For students who suffer from test anxiety, taking the SAT and ACT can be excruciating. While this article can’t cure anxiety, it will hopefully serve as a reminder to students and parents that you’re not alone. Beating test anxiety isn’t easy, but preparation, organization, and practice can make it more manageable.

What are the Causes and Symptoms of Test Anxiety?

Anxiety is rooted in fear: fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of annihilation, fear that there’s only one pathway, one chance, that it all hinges on this. Anxiety can also result from inadequate preparation. A history of poor test performance can cause the anxiety to become ingrained.

Symptoms of test anxiety can include headache, nausea, sweating, trouble breathing, and even panic attacks. Test anxiety is often accompanied by feelings of fear and helplessness, decreased concentration, and unshakeable negative thoughts.

What Can You Do to Combat Test Anxiety?

There’s a Buddhist proverb about worrying that asks: If you can do something about it, why worry? If you can’t do anything about it, why worry? In short: why worry?

For those that suffer from anxiety, though, rational thinking such as this sometimes isn’t helpful. They know they shouldn’t worry, yet they worry. Anxiety isn’t rational–in fact, it’s irrational.

Like medicine, though, anxiety can be helpful in small amounts, yet toxic in large amounts. Perhaps the first step in combating the unwanted effects of test anxiety lies in recognizing some of the benefits of anxiety.

First, having anxiety means you care–deeply. It means you want to do well. It means you want to live up to your own standards, to prove yourself to yourself and to family and friends.

Anxiety also often means you’re detail-oriented. You notice the little things, and that can actually be useful and important on standardized tests!

Once you recognize that anxiety can have positive effects, it’s easier to combat negative thinking and practice positive thinking. And like the proverb I mentioned states: If you can do something about it, why worry? Here are some things you can do.

1) Prepare

Make sure you’re familiar with every aspect of the test. How many questions are on it? How many answer choices? Can you skip questions? Should you skip questions? Should you guess? Are there free response questions? How is the test scored? What is your target score? What content does the test cover? Have you read test prep materials? Have you taken SAT or ACT classes? Have you done 1-on-1 SAT or ACT prep tutoring?

2) Organize

Create a long-term study plan and stick to it. Whether you’re beginning test prep as a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior, it’s possible to survey the material tested and fill any gaps in your knowledge before test time. Ideally, it’s wise to begin preparing early, to allow yourself the greatest possible amount of time for retakes. Book your test dates well in advance and create more specific plans of action in the weeks and days leading up to the test. Don’t forget to take care of your body and eat right, exercise, and sleep a healthy amount.

3) Practice

It’s a cliché for a reason: practice makes perfect. Very few people who get perfect or near-perfect scores do so the first–or even the second–time. E-mail [email protected] to register for a free SAT or ACT practice test at our office! We simulate test conditions as closely as possible to help you prepare for the real thing. For students who suffer from test anxiety, acclimatizating to the conditions of test day is essential.

These are just general tips. Don’t forget to see a counselor who can provide insight on your specific situation!

4) Perspective

We fear the unknown. Although it may be impossible to fully eradicate anxiety, it is possible to recognize the positive qualities inherent in a healthy dose of anxiety, and it’s also possible to reduce fear of the unknown by preparation, organization, and practice.

Your personal best is, in fact, good enough. There are hundreds of thousands of successful people who suffer from test anxiety. SAT and ACT scores are only one small part of a much larger picture. Remember, if after trying your best, your scores still aren’t where you want them to be, you can always address your test anxiety in your college application essay.

Learn to see the positive qualities inherent in what is traditionally assumed to be a negative thing! Turn contemplation into action. And never forget to breathe. Practice deep breathing exercises designed to lower your heart rate when your heart starts racing.

You are more than your test anxiety.

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