April 04, 2016

Taking care of you: handling test anxiety

Handling anxiety can often be a daunting task. Keanna Krawiec, dean of students communications coordinator and recent alumni, shares U of A Counselling and Clinical Services strategies for dealing with test anxiety.

For anyone who has ever written a test or exam, the feeling of stress and anxiety can be all too familiar. For many, it can enhance our motivation to study and our test taking ability, but what happens when that anxiety reaches a level that is actually detrimental to performance? This sense of panic, despite being well-prepared for the exam, is often called test anxiety.

There are a number of strategies for reducing test anxiety — and stress in general — ideally, helping you perform better on your exams. 

Leading up to the exam
Studying for exams can be just as stressful as taking the exam itself. In the time leading up to your exam, following these tips will not only help reduce your stress but also help you stay on track until your last test.

  • Thoroughly prepare for the exam. This may seem obvious but reviewing all available information, and discussing confusing materials with classmates, TAs, or instructors will help you immensely. Develop a specific study schedule that occurs over several days and stick to it so that you aren't cramming at the last minute.
  • Identify and challenge any negative self-talk. Examples of negative self-talk are comments like, “I’m going to fail this exam”, or “Everyone else knows this material better.” These negative statements never help and work to crush the confidence you have in your abilities. If you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, look for the evidence. Do you actually fail every test? Probably not. Challenge yourself by saying “This test will be difficult, but I have time to prepare” or “I need to put in my best effort, regardless of how well others have prepared.”
  • Practice self-care. Anxiety is always reduced when we are taking care of our basic needs and making self-care a priority.
On the day of the exam
It may sound trite, but having a substantial breakfast, after six to eight hours of sleep the night before, helps calm your nerves before an exam. Relaxing for an hour before you leave for the test is also helpful because, truthfully, cramming right before the exam never pays off, only increasing your stress levels. Follow the tip that all instructors tell their students: arrive early. Plan for extra time to get to campus and the exam location — we are all familiar with increased traffic during exam week.


During the exam
  • Review the exam and read the instructions. And do it again if you need to. This will help you plan how to spend your time and reduces the likelihood of missing a section. 
  • Start with the easy questions and come back to the difficult ones. If you are unsure of what the question is asking, talk to your professor. You can spend forever on a question worth very little only to quickly answer it after talking to the professor about it. 
  • Challenge your negative self-talk. When you do experience negative self talk, replace it with a helpful statement about yourself. 
  • Work at your own pace. Although we all are surprised when the first person hands in their test, it doesn't mean you are behind. Keep going and don’t pay attention to how quickly or slowly other students are working.
After the exam
Once you get out the door, reward yourself — regardless if you think you did well on the exam or not. Your effort from the time you started studying until the moment you are done is what is important and deserves to be recognized. After you have relaxed and had that delicious cookie or hot chocolate you've been thinking about, evaluate your success in reducing your anxiety and stress. What worked to reduce your stress? What was your level of anxiety while you were writing?


Remember, if you are struggling during this time of the year there are many helpful resources available to you on campus. Your mental health is a priority and seeking support during this stressful time can go a long way in maintaining your well-being. Some of these resources include: 

Community Social Work Team
Counseling and Clinical Services
Peer Support Centre
Interfaith Chaplains Association