How to Manage Test Anxiety
Testing anxiety is a difficult subject. Few students are over-confident in their testing abilities. Some students are calm, cool, and collected, and don’t have anxiety issues at all. But many students have levels of anxiety ranging from “slightly nervous” to severe and overwhelming breakdowns.
When I first started tutoring, and didn’t know how to tackle anxiety, I repeatedly had students drop 300 points between their diagnostics and their real test scores based purely on nerves. Anxiety is very real, and very pernicious, and if you don’t manage it properly, it will do more to damage test scores than any math disability possibly could.
Fortunately, there is a guaranteed, simple, and easy-to-follow method for eliminating anxiety entirely. By the end of this guide, you’ll know how to handle the issue based on my 13,000+ hours teaching this exam.
Note: if your child has an actual anxiety disorder, you need to address this issue with a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist. I am neither of these things. I know how to handle “non-medical” anxiety, the natural anxiety that every student feels when confronting the understandably nerve wracking test-prep process. But if you know or suspect that your child might have a legitimate psychological issue, take him or her to a licensed professional as soon as possible.
What is anxiety?
Medical science defines anxiety as “a state of uneasiness or apprehension, as about future uncertainties.”
Noticing that last bit is incredibly important. The reason?
Anxiety is caused by uncertainty.
Think about it for a moment: is it possible to be anxious about a scenario for which you’re certain of the outcome? Answer: no.
If you know exactly what to expect, then you’ll never feel anxious. All nervousness and anxiety comes from not knowing what to expect.
If you’re in any situation with an uncertain outcome, you’ll feel anxious. If you’re waiting to see whether you’ve gotten a job, you’re going to feel anxious. If you’ve just bet $1,000 on the spin of a roulette wheel, you’re going to feel anxious. If you’re going on a blind date, you’re going to feel anxious. In each of these situations, you’re anxious because you are not sure what is going to happen.
Have you ever felt anxious about an event in which the outcomes are certain? As long as you don’t suffer from a true anxiety disorder, the answer should be no. In fact, someone with an anxiety disorder is diagnosed as one who “feels irrational or overwhelming anxiety about events that are both in and out of his or her control.” In other words, people with anxiety disorders have disorders because they don’t really have anxiety – they just have a perpetual, irrational fear of the future.
When you put food in the microwave, are you anxious that it won’t heat up? When you drink water, are you anxious that it won’t quench your thirst? Of course not! The reason is that it is impossible to feel anxious about anything when the outcome is completely certain!
If you understand this fact, then you should start to get an idea of how to tackle anxiety in any area of your life:
If you limit uncertainty and improve familiarity, you reduce anxiety commensurately.
Think about the experience of most public speakers: the first time they have to give a speech, they’re nervous, anxious wrecks. They’re anxious because they don’t know what to expect. Will the crowd boo them? Will they forget their lines? Will they stumble and stutter? Will they look silly? They don’t know, and because they don’t know, they’re anxious.
But what happens once someone has given 100 speeches? He knows what to expect. He knows how he’ll perform. He knows how the audience will react. He knows how the microphone works. So he isn’t nervous.
If you know what to expect, you will not be anxious.
This lesson can be easily applied to test prep. When students know what to expect from a test, they won’t feel nervous about it.
Students become anxious before taking tests for only four reasons:
1. They don’t know what the test will be like.
2. They don’t know what will be on the exact test they take.
3. They don’t know what the testing experience itself will be like.
4. They’re not sure how they’ll score.
Because they don’t know all of these things, they are anxious. So how do you kill anxiety? Eliminate the uncertainty surrounding these four elements.
Here’s how you tackle all four of these issues, one by one, to completely kill anxiety. I can promise you that if you handle all four of them, your child will be confident, relaxed, and alert when going into his or her SAT or ACT:
1. What’s the test like?
The most nervous students are those who are totally unfamiliar with the SAT or ACT. My most nervous students are always the ones who come to me with zero or near-zero experience with these tests. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of students and their parents think of the SAT/ACT as some unknowable, terrifying monster. The reason? They have never “met” the test before.
If you’ve never met the SAT or ACT, you’re going to be scared of them. How do you solve this problem?
Meet the tests. Over, and over, and over again.
If there’s one activity that improves test scores and reduces anxiety, it’s repeated, constant practice with real test material. If a student doesn’t know what each section of the SAT or ACT looks like, of course he’s going to be nervous! Once he’s been through 4 or 5 full-length SATs or ACTs, he won’t be.
This seems simple, and it is. If you want your daughter to feel less nervous about her SAT or ACT, have her take a bunch of full-length tests. Then have her practice for her SAT/ACT using real test material on a consistent basis.
You’d be amazed by the results you’ll see in a very short period of time. Students who are initially terrified will quickly become cool, confident, and collected just by “meeting” the exams.
Remember: it’s impossible to feel anxious when you know what to expect. If your child continually works with real test material, he’ll know what to expect. Hence, anxiety will be drastically reduced.
My entire online system is built with this concept in mind. If your child starts early, he should be working through at least seven full-length, timed, graded SATs or ACTs, along with in-depth analysis. If he gives himself more time to prepare, he’ll take even more.
