Once you’ve registered to take your exam and you’ve decided how you’re going to study for it, you can turn your attention to the actual test situation. Ask yourself three questions:

  1. How do I really feel about taking tests? Am I generally relaxed and efficient?
  2. Am I nervous in a test situation, so nervous that I waste time with instructions, get confused by questions, or fixate on getting the answer to every one, unable to move on until I do?
  3. What special skills will I need to work on in order to improve my test performance?

Recently, a group of students spoke candidly with Peterson’s about their first reactions to standardized tests:

  • “When it comes to tests, I’m the kind of person who gets hypnotized by the clock. I watch the minutes tick away and become more and more tense until I can’t work anymore. Consequently I never finish tests on time and always leave them with a sense of deep frustration.”
  • “It’s funny; I always worked hard and performed pretty well in my high school classes and on the tests we had every week in class. But I’ve never been able to transfer that success over to standardized tests. I just wish I didn’t have to be judged by how well I do on tests, and that people would just accept me for who I am.”
  • “In test situations I just can’t focus on the test! I keep thinking of how much fun I am going to have next Saturday afternoon when I get together with my friends.”

If you have a hard time focusing when you go into a test, remember how you overcame other challenges in your life, like your first dive into the local swimming pool. You talked to yourself, right? Do this again, and persuade yourself to look at the questions in a relaxed and thoughtful manner.

If the clock intimidates you, then practice with your software or test-preparation book, using a kitchen timer. When the timer rings, reset it and move on to the next question no matter what. You will get used to thinking more efficiently and quickly.

If difficult questions make you panic, then the appropriate strategy would be to skip the difficult questions. On most standardized tests, some of the responses will be more difficult than others, and each response counts the same. Think of the fact that if you correctly skip the few difficult questions on the test and get all the others right, you are going to do very well.

If you have difficulty with a question and pass it by, you can always look at it again later if there is time. Faced with four or five multiple-choice responses to a question you understand, eliminate the one or two obvious wrong answers, then select the response that best answers the question. If you are still puzzled, do not respond to the question at all. Remember not to read too much into a question. Take the test questions at face value. The test makers are not out to trick you, believe it or not.

A Group Approach to Test Anxiety

Sometimes counseling centers will offer group sessions devoted to alleviating test anxiety. The first step requires that all members of the group share their test-taking experiences, and these experiences are condensed and put in the left-hand column on a chalkboard. The group then brainstorms about ways in which each anxiety might be reduced or eliminated. These responses are recorded in a middle column on the board beside the anxiety they are meant to cure.

Next, the group conducts a rehearsal of the test situation itself. This exercise enables students to identify how they react in a test situation. The counselor takes notes on how each student acts as he or she is taking the test. For example, he might write in his notebook: “Dave appeared stone-faced and stared into outer space a lot.” Or, “Joan bit her nails and her pencil unmercifully.” Or, “Tom kept crossing and uncrossing his legs and then scrunched up in the chair, and he kept looking at the clock.” When the exercise is over, the counselor reads his comments as he writes them in the third column on the board. The group discusses the chart they have produced on the board and makes recommendations about the behavior of each member. The counselor enters that recommendation in the fourth and final column on the board.

For Dave, the conclusion might be, “Dave should relax and not lift his head and be distracted from his paper. He should focus on head and neck relaxation techniques.” For Joan, “She should keep her hands as still as possible and chew gum so that she does not poison herself chewing her lead-filled pencils.” For Tom, the comment is, “He should sit in a more relaxed and upright position and look at the clock only when he has come to the end of a section.”

Simple Relaxation Exercises

Once students have identified their particular counterproductive behavior in an exam situation, they will want to think seriously about going through a brief relaxation exercise before taking the test. John Emery of the Human Resources Institute in California has suggested the following muscle-relaxing exercises for people approaching anxious moments in their lives:

  1. Settle back in your chair and relax. Take a few deep breaths and begin to let yourself go.
  2. Now extend both arms straight out and clench your fists more and more tightly as you count slowly to five. Then relax and let your arms drop. Concentrate on the differences you perceive between the tension phase and the relaxation phase.
  3. Focus on your forearms. Extend your arms as above, and push out on a slow five count as before. Relax again. Do the same for your biceps, flexing your arms toward your body and then relaxing after 5 seconds.
  4. Concentrate on your forehead. Wrinkle your brow hard on a five count. Relax.
  5. Close your eyes tightly as you count to five. Then relax slowly.
  6. Do the same for your neck and shoulders, sitting up rigidly, then relaxing. For each exercise, conclude by contemplating the difference between the tense feeling and the relaxed feeling that follows it.
  7. Do the same for your stomach muscles. Then let them relax and try to spread this relaxation throughout your entire body.
  8. Now move to your thighs. Straighten out your legs and turn your toes up toward your face on a five count and relax.
  9. Relax your calf muscles in a similar way, turning your toes away and down as hard as you can as you count to five. Then relax again. Repeat the exercise, turning your toes up this time.

Finally, in a relaxed position, close your eyes and review your exercises, trying to spread that relaxed feeling outward from each particular muscle group throughout your whole body.

Rewarding Yourself for “Good Behavior”

Test anxiety can also be handled by inventing a simple game called “Rewarding Yourself for Good Behavior.”

  • Dave, who blanks out and stares into outer space during tests, might promise himself a solid 10-minute break after taking a mock test, if-and only if-he does not look up and blank out while taking the practice test.
  • Joan might reward herself by having something fun to eat, like an ice cream sundae, if-and only if-she is able to abstain from chewing her pencil while taking a practice test.
  • Tom could decide to limit his clock watching to two time checks per test session and reinforce this behavior by promising to buy himself a shirt he recently admired in a shop downtown, if-and only if-he succeeds in controlling his behavior on the practice test.

Whatever strategy you use, the important idea to bear in mind is rewarding good behavior and punishing the undesirable behavior. Make sure the reward and punishment system is reasonable for you. The more it is, the better it will work to reduce your anxiety.