s tough for everyone. Stay calm and try salvaging as much as you can.
Phase IV: Post-exam hours
“The paper was OK. Not too tough.”
“I was stuck for a while on the third question, and I’m not too sure about the answer. What answer did you get on that?”
You got a different answer, and naturally you are disappointed on losing precious marks. Well, this question was difficult for you, so it’s still not that bad.
But… if you had made a silly mistake, you would have been cursing, kicking yourself long after the exam was over, and this mental turbulence isn’t good if more tests are to follow.
Resist (I know it’s hard) the temptation to find how you did in the just-concluded test.It’s water under the bridge, now.
You work hard for weeks, even months, for that important exam.
And in those crucial hours on the exam day… you get anxious. You get overwhelmed by the occasion, and you perform well below your potential.
What a waste!
Worse, you can’t figure out what to do to control, if not completely correct, the situation.
It’s not that difficult, though. You can control it. And the process begins much earlier than the exam day.
In the prep phase, you need to manage time well so that you don’t fall short on your daily, weekly targets (which is quite common), get as much familiar with the exam as possible, take mock tests seriously, and take to cardiovascular exercise.
On the exam day, get in peak physical & mental state (sleep, food, and exercise), relax just before taking the test, manage time well during the exam, and resist the temptation to tally your answers with others if more tests are to follow.
We learnt specific strategies for each of these in the post.