When I was in high school, my (extremely talented) SAT tutor had me take 10 full-length practice SATs before I took the real thing. I ended up getting a 99th percentile score on my first try (even though I got a 70th percentile score on my PSAT). I’m not “naturally gifted” at tests, and I was an insanely nervous wreck when I took my PSAT. It was the first time I’d ever dealt with the material before. When I took the actual SAT, my friends were all freaking out. I might as well have been getting a massage. I couldn’t have been more relaxed.
When you know what to expect, you stop being nervous – period.
2. What, exactly, will be on this test?
This is simply an extension of #1, but it has important implications. Once students realize how the SAT and ACT are structured, what each section tests (generally), and what types of problems they can expect, they can form a new and more specific form of anxiety centered on these two questions:
What if I see a problem on test day that I’ve never tried before?
There are two ways to kill this form of anxiety. The first is simple: practice, practice, practice. The more problems your child solves, the fewer problem types he’ll be unfamiliar with. While the SAT and ACT are extremely good at coming up with new, unique ways of testing students on material, there’s a limit to how many different ways they can spin things.
This goes for math, grammar, reading comprehension, and the science sections. A particular kind of problem involving a pattern sequence might be tough the first time – by the fifth time, it’s a walk in the park. A question about tone or about the intentions of the author might seem strange and confusing at first, but not after the hundredth time you’ve answered it.
If your child solves 2,000+ practice problems for the SAT or ACT, he will have seen almost every imaginable permutation of every problem on these tests. Practice makes perfect, and it also kills anxiety. Again, this all boils down to familiarity.
Also, it might help to tell your child something that might at first seem pessimistic: no matter how much you study, you’ll always run into something you’ve never seen before. When this happens, and it will, don’t sweat it! PROMISE your child that she’ll see a couple quirky, random problems. But so what? Expect them, know they’ll be there, and try your best. That’s it. You’re not aiming to get every problem right, you’re just aiming to get almost all of the problems right. If you see something weird, try your best.
What if I’m tested on material that I don’t know?
It doesn’t matter how familiar you are with a type of problem if you don’t know the material required to solve it. For instance, if you can’t find the slope of a line, then you’ll never be able to answer a slope problem, regardless of how many times you’ve seen this problem type before.
But here’s the thing: when students figure out what they need to know, they’ll be able to catalog these deficiencies and knock them out. I force my students to identify both the material AND the problem types on the SAT/ACT that they’re uncomfortable with. Step one is to document everything they don’t know, step two is to learn it cold, and step three is to apply it to realistic testing conditions.
My methodology is based on the concept of “know thy enemy.” I don’t teach students random facts, tips, and tricks from day one. Instead, I force them to figure out which facts, tips, and tricks they need to know. Once they have a complete idea of what they’re missing (and realize how minimal this deficiency actually is), this entire process will be a walk in the park.
Most material-based anxiety exists because students aren’t aware of their own weaknesses. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you get very, very anxious. Once you learn what you don’t know, you become much more effective at studying. When your child has a perfect idea of what he needs to know, he’ll understand precisely what to study, and he’ll stop being anxious because he’ll stop being uncertain.
That’s all there is to it.
3. What will taking the test be like?
Here’s how to teach your child what the SAT/ACT will be like: make him take a full-length, timed SAT/ACT under realistic conditions.
How can you be scared of something you’ve done many times before?
Sure, the real test might be in a gymnasium rather than in your living room. And sure, it might be “the real deal” – but if you take a timed, four-hour test enough times, you get used to it. I was a nervous wreck when I took my PSAT, but after my tutor forced me to take countless practice SATs, I was cool as a cucumber when I went in to take my actual SATs.
Lots of diagnostic exams completely kill anxiety, period.
The last issue concerns the “real deal” aspect. Even if your student has taken diagnostics before, he’ll still be nervous about what his score will be, right? Wrong.
4. What will my score be?
If your child takes his diagnostic exams in official testing booklets, he’ll know exactly how he’s scoring and what to expect. The hundreds of students I’ve tutored all show a remarkable consistency when it comes to their scores. They usually go up, up, up, perhaps slightly down, up, up, up, slightly down, etc. But overall, their scores continue to go up on a steady, reliable basis, and the scores they get on their diagnostic tests are nearly identical to the scores they get on their actual SATs and ACTs.
If your child has taken a lot of official diagnostic exams, he’ll already know what he’s going to score. He won’t be nervous if he’s already gotten a 1300 four times in a row on the SAT. He’s probably going to get a 1300, or somewhere very near it on the actual testing day. In general, students get within +/- 100 points on their SATs, and +/- 2 points on the ACT. There’s rarely much of a spread between how students perform on their practice tests and how they perform on the real thing.
So long as your child follows a reliable program, diagnoses his weaknesses, studies consistently, takes a bunch of practice tests, and uses real testing material to figure out where he’s scoring (something that my online program demands – I only use the Official College Board and ACT books for practice tests), anxiety won’t be an issue.
The Sleepy Elephant in the Room
A lot of parents tell me that their kids are “anxious” or “underperforming.” In fact, it only takes me a few moments to realize that their kids are just tired. Utterly, unbelievably tired. This brings us to the next extremely important element of being a test prep parent: getting your kid some sleep! And for that, we move on to the next section!