Test Anxiety:
10 Tips for Feeling Calm and Confident on Exam Day

Learn how to get rid of anxiety before your next exam with these 10 confident test-taking strategies.


Test anxiety is a form of situational anxiety, distress caused by a certain setting or high-pressure event.

Research has shown that those who experience test anxiety score 12% lower on average than those who don’t.

Though there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that’s right for everyone, there are many different strategies available for helping ease nerves and even potentially improving performance on exam day.

You’ve gone to class, completed all the reading, and finished each assignment on time. You’ve put in the work, dedicated time to your classes, even missed out on hanging out with friends once or twice just so you could study.

You’ve made flashcards, reviewed your notes, and double-checked that you’ve looked over everything covered during the semester.

By all accounts, you’ve done everything you should to be a “good student”.

But it’s test day and you’re still a nervous wreck.

Your hands are shaking, your heart rate a little more elevated than usual. You feel trapped in your desk, urging your body to stay still even though it wants to get up and pace.

Your mind is racing, jumping all over the place. You’re trying to stay focused on your test, but you just can’t.

You’re convinced you’re going to fail.


What Exactly Is Test Anxiety?

Feeling a little jittery right before a test is completely normal; in fact, some nerves can actually help you to focus and keep you motivated.

But when those nerves become so out of control that you lose all concentration and your ability to test becomes hindered, it’s known as test anxiety. And it has been found to affect anywhere from 10% to 40% of all students at any given time.

Test anxiety is a form of situational anxiety, distress caused by a certain setting or high-pressure event. And it can affect anyone, at any level of school from kindergarten to grad school.

And it affects everyone in different ways.

For some, their anxiety doesn’t peak until the day of the test itself, while others feel their stress levels begin to rise in the days or even weeks before. Some even continue to feel distressed a few days after the test.

In fact, some students have reported that they begin to feel the pressure starting as early on as the very first day of class.

Test anxiety is downright frustrating; after all, it’s discouraging when you’ve put in the time and work and still don’t make the grade.

But even worse, it can have real consequences for the students who experience it.

Research has shown that those who experience test anxiety score 12% lower on average than those who don’t.

“I feel a lot of pressure on test days,” says junior at Mississippi State Ben Rogers who’s studying business. “I’m lucky enough to have my parents helping me with part of my tuition. But it’s a huge amount of money to spend in one year and to not do well. If I can’t ace my classes and do well on tests, it’s almost as if that money isn’t worth it and that I don’t deserve to be here in the first place.”


How Do I Know If I Have Test Anxiety?

But wait- can’t stress actually help you do better?

In some cases, this is totally true. But when your stress levels exceed what’s necessary and your ability to perform becomes impaired, it’s anything but helpful.

Also, some people just naturally manage stress more easily than others.

Students with strong memory skills actually tend to perform higher when they feel the symptoms of pressure. On the other hand, students whose memory skills aren’t as developed perform worse during high-pressure moments.

So how do you know if you what you’re feeling is test anxiety?

Here are some of the most common symptoms experienced by those who have test anxiety:

Physical Mental Emotional
Sweating Self-doubt Distracted
Nauseous feeling Fear Unable to focus
Stomach ache Stress Negative thinking
Racing heart Hopelessness Comparison to others
Shortness of breath Irritability Sense of impending doom
Headache Inadequacy Jumbled thoughts
Dizziness Restlessness Poor memory

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms repeatedly before, during, or after tests or if you feel like your stress levels are beyond what’s normal, you may be experiencing test anxiety.


What Causes Test Anxiety?

There are quite a few different factors that can lead to extreme situational anxiety around exams.

Often, the answer can be as simple as being unprepared.

Students who haven’t put in the work that’s necessary to test well or haven’t set aside the time to study can feel particularly stressed on test day. They’re convinced they’ll fail because they simply don’t know the material they’re being tested on.

But sometimes the root causes can be a little more complicated than this- even the most prepared students aren’t exempt from feeling test anxiety.

For example, stress can be the result of a bad memory from past experience. Maybe you failed a big exam last semester and you’re afraid of reliving that same result.

In some cases, test anxiety can be caused by a fear of failure. Maybe you’re afraid of being labeled a failure or disappointing those close to you. In many cases like this, students have tied their self-worth too closely to the outcome of this one test.

