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Overcoming Test Anxiety: Real Advice for a Real Problem February 11, 2019

Flatlands, Brooklyn
Overcoming Test Anxiety: Real Advice for a Real Problem, Brooklyn, New York

 

               So, it’s finally here. Test day! You’ve been studying hard for this exam while maintaining your grades, keeping up with school related activities or a part time job, and still managing your chores. Your friends and family all have high expectations and you have those same expectations of yourself. You look around and everyone seems a bit nervous, which makes you feel better, but then there’s the one kid that you know will do well because he always does well and he radiates confidence, which quickly brings you back down to earth. Thoughts begin to swirl in in your mind as you contemplate the exam’s purpose, implications, and your preparedness. You continue to ask yourself questions, “What are my parents going to think if I don’t do well?” “What are people going to think of me if I score really low?” “What college am I going to go to If I score poorly!” And just when you feel as though you’re going to pass out, the proctor says “Begin!”. 

               Being someone who has suffered from test anxiety nearly my entire life, I know what it feels like right before a big exam like the SAT.  I, myself, was one of those people who took the SAT three times, as my first time was a complete failure due to my anxiety. Although I was completely prepared, the minute I opened the test booklet, my mind went blank. All my knowledge was replaced by questions of apprehension, and what was worse was the fact that I never experienced anything like it before. I began to be worried about things that were irrelevant to the test. So, the real question that everyone is asking for at this point is how did I beat it to get a near perfect score on my third and final go? 

The truth is - I didn’t! 

I, like most student nowadays, had a tutor and one of the most important things I learned throughout my lessons, was how to “deal” with my anxiety. I am putting “deal” in quotes in order to emphasize the fact that anxiety is not something that ever really goes away or is something that can be kept at bay. While there were countless discussions while I was being tutored for the SAT, my SAT tutor allowed me to understand what was going on with me physically and emotionally and help me by giving me the tools to make sure that my anxiety did not impede my performance. I have since, consolidated his lessons and will show you the tools I use to overcome my test anxiety. 

              Let’s start with the basics: For you to excel on this exam, you must UNDERSTAND the exam and its grading method. I will mention 3 main reasons why you should not fear the SAT: 

  1. This exam ONLY cares about the amount of questions you get correct, not the amount of questions you complete.  

  • “Quality over Quantity” – As previously discussed in our “4 Secrets College board Doesn’t Want You to Know” article, your exam gets calculated based on the amount of questions you get right. Let’s elaborate: If you choose to concentrate on your STRENGTHS more than concentrating on your WEAKNESSES, statistically, you will get more questions correct.  

    • Your job is to complete as many questions right as possible, without rushing onto the rest of the exam. Concentrating might lead to an incomplete exam, which is okay! Think of it this way: 

For example, for English, there are 52 questions. If you concentrate on doing well on the passages you usually excel in, odds are, you will get 40/52 correct (Assuming you left an entire passage blank and got 2 questions wrong.) This still yields a score of 40/52, which gets plugged into a curve grader, and releases your score. However, if you rush to complete more questions, you will most likely make mistakes you normally would not make if you had not rushed. With that in mind, although you will complete all 52 questions, most likely, you will only get around 35/52 right – WAY LESS THAN 40/52. So, you decide whether there is a point to rush?  

  1. Not every exam needs to be sent to colleges.  

  • Often, students believe that ALL exam results must be sent to colleges. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU HAVE TO SUBMIT EVERY EXAM YOU’VE EVER TAKEN! Let’s elaborate:  

Most schools accept SUPERSCORED scores. If you are not familiar with how “super-scoring” works, it’s very simple: Let’s say you’ve taken the SAT twice. Your first time, you received a 700/800 on English and a 690/800 on Math. The second time, you received a 690/800 on English and a 750/800 on Math. Super-scoring will allow you to take the highest score from each section of each exam and create a combined score: 700 on English from your first exam + 750 on Math from your second exam = 1450 your overall score! (Keep in mind that in order to super-score, you must submit BOTH exams, during which, you’ll see your combined “super-score.”)  

  • What happens if a school does not accept super-scores? No problem! Choose ONE of your highest scoring exams and send it to your preferred colleges.  

What we learned from both points from above is that you can choose not to submit an exam with a low score. Hopefully, that will make you understand there is NO REASON TO PANIC! If you mess up your exam, you can re-take it and not have anyone see your score but you and the college board.  

I KNOW ALL THIS! BUT, I STILL PANIC! 

But, let’s discuss a wider picture and assume that you understand the SAT, and your mentality and strategy is sound. What then? 

NO! I will not tell you to perform “deep breathing techniques”! 

