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Test Taking Anxiety: Strategies for Coping with Test Day Nerves

Students take countless tests throughout their school lives, but none create as much stress as the big three-SAT, ACT, and AP (Advanced Placement). When it feels like a lot is riding on the results, nervousness can set in and actually hurt a student's performance.

By taking a few simple steps to prepare, your child can increase his or her chances for success-not only standardized tests, but on everyday classroom exams as well.

Leading up to test time

  • Take practice tests. The single best way to prepare is to practice. Taking sample exams under similar conditions as the real one (with time limits on each section) will familiarize your child with the testing experience and increase his or her confidence. Encourage your child to take practice tests in a test-day environment-for instance, in a local library, where your child will have to contend with a degree of ambient noise, just as he or she will on test day. Several websites, including collegeboard.com, offer free practice tests. The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide offer real, retired exams that students can use for practice. You can now score exams from both of these books and receive in-depth performance analysis free at StudyPoint's Tutoring Resources page.
  • Listen to the experts-and no one else. Anyone who has taken a standardized test has ideas about how to ace it. Friends or family members may have special tricks or secrets to ensure success, many of which don't have much to do with the actual test subject matter, according to testanxietytips.com. Make sure your child focuses on what will be on the test, not on tricks to avoid learning the material.
  • Locate the testing site. If your student is taking the test at a location he or she doesn't know well, the fear of getting lost on test day may cause as much stress as the test itself, according to bschooladmissionsformula.com. Get clear directions and do a test drive to set your child's mind at ease. If possible, take a short tour of the building interior so that your child feels more comfortable in the environment on test day.
  • Relax. It may seem like an obvious tip, but a student can get so wrapped up in test preparation that he or she creates even more anxiety. Make sure your child gets plenty of rest, recommends testanxietytips.com. Staying up late to cram on the nights leading up to the test will do more harm than good.

The day before the test

  • Get everything ready for the big day. Any paperwork or equipment (forms, identification, calculators, fresh batteries, etc.) should be neatly stacked in a convenient spot the night before the test. This will guarantee that test day begins well and not with a panicked run around the house to look for missing items. Consult StudyPoint's Tutoring Resource Center for a list of what your child will need (and is allowed to bring) on SAT or ACT test day.
  • Stay away from practice tests. Taking one more practice test may seem like a fine idea, but it can actually make anxiety worse. If this last run doesn't go well, it could set the tone for a bad test day.
  • Get out of the house! Your child has taken practice tests, honed test-taking skills, and reviewed strategies; all there is left to do is wait. Waiting, however, is not easy for the anxious student who wants to get the test over with. Take your teen out for an afternoon shopping trip or movie. If the weather is nice, get some fresh air and sunshine with a brisk walk to clear the head and loosen the limbs.
  • Go to bed early. A good night's sleep can be key to a student's success on test day. According to the University Learning Centers at Penn State University, being well rested is the most important and most overlooked way to stay healthy, helping a student focus.

The day of the test

  • Have a good breakfast. Healthy foods like whole-grain cereal or toast, eggs, milk, fruit, and yogurt will give your student enough energy to get through the test. Avoid sugary, fatty foods like pastries, as well as heavy breakfasts that may exacerbate bouts of test-day nausea.
  • Bring snacks for the SAT. Standardized tests last for hours, and by the last section or two, a rumbling tummy can interfere with a student's concentration, says bschooladmissionsformula.com. An energy bar and a juice box during a designated break can provide a boost to get your child through. Unfortunately, drinks and snacks are not permitted at ACT testing centers.
  • Get psyched up. Standardized tests are not on most students' lists of fun activities, but they are part of an exciting process. This test will help your child get into the college of his or her choice, and that's something to celebrate. So start the day with a positive attitude. On the way to the testing center, listen to upbeat music; or, if your teen is already a bundle of nerves, put on some soothing music and encourage your child to lean back, eyes closed, and take some deep breaths.
  • Get there early. Having plenty of time to reach the testing area can help a student feel more at ease.
  • Know your strategy. Many students have success with answering easy questions first, then returning to more difficult ones later. Other students find that rephrasing difficult questions helps. Collegeboard.com offers several tips for test-taking strategy, and teachers or tutors will have helpful hints for your student as well. Develop a plan of attack ahead of time.
  • Take breaks. The proctor will let students know when they are allowed to stand up, use the bathroom, and so forth. But for a quick sanity break, textanxietytips.com recommends that students take their eyes off the page, inhale a few deep breaths, and stretch.
  • Tune out the other students. Although college admissions can be competitive, the object for the SAT, ACT, or AP tests is not to do better than the other students in the room. Your child should be focused on his or her own test, not whether the girl to the left is already finished or the boy to the right keeps clearing his throat.
  • Be confident. According to testanxietytips.com, negative thoughts can actually sabotage a student's chances of doing well. If your child has prepared sufficiently, he or she should walk into the testing location on the big day feeling confident. It's also important to remember that while SAT or ACT scores are a key component to a college application, they are only one piece of a student's academic picture.

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