If you have test anxiety, you might feel like it will be impossible to do well on high stakes tests like the SAT or the ACT.
While these standardized tests are certainly daunting, there are steps you can take to manage your test anxiety and earn a great score.
This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about test anxiety and how you can treat your test anxiety symptoms so that you’re calm, cool, and collected on test day.
What is test anxiety?
Test anxiety is a physiological condition that affects roughly 25-40% of students in the United States.
Students that struggle with this condition report feeling high levels of stress, anxiety, and panic before and/or during a test.
Usually, test anxiety manifests through some or all of the following symptoms:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Racing thoughts
- Trouble concentrating
- Negative thinking patterns
- Disrupted ability to recall information
Test anxiety can be debilitating, and it often hinders students from being able to perform to the best of their ability on a test.
Managing test anxiety
Because it involves both physical and emotional symptoms, test anxiety will prove distracting on test day if you aren’t able to learn to manage these symptoms effectively.
Here are a few ways to help keep your test taking anxiety under control:
Understand the root causes
Your best chance for overcoming test anxiety is understanding its root causes. Once you know why you have test anxiety, you will be better able to combat it.
There are many reasons why people may experience test anxiety:
- Pressure from high expectations
- Fear of failure or earning a low score
- Lack of preparation
- Previous negative experiences when taking test
Take a moment and think about what causes you the most anxiety when you picture taking a test like the SAT or ACT.
If you feel like you struggle with the pressure placed on you by yourself or others, it might help to remember that you are more than a test score. As long as you are trying your best when aiming for your target score, you are going to be successful.
If fear of failure causes you to feel anxiety, remind yourself that even if you were to guess on every answer on the test, you would still get a higher score than you would if you allowed yourself to freeze up and forget to answer several questions.
If you are worried that you won’t be prepared, take an ACT or SAT prep course or work with a private tutor so that you have accountability and access to preparation materials that will help you do well on the test.
If you are afraid about repeating a negative performance on one of these tests, take the time to adjust your study habits. If you are using new strategies, spending more time studying, and learning from your mistakes on your previous test, you are bound to do better the next time around.
Visualize your entire test day
Sometimes students spend so much time preparing for the actual test that they forget to bring exam entry materials or get thrown off by the steps they have to take before they enter the exam room.
You can prevent this from happening by familiarizing yourself with what you need to do and bring on test day for the SAT or ACT and visualizing yourself completing these steps before your scheduled administration.
What to bring
Whether you’re taking the SAT or the ACT, you’ll need to bring:
- Your printed admission ticket
- Acceptable photo identification
- No. 2 pencils with functional erasers
- An approved calculator
- (Optional) Backup calculator or batteries
- (Optional) A wristwatch that is not a smart watch
- (Optional) Snacks for designated breaks
What to expect on test day
For both the SAT and ACT:
- Test centers open at 7:45 a.m. and doors close at 8:00 a.m.
- Before you enter your test room, you will have to show your admission ticket and ID to the proctor
- The proctor will assign you a seat
- The proctor will read instructions verbatim from an instructor booklet, and they will walk you through the steps required for you to provide your personal information to receive your test scores. This step takes roughly 30 minutes to complete.
- The proctor will check your calculator and backup calculator, and they will make sure you do not have a phone, tablet, or smart watch.
- The proctor will tell you when to start and stop on each section of the test and how to fill out the answer sheet
- During breaks, you may not discuss the test with anyone, you must bring your admission ticket and ID with you, and you may only eat in designated areas
- After the test, the proctor will collect your materials and dismiss you. For the SAT, this will be around noon. For the ACT without writing, this will be around 12:35 p.m. For the ACT with writing, this will be around 1:35 p.m.
Now that you have an idea of what to expect on test day, you won’t have to worry about not knowing what to bring, which seat to choose, or when you can eat snacks. I’d recommend finding the best route to get to your test center if you’ve never been there before and gathering all of your materials and snacks the night before so that you aren’t stressed in the morning.
Practice under test conditions
You won’t have a good idea about what it will feel like to take the ACT or the SAT if you aren’t practicing under the same conditions you will encounter on test day.
When you take practice tests:
- Start at 8 a.m.
- Use the same time restrictions that you’ll have to use on test day
- Work in an area where you might encounter slight distractions like family members blowing their noses or clocks ticking
- Complete the sections in order and don’t jump ahead to new sections or jump back to previous sections if you have extra time
After a few practice tests, you will know exactly what to expect on test day, making you feel less anxious about how you will manage your time or deal with distractions during the test.
The more comfortable you are with the test ahead of time, the easier it will be to feel comfortable during the test.
Establish a pre-exam routine
Waking up ten minutes before you need to be at your testing center is not going to help your test anxiety.
You need to establish a calming, pre-exam routine that you can follow before the ACT, SAT, or any other test you need to take.
Try setting out your clothes and any materials you’ll need for the test the night before so that you aren’t rushing around trying to get ready and find everything on the morning of the test.
Wake up early enough that you can get ready at a leisurely pace instead of having to scramble and raise your heartbeat before you even start the test.
Eat a good breakfast so that you can improve your concentration and keep yourself from being anxious about your stomach growling during the test. Try to avoid caffeine, which can exacerbate your racing, nervous thoughts.
Right before the test, it can be a good idea to take some deep breaths, listen to relaxing music, drink some water, or engage in other calming activities.
While there is no one-size-fits-all routine to follow, coming up with some strategies that will help you stay calm before the test can work wonders for your test anxiety symptoms.
If you aren’t prepared for a test, you are going to be inundated with fears about failing or getting a poor score.
When you take the SAT or the ACT, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting a low score because you should already have a rough idea of what score you are going to earn.
When preparing for either of these exams, you will realize that only certain types of questions appear on each test. While the reading passages and the numbers used for math questions will vary, the types of questions and the steps you’ll need to take to answer these questions will not.
This means that it is possible to become familiar with every test question you will encounter on the SAT and on the ACT. Once you are familiar with these questions, you should be able to predict how well you will do by taking several practice tests.
If you consistently score between a 32 and 33 on the ACT practice tests, you can expect to do that well on the ACT. If you consistently score between 1520 and 1540 on the SAT, that is likely how well you will do on test day.
Having this preparation and knowledge will keep you from letting your anxiety spiral out of control when you take either of these tests because you’ll already have a rough idea of the score you are going to earn and none of the questions will take you by surprise.
Think about the last horror movie you watched. When you watched the movie for the first time, you probably jumped at all of the jump scares because you didn’t know they were coming. Now imagine what would happen if you decided to watch that horror movie every single day for 3 months straight. Chances are none of the jump scares would affect you any more because you are prepared for them.
That’s the same advantage you will gain by studying for the ACT or SAT and taking multiple practice tests. You won’t feel anxious because you’ll already know what to expect and how to handle all of the problems that come your way.
Learn how Prep Expert can help you reach this level of preparation when you sign up for private tutoring or one of our prep courses.