Many “experts” and Harvard psychologists discuss deep breathing techniques and how meditation will help the mind reach a state of peace, and while the studies are conclusive, unless you have been practicing these techniques, this will not help in a high-pressure situation. Instead, I found that following these steps helps the most. 

Step #1: TELL YOURSELF, “I DON’T CARE.” 

This may seem counterintuitive, but this way of thinking has saved me on countless exams, not only for the SAT, but for exams throughout college. Whenever I started to panic, I began to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to do well, and I just told myself that I’m going to do the best I can do and that’s just going to have to be enough.  

If I get a C - then so be it!  

If I fail - so be it! 

If I am destined to go to a terrible college – so be it! 

Accept the fact that you may fail and from these failures you will work harder and do better next time. I lived my whole life with the expectation that I would never fail or that I simply couldn’t because too many people were relying on me and working for my benefit. It took me a long time to realize that the only one that must live in my shoes is me. And, at the end of the day, I must know that I did the best I could in any circumstance and no amount t of pressure could ever deter me from my goal. I don’t care what others think, grade, or judge from my low-test scores or low performance. The only thing I care about is how much time and effort I put into my work. This also allows you to treat the real exam like any other practice test. 

“Treat your REAL exam like any other practice test.” 

               A couple of months ago, I had a very familiar situation. I was preparing a student for her first REAL exam, and her anxiety was “through the roof.” A week before our scheduled exam, my student revealed to me that she wants to reschedule it as she does not feel ready. In confusion from knowing that I have taught this student nearly every topic that comes to my mind, I asked why.  

“I’m so nervous! I can’t sleep; I can’t eat, and I simply cannot take it!”  

               Although this situation is not new to me, I asked my student to not reschedule the exam, but simply treat it as a practice test. I advised her to take her time, not worry about the amount of questions she had left, and simply concentrate. I also promised to figure out a better study plan, if she were to mess up her exam and had to take it again.  

               In my mind, I knew this student was MORE THAN PREPARED. However, I did not push the issue. With the idea of it being simply a practice test, my student received a 1500/1600 on her FIRST EVER real exam. After only taking it once, she decided not to take the exam again, as the score she received surpassed her initial “goal” score.  

This leads me to the next step: 

STEP #2: TRUST YOURSELF! 

               This moot point is probably the most important because you need to first understand that test anxiety is not an emotion on its own. It bases itself in fear and acts on your sympathetic nervous system, which in turn signals the “flight or fight” response. This results in physical symptoms, such as shaking, twitching, light headedness, and essentially all the symptoms one feels when anxious or overly stimulated. Know that this is a physical response and just as your body will not allow you to simply stop breathing (please don’t test this theory!) you will not be able to stop this response once it starts. What you do need to understand is what is happening to you is completely normal. NO, YOU’RE NOT CRAZY! It’s perfectly normal, you just place a high value on this exam, and you are afraid, which is completely normal. Thus, accept this as part of the routine when taking any exam, but think back to the hard work and dedication you put in and know that your efforts are not in vain.  

“It’s not enough to believe, you must know it!” 
 

               Many students feel “unsure” when they are about to take a test. This feeling of uneasiness, while normal, is not okay. Don’t ever think for a minute that you could have spent more time studying or could have done something differently. Of course, if you just didn’t study or prepare at all, then yes obviously only spirituality could save you, but if you trust in the work that you did and know that you did all you could, you’re setting yourself up for success. This trust is a form of confidence, and if you know that you did all you could and accept your fate, regardless of outcome, I promise, you’re going to see a marked improvement.  

STEP# 3: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF! 

                This advice mainly extends to those people that are particularly anxious during exams. Throughout my academic and professional career, I have encountered countless students all with various methods of studying. Some simply do not sleep the night before any exam and spend all night studying. Others simply do not study the day before at all. I’m going to advise that you try out every method and see what works for you. Though, I see students constantly cramming and pushing their bodies and minds to the limit 2-3 days before an exam. While some work like this, the particularly nervous and anxious do not perform well under such conditions. Instead, split up the studying weeks before and come up with a plan. Personally, I studied always until midnight the day before an exam, but once that clock hit 12am, I was done. There was nothing in the world that was going to make me continue studying because I knew that I would have nothing left for the exam. If I am completely drained for the exam, what difference does it make how much I prepare. I know that some of my friends would even go to the gym the morning or day before an exam to burn off some excess energy. Some even went as far as not eating a heavy meal and sticking to a strict diet. A healthy body allows for a healthy mind, and if you’re thinking clearly, your mood will be better, and your results will show.  

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