The average student feels at least some level of anxiety before an important exam. But for some individuals, that stress can be severe.
As schools administer an increasing number of standardized and high-stakes college admissions tests, it is important to learn how to combat that anxiety. The following five strategies can help you overcome exam-related stress.
1. Breathe: Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Pause a moment after inhaling, long enough to mark the change from in to out. Then exhale evenly and fully before beginning again.
Breathing may sound too easy to be useful, but deliberately expanding your chest to take a deep breath relaxes your muscles and encourages them to work normally again. As a bonus, the increased flow of oxygen helps energize your brain. Best of all, this technique takes only a moment, so use it just before your test begins or during a particularly difficult section.
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This technique worked for me when defending a doctoral dissertation in microbiology. Standing in front of the committee of professors, I could barely squeak, let alone try for eloquence.
I asked for a moment to myself before I began and retreated to the hallway. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply four times in and out. I then re-entered the arena, able to think and speak.
2. Set aside time for yourself: You may feel tremendous pressure to dedicate every waking moment to studying, but it is still important to allot part of your schedule to resting and reconnecting with the people you love. Go on a walk to enjoy the fresh air, eat dinner with your family, play with your pets or brew a cup of tea.
This is not permission to procrastinate. Research shows that your brain requires time to integrate knowledge. If you never slow the flow of information, your mind becomes saturated at a faster rate than you can store new data.
Downtime is a prescription for becoming more focused and capable, when used in moderation. Set a timer if you must, but do not neglect your joy, especially while preparing for an important exam.
3. Exercise: Multiple studies have proved that physical exercise is a remarkably effective antidote to stress. Like the breathing exercises outlined above, exercise prompts you to focus on your body rather than your worries.
Many students carry their stress in their bodies, and exercise moves your muscles, increases blood flow and works out a good percentage of body knots. When you return to studying, your focus will be much improved.
The most useful side effect of increased blood flow is the increased circulation that extends well beyond the end of your exercise session. Blood carries oxygen, and your brain must have oxygen to work properly while you review. Nothing will decrease your test stress faster than realizing that you are learning and making progress.
4. Sleep: There is a persistent and damaging myth that pulling an all-nighter indicates your seriousness when preparing for an exam. In truth, studying all evening is the worst possible response to anxiety.
Not only is it nearly impossible to remember material read at 3 a.m., but a lack of sleep clouds your mind the next day and perhaps into the week beyond.
Worse, fatigue damages your resilience. Stress is hard on your body. Breathing exercises, downtime and exercise can alleviate the effects of anxiety, but none of them will be as effective as sleep.
Sleep is how short-term memories formed while studying become long-term memories that can be recalled during test-taking.
[Learn how to select the right ACT or SAT prep course.]
5. Take control of your preparation: Too often, academic stress comes from feeling a lack of control over the situation. While other people will be writing the test questions and grading your answers, you have the power to prepare. Creating a schedule with concrete goals will give you a sense of progression as you complete required tasks before the big day.
For example, one of my students came to me after struggling with preparation for the verbal section of an exam. I gave her the goal of memorizing a list of 500 vocabulary words over the course of two months.
It sounded like an intimidating and ambitious goal, but when broken down into pieces, she realized that 10 words per day was a very achievable task. Even when she struggles with other parts of test preparation, she can look to her growing stack of index cards as tangible proof of her progress.
At times, stress is unavoidable, especially when preparing for major exams. A little stress is a strong motivator, but a lot of stress is harmful and hurts your performance. Use the techniques outlined above to keep your balance.