High (Test) Anxiety: Starring SAT and ACT

Posted: March 5, 2016

​Nearly every student who comes to me for test prep is battling one thing: text anxiety. Even if you have a weak grasp of pronoun rules or have forgotten most of your pre-algebra, even if you’ve never had test anxiety in any other testing situation, the anxiety is there.
It makes sense: No one likes to be judged. Some students struggle with perfectionism. Others believe that the ACT/SAT is crucial to getting into the right college and therefore having a happy life. (Nothing could be further from the truth.) So here are some ways you can manage test anxiety.
  • Gain perspective: Your SAT or ACT score is not going to keep you out of the perfect college for you. Notice I didn’t say it won’t keep you out of the Ivy League. Some highly-selective schools narrow their field by eliminating applicants who didn’t make a specific test score. What I am saying is that any school that expects you to produce a score beyond your capabilities is not the best-fit school for you. If you’re struggling to reach their test requirements, you will likely struggle in the classroom, and who wants to pay $70,000 a year to struggle every day? You can have a happy, successful college career and happy life no matter where you attend school. Keep in mind that more than 950 colleges don’t care if you send in test scores or not. Find the complete list of test-optional schools at FairTest.org.
  • Over-prepare: This is where a prep program really helps. The more times you approach a question type, the better off you’ll be. You can’t just take a bunch of practice tests and call it good—it's the error analysis that leads to improvement—but in general, studying for the types of questions you’ll be asked, not just the material that will be covered, will make you a more successful test-taker. (This is true for every test you take, not just ACT/SAT.)
  • Relax: Learning some relaxation exercises and doing them on test day will help you with your anxiety. Sometimes just recognizing you’re anxious is half the battle. WPI has a great overview of test anxiety and relaxation techniques you can use on test day. 
  • Write your worries: This sounds crazy, but studies have shown that students who write down their worries on scratch paper or on the outside of their test booklet actually experience less anxiety during the test than those who do not. Why? The thinking is that by writing down your worries, your subconscious can then let go of them and concentrate better on the test. So feel free to write all over the back of your test booklet: “I’m going to fail,” “I’ll never go to college,” “I’ll disappoint my parents,” "I’m stupid and ugly and bad bad bad,” whatever that critical voice in your head is saying. It’s the best way to shut it up.
  • Shoot your average: I just read a great article by Michael Lester that has fabulous advice for test takers. He describes the anxiety he felt at Navy getting ready to go up against the team from Army on the pistol-shooting team. His coach offered this advice: “'If you trust me…' Again, he paused. 'You will shoot your average.  I will tell you that the other team will try to shoot their best, and at the end of the match, they will be disappointed that they didn’t shoot better.  If you just relax, and shoot your average, you will win.  And if you don’t win, it means that your average wasn’t high enough and you need to practice to raise your average.  There should be no stress today.  There should be no butterflies.  This is just another day doing exactly what you have trained to do every other day.'”
​In terms of standardized tests, if your score isn’t what you want, then go back and practice some more. But I would also suggest that you think long and hard about why you want an astronomical score. Just to see if you can do it? Then there should be no stress; you’re only competing against yourself. To get into your dream school? If your score is in the ballpark and the rest of your application is strong, a point here or there won’t make or break you. Focus your energies on the other parts of your application. If you’re nowhere near, we need to talk about refocusing your application strategy. Everyone can get into their best fit school, one where they will thrive academically, socially and financially. Probably you haven’t even met your best fit yet.

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