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Overcoming Test Anxiety

What Is Test Anxiety?

Every student experiences some anxiety preparing for and taking exams. It is a normal response to any performance-related activity. If anxiety is hindering your performance on exams, there are steps you can take to help alleviate your difficulties.

Stress is normal, but it can also become limiting. Stressful situations such as studying and taking exams can cause increased heart rate and perspiration. These are completely normal reactions to any stress-inducing situation and are not necessarily a sign of destructive anxiety.

Anxiety becomes destructive when it becomes difficult to make good decisions and hinders your ability to organize your thoughts, read and understand material, and recall material. The most destructive reactions to anxiety occur when excessive self-doubt, negative feelings, and excessive worries overwhelm you and your true potential.


How to reduce test anxiety.

Keys to reducing anxiety are to prepare, analyze, and relax. Find tips on developing your strategy here.

Preparation beats anxiety.

The most common cause of test anxiety is inadequate preparation. The more effectively you prepare for an exam, the less anxiety you will feel. To best prepare for your test, review other sections of the Stay on Track.

Analyze instead of personalize.

The key to overcoming anxiety is to train yourself to focus on tasks by analyzing what needs to be done in the here-and-now instead of personalizing negative feelings and worries.

Correcting these thought patterns can take a bit of practice because you have to monitor and counter negative thoughts with positive thoughts focused on what you can accomplish. When you feel negative thoughts creeping up, you have to alert yourself to make a change and then follow through on changing your thought process.

Use positive, supportive self-talk to counter negative feelings and talk.

Instead of saying to yourself, “There is no way I can learn all of this material,” say “I need to organize the material into chunks to make it easier to learn.” Instead of expressing doubt in your ability with statements like “I always do poorly on essay exams,” say “I can use new strategies for achieving success on this exam.” If you are confronted with an exam item that you cannot immediately answer, say to yourself, “That’s just one item, I can go on to others and come back to it” instead of “I knew this test was going to be impossible!”

Remind yourself that you have the ability to succeed.

Thinking “I’m just not smart enough to pass this exam” or “I don’t think I belong here” can lead to giving up the effort of trying to learn the material. Instead, remind yourself about why you came to U-M and tell yourself that you have the skills to learn the material and focus on the next task. If you are just getting started with studying for an exam, that task might be creating a study schedule. Establish concrete goals for each study session so that you can mark your successes.

Excessive worries can be destructive.

Thinking “If I do not do well on this exam, I’ll never get into med school” overemphasizes the importance of the exam and places your focus on something far in the future; it hinders your ability to focus on the immediate task. Stay positive by reminding yourself why your goals are important and how the task of preparing for the exam is part of how you are progressing toward your goal.

Do not judge yourself.

When confronted with difficult material or looking at the results of previous exams, do not react by judging yourself, saying things like “I’m just not smart enough to understand this!” Analyze the task or results for clues as to how you can improve or how you will prepare for what comes next. Look at previous exams to see what you did correctly. Were there any particular kinds of problems or questions that you did well on? Did you make similar mistakes throughout the exam? Can you make a plan for improvement simply by analyzing the exam? When looking at the material to study for the next exam, use your analysis of previous exams and experiences to develop a plan for studying.

Try relaxation techniques.

“What do I do if I can’t calm down enough to change my thought process?” If you continue to experience test anxiety to a point where you cannot keep your mind from straying to negative thoughts, relaxation techniques can help you change your outlook. These strategies can be used during your study periods and during the exams. You will need to experiment to find the one that works best for you.

  • Use self-controlled desensitization techniques. 
    • Deep muscle relaxation: Tense individual muscles for 10 seconds and then release them. As you release each muscle, concentrate on relaxing it as far as possible. Successfully move from one muscle group to the next until you have relaxed your entire body.
    • Deep breathing: Concentrate on your breath as you take deep breaths, filling your lungs and then exhaling slowly.
    • Guided imagery: Choose a scene that you find relaxing and imagine yourself there. Focus on the sights, sounds, and feelings you experience there.
  • Counteract anxiety once you are relaxed. 
    • Use the strategies listed above to shift your focus on the tasks you need to accomplish.
    • After you are relaxed, talk yourself through the strategies for succeeding on the exam. See yourself effectively reacting to an item you had not anticipated.
    • CampusMindWorks offers several examples of relaxation strategies.
  • Use exercise to help reduce tensions and help you relax.
    • Regular exercise (of course, not during the exam!) can help you remain relaxed during study sessions and before an exam, helping you clear your mind of worries.