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Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety which causes feelings of tension and apprehension in response to evaluative tasks, including oral and written tests and exams, presentations, and class participation. Test anxiety can prevent you from being able to perform to your full academic potential.  The good news is that test anxiety is treatable! It is important that you are aware of its signs, symptoms, and causes, as well as strategies and resources for reducing test anxiety, so that you can recognize the need for, and seek out, support during your college career.

Signs and Symptoms

Test anxiety can be exhibited through a wide range of symptoms that can significantly interfere with test performance. Some examples include:

  • Uneasiness/nervousness
  • Fear
  • Dread
  • Task avoidance
  • Withdrawal
  • Fidgeting
  • Excessive worries about possible failure and its consequences
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Mental disorganization
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleeping difficulties


Several factors can increase a student’s likelihood of experiencing test anxiety. These may include:

  • Fear of failure/negative evaluation
  • High task demands/time constraints
  • Lack of preparation or study skills
  • Poor testing history

Tips for Overcoming Test Anxiety

Successful preparation is key, not only to performing well on tests but also to reducing your anxiety about testing. Before the exam:

  • Plan ahead
    • Developing time management skills can help heavy course and workloads to feel more manageable. By establishing time management systems, you can ensure that you are able to sufficiently balance all your commitments and thoroughly prepare for exams.
    • Arrive to the test environment early to reduce the additional stressor of feeling rushed
      • Gather needed test materials in advance
      • Give yourself plenty of time to commute to the testing location
  • Sharpen your study skills
    • When students are not equipped with effective study skills, they are more likely to feel unprepared for evaluative tasks. It is important to seek out resources as early as possible which directly teach such skills, so that they become an established part of your test preparation routine.
    • Check out a Student Success Toolkit Series workshop: In-person, pre-recorded, and self-guided options for workshops covering a variety of academic skills topics, including:
      • Active Learning & Study Strategies
      • Reading and Note-Taking Strategies
      • Time Management & Prioritization
      • Test Taking Strategies Beyond the First Year
      • Preparing for Finals
      • and more!
  • Additional study skills tips
    • Study in similar environments to the expected testing situation (i.e., in a classroom, at a desk, etc.) to aid recall in the actual exam setting.
    • Cramming the night or morning before an exam is stressful. Begin studying early and consistently so the stakes feel less intense. This also helps you retain more knowledge from the material in the long term.
    • Make/take practice tests
      • Create a practice test and then take it in a way that mimics the actual testing situation as closely as possible. For example, try to create similar question formats to those likely to be on the exam (multiple choice, essays, problem set, etc.), use consistent test-taking behaviors, such as sitting at a desk without access to your phone or study materials, and time yourself, since good time management is key to increased test performance.
  • Seek out support
    • Communicate with your teaching staff and seek out campus resources to better understand exam material well in advance of the test
      • Attend office hours or review sessions
      • Take advantage of tutoring or supplemental instruction
  • Prioritize your mental and physical health
    • Get sufficient sleep in general, but especially the night before an exam
    • Engage in regular self-care practices
      • Exercise regularly
      • Eat healthy foods to boost your energy through a steady stream of nutrients
      • Avoid excessive caffeine, which can increase your nerves
      • Seek out mental health supports
    • Try relaxation techniques
      • Practice meditation, yoga, and/or systematic relaxation, accompanied by deep breathing
        • By engaging with these techniques, you can train your mind to handle difficult situations more calmly, by learning to focus your attention on the task at hand and screen out task-irrelevant, negative, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Deep breathing is a cornerstone of this type of strategy, with research showing that practicing breathing strategies twice a day can build one’s confidence in reducing their anxiety symptoms.
      • Listen to music
        • Listening to music while studying or before beginning an exam has been shown to have a calming effect. It can help you relax your muscles, quiet your thoughts, and release tension, thus reducing the distractions of the symptoms of test anxiety and letting you focus on rehearsing the material and relaxing your body and mind.

During the exam:

  • Regulate your breathing
    • Practice mindful breathing to slow your thoughts and regulate your heart rate – this helps to reduce physical symptoms of test anxiety, letting you focus on the exam itself
      • Close your eyes and take deep breaths through your nose while focusing on how the air feels in your nasal passages and lungs
  • Reframe your nervous energy and negative thoughts
    • Work with your anxiety, not against it - try to channel your fear into excitement to get “psyched up” for the test
    • Try not to think about the consequences, reframe your thoughts to convince yourself that you believe in yourself, and practice visualization, such as imagining yourself getting a good grade
      • Picture your happy place
      • Recite a morale-boosting mantra
  • Focus on yourself: Do not worry about what others are doing, or other students’ pace
  • Plan your pace: Flip through the test as a whole before getting started and make a plan for how much time, within the allocated time limit, you will dedicate to each section

After the exam:

  • Avoid discussing grades: Don’t discuss your grades, or ask others about their grades, on exams. When a student performs poorly, comparing their grade to others can feel shameful. When a student performs well, they might feel increased pressure to maintain that high performance. So, it is best to practice deflecting questions about test performance, to avoid the negative effects of comparing results to others altogether.
  • Practice acceptance: Recognize and accept that while past test results are out of your control, you can control how you prepare for future exams.
  • Revise your expectations about the consequences of failure: Ask yourself “what will really happen?” if you perform poorly. This helps to ground the situation in reality and counter cognitive distortions
  • Seek additional feedback: Consult with your teaching team about questions you may have missed and how you can improve your performance in the future
  • Reframe your thinking: Remember that an exam is a learning opportunity, not a measure of your value or intelligence, and that your grade does not define you!

Campus Resources