Reduce Exam Anxiety


by Gregory Lloyd

Terrified of taking tests? Does your stomach tie up in knots? Does your mind go blank? You’re not alone. Many adults hesitate to go back to college because they know there will be lots of tests, and they find it difficult to face up to the challenge. It’s perfectly normal to feel that way. However, you can overcome your fear and look forward to tests with complete confidence.

That’s right. Whether you take classes on campus, through independent study, or online, if you follow these ten steps you’ll find that exams are not such a huge obstacle after all.

When Studying

1. Take organized notes.
Most students wait until the end of the semester to start their review. Generally, they read and re-read their class notes word for word or go back through their textbooks. This can be tedious, time consuming, and not very effective. Try this instead. Begin preparing for your exams the day you receive your course materials by reviewing the syllabus and scanning the textbook. This will help you get a feel for what will be covered so you don’t get any surprises.

As you’re reading your text and preparing your assignments each week, focus on topics that are unfamiliar to you. Are certain points repeated or explained more thoroughly than others? Highlight or underline only the key words and phrases related to these points–not entire sentences. Also keep an eye out for definitions, formulas, lists, and items that are prominently featured.

After you’ve finished each assignment, grab your notebook and outline the points you’ve learned (main points followed by supporting points in words and phrases). Include examples to help you better retain the information. Leave plenty of white space so that you can add notes later–either from class or from later readings that pertain to the topics you’ve outlined. Your aim is to keep notes on similar topics in a logical sequence and avoid any duplication. If you have extra time, type your notes on a computer to make them easy to read and reorganize if needed.

If you don’t understand something, get help before you move on. Lessons tend to build on one another, so you need to grasp the foundation material first. If there’s a topic that’s giving you trouble, talk to your professor or research the topic further at the library or on the Internet.

2. Transfer some of your notes to flash cards.
Studying in short time spurts is much more effective than reviewing in marathon sessions. Make up a set of 3×5 index cards for terms and concepts you have difficulty remembering. Include the term or concept on one side and the definition or description on the other. Keep adding cards as your course progresses and take them with you wherever you go. Then, whenever you have a few minutes, pull out your cards and test yourself on them in random order. Study actively by asking yourself questions on the material you don’t know well.

As soon as you can, determine what type of test will be given. Multiple choice, true or false, fill-in-the-blank, and essay are the most common. (Most standardized tests are multiple choice.) If there’s a practice test available, take it without referring back to your notes. Mark the questions you have difficulty with so that you know what areas you need to review more thoroughly.

3. Commit your notes to memory.
If you follow steps 1 and 2, by the time you reach the end of your course you’ll have little left to do to prepare for your test. By reviewing often and in short time spurts, you’ll spend less time in each study session and you’ll be able to retain the information better and you won’t get fatigued. As the test day nears, review your study sheets more and more frequently. As you get closer to test day, you’ll find that you’ll be able to absorb more and more material in less and less time. Do not merely memorize the information. Your aim is to understand the material so that it makes sense in your mind and you’ll be able to retain it better.

Try to study when you’re most alert and where you won’t be distracted. Also, take time to meditate on the material by reviewing it in your head away from your notes. Put in your own words what you’ve read and connect these thoughts to what you already know. You may even combine studying with another activity, such as gardening, waiting at the doctor’s office, or waiting in traffic, so you’ll feel less stressed and alone.

On Test Day

4. Arrive early.
Allow enough time for driving, parking, and finding the exam room. Don?t get there too early, however. Lengthy last minute reviews seldom improve your chances. Ideally, you should arrive within 15 minutes of the time the test will begin.

5. Be prepared.
The night before the test, set aside the items you’ll need, such as pencils, pens, calculators, and ID tags. Most tests are timed, so wear a wristwatch. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat a light breakfast, and drink fluids so that you?ll be functioning at your peak. Dress in layers; you’ll want to feel slightly cool during the test.

6. Get comfortable.
Relax. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. If you suffer badly from nerves, try deep breathing or other relaxation technique before you attempt the test. Use affirmations, such as “I’m well prepared,” “I know I’ll succeed,” or “I’ve got plenty of time to answer all the questions.”

7. Read the directions carefully.
Generally, you’re allowed time to review the directions before the test begins. Take advantage of it. Preview the test if you?re allowed so that you can determine how much time you’ll need to allot to each section.

8. Skim the entire test.
Answer the easy questions first. This will give you confidence and will buy you time to think about the tougher ones. While looking over the test and doing the easy questions, your subconscious mind will have been working on the answers to the harder ones. Read each question thoroughly. Don’t linger too long on any one question.

9. Complete every question. In most cases, a guess is better than leaving it blank. (Find out if you’re penalized for wrong answers.) Express difficult questions in your own words. Rephrasing a question can make it clearer to you, but be sure you don’t change its meaning. For true/false and multiple-choice exams, look for words of exclusivity like always, never, only, and even if. Watch for modifying or

limiting phrases. Instructors often insert names, dates, places, or other details to make a statement inaccurate. Remember that all parts of a statement must be true or the entire statement is false.

10. Review your answers.
Take any remaining time to review your answers to ensure that you understood the question correctly. If you’re allowed, consider placing a small mark next to each question as you go through them the first time to identify those you’re not sure of. Virtually all classroom and standardized tests have time limits, so use all of the time you’re allotted.

The key to alleviating anxiety is knowledge. The more you know in advance about an exam–such as content, format, and time limits–the less you’ll worry. Knowing about an exam includes understanding the types of questions you?ll be asked, how the exam will be graded, how much time you’ll have to respond, and so on. Best of all, when you’ve adequately prepared for the test–by study, practice, and frequent review of the material throughout the course–you’ll succeed beyond your expectations. Which will give you even more confidence for the next exam.

Remember: Studying doesn’t have to take a lot of time or involve torture. If you follow these pointers, you’ll find that you’re spending less time studying and getting more accomplished. Which means more time for entertainment and relaxation, and more time for the people and things that matter most in your life.

Gregory Lloyd is a financial writer and freelance business writer. He satisfied a third of the credits for his business degree by taking advantage of the College Level Examination Program, one of the most widely accepted programs for gaining alternative college credit by exam.

Additional Resources:
Memorize With Mneumonics.
Memory techniques to help you remember.