Another common cause of test anxiety is what’s known as imposter syndrome, a feeling of persistent inadequacy despite any evidence to the contrary. It’s a lack of belief that you can do well and if there’s any chance at all you will do well, it’ll be out of luck.

In some cases, test anxiety can be the result of an underlying learning disorder or even a part of generalized anxiety disorder. Most colleges have on-campus resources that can help create a more conducive testing environment and ease stress in these instances.


Express Yourself

Anxiety brings so many different feelings and emotions to the surface. It’s hard to navigate through them all, making your ability to think clearly and problem solve feel impossible.

It can even prevent your memory from working correctly– not exactly great when you’re walking into a situation that requires you to remember things.

Writing can be an effective way to gain control and get a clearer perspective over those thoughts and feelings.

Try unloading everything you’re thinking and feeling onto paper. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even make sense- the point is just to get it all out there and off your shoulders.

There’s even actual evidence to support that writing down your biggest worries right before an exam can actually help you score higher. So get writing!


Adjust Your Perspective

The journaling exercise above is a great lead in to this next practice.

Remember to keep perspective on the situation. Yes, tests are important…but this one test isn’t everything. The grade you earn on this one exam does not reflect all of the hard work you’ve done or the type of student you are.

It’s just a test.

It’s important to do the best you can. But this one result will not determine the rest of your life, no matter how important it feels in the moment.


Change Your Mindset

Like we mentioned before, memories of past bad experiences can affect how you feel going into new ones. But it’s important for you to put those bad memories in the backseat.

Honing in on these negative thoughts will only make you less productive in your studying, increase your anxiety, and put you at a higher risk for earning a lower score.

Not to mention, thinking something negative can often lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you’re constantly thinking to yourself: “There’s no way I’m going to pass”, the chances you won’t pass grow more likely.

Instead, change your mindset towards positive thinking. Whenever you catch yourself engaging in any sort of negative thought, immediately stop it!

When you start to think back on a bad past experience, change your focus to a positive past experience. Remind yourself that there’s more value in what you have done well than what you haven’t.

For example, try repeating positive affirmations you yourself.

“One way to help overcome the anxious feelings is to anticipate the worry beforehand and repeat affirmations such as: “I am calm,” “I am getting the best grade I am able to,” “I am prepared and relaxed,” every time a negative thought comes to mind, transforming the negative thought into a positive one,” says licensed mental health therapist Jill Sylvester.

Finally, try reframing your nerves as excitement. This sounds silly but it can be surprisingly effective.


Try Fear Setting

Like we talked about above, a fear of the unknown is another very common cause of test anxiety. This line of thinking is exactly what fear setting is designed to challenge.

Fear setting involves breaking down every single worst-case scenario you can possibly think of into the most hyper-specific details. We know, we know…this sounds super scary….but stick with us for a second!

So for example, let’s say you completely bomb your upcoming exam. What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen?

You fail the test? You fail the class? Your GPA drops? You lose a scholarship? You’re kicked out of school?

Next, do two things:

  1. Write down what steps you would take to bounce back if that very worst case scenario actually happened to you; and
  2. Write down what steps you can take to avoid that very worst-case scenario from ever even happening in the first place.

A few things tend to happen when you practice fear setting.

First, you realize that the very worst case scenario you can muster isn’t likely to happen as a result of this one thing. It might even end up sounding more silly than scary.

Second, you realize that if in the absolute extreme instance this terrible thing did actually happen that it wouldn’t be the end of the world. There are steps you could take to make a come back.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, fear setting helps you build a plan to prevent your worst-case scenario from ever coming true in the first place.


Break It Down

One of the reasons tests are so intimidating is that you’re expected to remember and regurgitate so much information at once in a limited amount of time.

And one of the most effective ways to counteract this is to focus on one part at a time.

Former Navy Seal Mark Divine is an expert at breaking intimidating tasks into smaller, more manageable exercises.

The example he shares is from an officer trying to break in new recruits by telling him to drop and give them 1,000 push-ups.

Now, Navy Seal or not, 1,000 push-ups is A LOT.

To even get anywhere close to this number takes not only physical ability but an extreme amount of mental fortitude, which is exactly what Mark relied on when presented with such a challenge.

Instead of focusing on trying to knock out 1,000 push-ups, Mark focused on one pushup, just one at a time.

