Dealing with Your Test Anxiety: The Next Five Steps to Acing Your Final Exams

Final exams will be here sooner than you expected. Even before they arrive, you may be bombarded with tests as your teachers hurry to get through the syllabus. How will you deal with the rising levels of stress and anxiety before and during the tests? Here are some tips.

Our first set of tips, The First Five Steps to Acing Your Final Exams, focused on the practical steps leading up to the final exam, especially the several weeks just before. This blog’s tips will focus more on the anxiety side of dealing with a test, especially on the final days leading up to the test and the day of the test. Of course, these tips can also be applied to any big exam, such as your SAT or ACT.

Step 1: Know Your Anxiety

Your fear will always look bigger than it actually is, especially when you measure it by how it feels to you: butterflies in your stomach, your head in a clamp or a daze, etc. But when you understand what it really is and where it comes from, you can start dealing with it.

The challenge, of course, is the fact that it can be difficult to deal with what seems to be your “gut reaction” to the test since the anxiety has physical, mental, and emotional components.

First of all, test anxiety is not genetic. You can’t blame your parents for that one. Test anxiety is a learned behavior. The good news is that it can also be unlearned. Second, every student who takes a test experiences some form of test anxiety — it’s a normal reaction to wanting to do well on something important to you.

The first step is to try to identify what causes it and be honest about it. For some students, it is caused by poor study habits, such as poor time management, a lack of preparation, or cramming. For others, it’s based on past bad experiences of feeling embarrassed or powerless. Still, for others, the fears are much more deep-rooted: fear of failing or letting down oneself or family, or lack of self-confidence in comparison with others.

The more honest you are with the source of the issue and how willing you are to change, the better you can deal with test anxiety.

Step 2: Accept Your Anxiety

Don’t try to get rid of it (because it can’t be done), but learn to “tame” it and use it to your advantage.

We tend to think and experience that the more stress we have, the worse we perform — it feels like an evil spiral of death. However, there is a relationship between stress and your performance that was developed over a hundred years ago, called Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908), which looks like this:

Yerkes-Dodson Law


It shows, as we might have expected, that having too much stress causes fatigue and anxiety. However, on the other hand, having too little stress is also harmful, leading to boredom and unproductive apathy.

There is a “good amount” of stress that leads to healthy tension, motivation, and focus — an optimum amount of stress that athletes often describe as being in “the Zone.” So, instead of trying to get rid of your anxiety, try to see how you can shift or control it to be better positioned in the Zone.

Students who play sports or play a musical instrument will often understand what being in the Zone feels like and how to get there. A lot of what you do to help you get in the Zone before a big game or concert can apply to preparing for a test.

Let’s look at a few of these strategies.

Step 3: Live With Your Anxiety

There are practical things you can do to help you manage your test anxiety and get closer to the Zone.

First of all, there are physical factors you can control. Just as athletes have a lighter practice and get good rest before a big game, how much rest and sleep you get before a test will affect your anxiety and performance. Of course allowing yourself to get such rest is tied in with your study and learning habits, especially with your time management and planning, which can be learned and improved.

Second, there are physical exercises and practices you can learn to help manage your anxiety before and during the test. For example, there are mindfulness or meditation exercises, stretching exercises, and breathing exercises that can help you manage the stress responses. Find what works for you and practice doing them.

Third, the single biggest relief for test anxiety is the proper preparation for a test. You have to study to do well on tests. Sorry, but there’s no way around it. You will need to practice solving math problems, memorize words and equations, learn the names and relationships, etc. Content mastery leads to increased confidence and experience, which, in turn, reduces panic and stress. You can learn more effective ways to study, but there’s no way around learning and rehearsing.

Step 4: Talk About Your Anxiety

Your inner dialogue is extremely important — you get what you think. Your inner dialogue is an emotional response to test anxiety; however, you also have complete control over what you choose to tell yourself, and consequently, what you choose to believe about yourself.

For many students, especially minority, and female students, this is a very difficult choice to make. They are faced with what psychologists call “stereotype threat” — the fear that a poor performance will confirm the negative stereotypes and stories they have been hearing all their lives, even though they have been desperately trying to fight them: “girls aren’t good in STEM subjects” or “someone like me won’t ever be college material.”

These are small steps, but there are several things you can do to positively change your inner dialogue.

Research has shown that affirming your own value by focusing on the things that are important to you helps reduce negative self-talk. What do you value, and why does it matter to you? For example, you can say, “My family is something I value because…” Or you can say, “Art is something I value because…”

Next, accept the fact that you’re not perfect — we all make mistakes (sorry if you found out for the first time through this blog). You will not grow from the mistakes you avoid, but rather by how you deal with and grow from the mistakes you will make. You can learn to be gracious to yourself by celebrating successes along the way, big and small.

Step 5: Write Down Your Anxiety

When you feel stressed and anxious, it takes up and drains a lot of mental energy. This is important because we have a very limited amount of “brain power” or working memory. While we should be focusing on the test itself, a big chunk of your attention is being sapped by anxiety or worries; your capacity to think clearly and solve problems is greatly diminished.

Research about “choking under pressure” at the University of Chicago has shown that doing a “worry dump” before a test helps you to free up your working memory from anxiety. Students who spent ten minutes writing about their thoughts and feelings right before taking a test not only reduced negative self-talk, but were able to “offload” their worries onto their papers. While this may sound strange because we normally want to avoid talking about our worries before a big test, results have shown that this actually frees up our working memory because, in a way, we have already “dealt with” them.

On a related note, once a test starts, doing a “brain dump” onto paper of important formulas or key facts, especially ones with which you had a hard time memorizing, will help you free up your working memory and keep you from getting confused during the test.

I know it may sound corny, but unload what’s weighing down your mind and heart.

Conclusion: Good Luck!

We wish you good preparation and excellent outcomes on all your tests. But we also hope that you walk out from this season of final exams with growth and maturity that will enable you to be better equipped for success.


More Than SAT offers trusted one-on-one tutoring for standardized tests, study skills, and academic subjects—in-home or online. Developed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Innovation Lab, we combine an effective science of learning and student-focused, individualized study plans. We equip our students for long-term success beyond acing standardized tests. Our top-notch tutors will help you get to your own success story.

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