Ashley is a junior in high school and had planned to take the SAT exam in February with the rest of her friends. However, as February loomed closer, Ashely could not bring herself to talk about or think about the exam. She skipped study sessions with her friends and she even missed a weekend SAT course that her mom signed her up for. As the weeks went by, Ashley avoided studying for the exam. When her parents asked her about her preparation, Ashley would roll her eyes and change the subject or become upset and run to her room, slamming the door. When pressed by her guidance counselor, Ashley sheepishly confessed to not preparing for the exam. Together, they decided to postpone her exam until April, though her guidance counselor warned her that she needed to get serious about preparing.
However, as April approaches, Ashley is plagued with fear and dread. She feels overwhelmed by the quantity of materials. Just looking at the study books on her desk gives her a sinking feeling in her stomach. Her friends all sat for the exam in February and have been excitedly discussing their scores and where they hope to go to college. Ashley has convinced herself that her desire to go to college is hopeless and that she will never get a good enough score on the exam. Ashley has started having difficulty sleeping, feels sad frequently, avoids hanging out with her friends after school, and has hidden her SAT books under her bed so she does not have to look at them. The more time that passes without studying, the worse Ashley feels, but the idea of opening up a study book overwhelms her to the point of tears.
In the days, weeks, and months leading up to a high stakes exam like the SATs, teens like Ashley who have test anxiety often put off studying and avoid any reminders of their upcoming exams. As more and more time goes by without beginning to prepare, students start to feel as though they are running out of time, which makes their anxiety increase. This makes starting to study even more difficult and overwhelming. Students with test anxiety may delay studying to the point that they do not give themselves adequate time to prepare. This often causes an increase of anxiety on the day of the exam, and makes it less likely that students will perform at their best. This self-defeating cycle only serves to reinforce and increase test anxiety over time. However, by making small changes in the weeks and month leading up to the test, teens like Ashley can begin to approach studying and preparation with less fear and decrease their debilitating test anxiety.
Here are some specific test anxiety tips:
Start small. When starting a new study plan, it may be tempting to start with the study topic that is most difficult, or to plan to spend the entire weekend studying. However, when a student is dealing with test anxiety, big changes like this often feel overwhelming and unmanageable and students will often avoid them altogether. In order to make studying more approachable, students should plan to start with small, manageable periods of studying, such as fifteen or twenty minutes. If fifteen minutes feels like too much, start with even just one practice question! Once you feel comfortable with the small amount you have started with, slowly increase your daily studying in small increments.
Make a plan. Once you have built your studying up to an amount of time or material that you feel comfortable with, make a study plan. Take care not to cram too much material into too short of a time period. Assess what you realistically can cover in the time you have left. Making a schedule will help you gain control over this task that can feel overwhelming. Additionally, it is helpful to build in some “buffers” or catch up days; this way it won’t throw off your plan if you miss a day because you are tired, sick, or have too much homework.
Take breaks. Even as test day approaches, don’t spend all day and night studying with no breaks. Our brains and minds work best when they are given time to do other things, to rest, and to re-charge. Take breaks throughout your studying. Maybe that means you will study for one hour and then call a friend. Study for a half hour and then take a walk around the block. While taking a break may seem like it takes away from your study time, taking breaks can actually make your studying more effective.
Talk to others. When your stress levels are up and you are worried about an upcoming exam, you may prefer to be alone. Maybe when you do talk to your friends, parents, or teachers, you try to avoid discussing the exam. This can be because you don’t want to face your fears or because you want others to tell you that you have nothing to worry about. Avoiding talking to others about the exam may provide you short-term relief from the anxiety that surfaces when the test is on your mind. However, avoidance only serves to make you more anxious in the long run. Talking to others can help you to see that most people are at least a bit nervous about a high stakes test. You may also learn some study tips and strategies or find ways to better prepare. Maybe most importantly, connecting to others who are going through the same situation or have gone through it can help you to feel supported and not alone.
Notice your thoughts. When dealing with test anxiety, students often find themselves thinking about the test and their future in ways that make things worse. Catastrophizing, or thinking about the worst case scenario, is one type of thinking that can worsen test anxiety. Students might find themselves thinking that they are doomed to get an awful score on the SATs or won’t even remember a single fact on their AP exam. While these thoughts seem true in the moment, when you take a step back, you can probably see that these thoughts are not likely to be true and are certainly not helpful! Finding more realistic ways of thinking about your upcoming exams will serve to decrease test anxiety.
Take care of yourself. Lastly, when preparing for a high stakes exam, students will often stay up late into the night studying, drink a lot of coffee or energy drinks, miss breakfast or other meals, and skip extracurricular activities or social events. While staying up late and missing other activities may seem like it gives you more time to focus on your preparation, it will decrease your mental energy, may make you feel “foggy,” and will cause your mood to decline. As with most things in life, with studying and preparation for a high stakes test, balance is key. Spending too much time studying and ignoring the rest of your life will likely negatively impact your mood, self-esteem, and performance on the exam. Take time to get enough sleep, eat square meals, see your friends, exercise, and take breaks!
Test anxiety can be a chronic and overwhelming condition for teens like Ashley, causing them to postpone their exams, avoid studying, and experience a decrease in mood and self-esteem. However, making small changes to how one approaches studying and how one thinks about the test can make an enormous difference. By following the above tips, test anxiety can be managed and reduced so that high stakes exams, while perhaps unpleasant, do not disrupt a student’s whole year.
If you are a teen or the parent of a teen with test anxiety who is finding it hard to manage your fears and worries, consider consulting with a cognitive-behavioral therapy professional for help implementing the above tips and other strategies to reduce and overcome this anxiety.