This same train of thought can be used for any big challenge- including studying.

Founder of Ginsberg Advanced Tutoring Shana Ginsberg regularly recommends this type of tactic to her students when they’re preparing for an exam:

“For students who struggle with symptoms of anxiety that cannot be managed with testing strategy and mindfulness, I recommend breaking up weekly homework into smaller increments of 45 minutes to an hour to keep stress levels low but content mastery high.”

So instead of trying to focus on an entire semester’s worth of material at once, try focusing on one chapter at a time knowing that you’ll eventually knock everything out.


Try Beta-Blockers

Test anxiety can be more than just feeling nervous. It can cause increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, nauseousness, and more. All of these symptoms are incredibly distracting and can keep your mind from staying focused on your test.

Propranolol is a type of beta-blocker, a medication that prevents the body from producing adrenaline and blocks these physical symptoms from happening.

Propranolol works very differently than most other medications that are typically used for managing anxiety. Unlike other common prescriptions, like Xanax or Valium, beta-blockers are non-narcotic and non-addictive.

You may still feel nervous, but your body will be calm.

Like many other medications available, beta-blockers do require a prescription. Kick’s personalized beta-blocker prescription service can help you avoid the hassle of an in-person doctor’s appointment and find out if beta-blockers are right for you.


Try Stress Management Counseling

Stress management counseling is another popular option for a lot of people who feel that their anxiety is getting in their way of performing.

The idea here is to uncover the root causes for your stress and help you develop skills and strategies for coping with that stress all with the help of a therapist or licensed psychologist.

If you’re a current student on a college campus, you might have options available to you through your campus health center.

If not, Psychology Today has a great tool available to help find a counselor near you.


Practice Mindfulness

The idea of mindfulness is to be present in the moment. This can be an especially useful tool for test anxiety, where your stressed-out mind can start to wander off to just about anywhere except your current test.

There are several different ways to practice mindfulness.

Meditation is one of the most popular techniques, with a lot of people taking advantage of popular apps like Headspace and Calm.

Simple breathing exercises are another common form of mindfulness practice.

One of the most popular breathing exercises for anxiety is the 4-7-8 breathing method:

  • Start by completely exhaling through your mouth
  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose, mentally counting to 4
  • Hold your breath while you mentally count to 7
  • Exhale completely through your mouth while mentally counting to 8
  • Repeat as many times as you’d like

Something as simple as this can bring your attention back to your breathing, and back into the moment keeping your mind from wandering off.


Practice Visualization

Some people find meditation and breathing exercises to be challenging when under stress. Visualization is another popular go-to relaxation technique used to calm the mind.

Not only can visualizing help you take back control over your focus, but it can also activate the same neural networks needed to complete a task, helping prepare you for your test.

There are many different visualization techniques you can try. Some of the most popular include:

  • A serene outdoor scene, like a beach or a mountain
  • A glowing blue light
  • Leaves flowing by on a stream
  • The outcome you most desire (like acing your test!)

Try visualizing different things until you find what’s right for you.


Expect The Anxiety

Perhaps the most important technique out of everything here is to expect the anxiety.

If you’re someone who regularly experiences high stress before an exam, don’t just hope that it will go away.

Expect that you’ll feel it and create a strategy for how you can manage it.

William Wadsworth of Exam Study Expert recommends finding a way to manage not only your own expectations but those of the people whose opinions matter most to you as well:

“The weight of what other people think can be tough to deal with, and a major contributor to test anxiety. Get things straight in advance: identify people whose expectations are causing you sleepless nights, and have an honest conversation with them about it. If they’ve got your best interests at heart, they should be able to help you out.”


Resources For Test Anxiety

There are so many resources out there for students looking to overcome anxiety in any situation, including exams.

Here, we’ve listed out a few of our favorites:

  1. Fresh U
  2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
  3. Anxiety.org
  4. Test Prep Preview
  5. ULifeline


Test anxiety can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you’ve done everything you can to prepare.

But remember the grade that shows up on your exam doesn’t reflect the work you’ve done and the hours you’ve put in studying. It doesn’t reflect the strong student you actually are.

Test anxiety is very real and affects many students in many different ways.

But there are strategies and tools you can employ to help yourself stay calm and confident and even perform higher.

Don’t let test anxiety take away from all of the hard work you’ve put in. You CAN do this.