University Health Service


What is test anxiety?

Exams are among the greatest sources of stress in college. Some level of nervousness before tests can motivate you; however, too much stress can interfere with your ability to prepare for and perform on tests.

Test anxiety has two components, physical reactions and worry.

Physical reactions (heart pounding, sweaty palms, etc.), when kept in check, do not usually impair performance and may enhance your ability to focus on the immediate task.

Worry (that is, thinking about failure rather than preparing to succeed) is more harmful. You can use the following tips to control worrying.

Before the test:

  • Develop a schedule for reviewing material. Daily reviews help you retain information better than cram sessions before the test.
  • Compile a checklist of information covered since the last exam. Master main concepts and important details.
  • Review class notes and readings. Information included in assigned reading and emphasized again in lecture is likely to be included on the exam.
  • Attend office hours and ask questions.
  • Review with other students or work on practice questions.
  • Review definitions of terms that your instructor has introduced.
  • Find memory tricks to improve your ability to recall information.
  • Ask the instructor what will be covered on the test and what the format will be.
  • Review the syllabus. Anything listed will probably be on the exam.
  • Talk positively to yourself while studying and during the exam.

During the test:

  • Take a deep breath before beginning. See One-Minute Stress Strategies for other quick stress reducers.
  • Minimize distraction. Wear comfortable clothes. Bring extra pens or pencils.
  • Review the instructions and the whole exam thoroughly before starting.
  • Stay aware of time. Estimate how much time to devote to each portion of a test and try to stick to it. If you get stuck, skip the question and come back to it.
  • Use any extra time to review answers and add improvements.

Strategies for projects:

Essay tests:  Construct a short outline, then begin your answer with a summary sentence. Proofread for missing words or important facts and check your spelling. Expand answers as time allows.

Multiple-choice tests:  Read all options. Eliminate those that are obviously wrong. Beware of qualifying words such as only, always or most. Make a small mark by any questions you are unsure of and review them after answering everything else.

Math problems:  Don't rush. Recheck your calculations if you have time.

Papers:  Develop a timeline that includes enough time to research the topic, organize the information into an outline, write (including a rough draft) and edit. Break the paper into manageable sections. Include all necessary citations.

Presentations:  Use an outline to organize information. Spend time on an attention grabbing introduction and conclusion. Use visuals and props if possible. Practice your presentation aloud (by yourself with a mirror or with a practice audience). Concentrate on eye contact, speed and volume. Volunteering to go first decreases your waiting time (shortening the duration of anxiety) and insures that you will not be compared to others before you. 

For more information:

When is anxiety too much? See Anxiety Disorders and Panic Attacks.

Resources for Stress and Mental Health lists campus resources (including academic support), plus local and national resources.