You're in the middle of a test. Your heart is pounding…your breath is quick and shallow. As sweat beads on your forehead, panic begins to drift in. What's going on?! These symptoms are actually part of a primitive survival mechanism known as the fight-or-flight response. Long before the invention of standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, or PSAT, our ancient ancestors relied on this response to endure the intense physical exertion needed for things like spearing wild boars. These same reactions might hamper a modern-day test-taker like yourself from delivering your best performance.
Unfortunately, you can't spear the test booklet with your #2 pencil or run from the exam room screaming, but you might be surprised to find out that it's actually your thoughts that are creating your stress. You're reacting not so much to the test, but rather to your perceptions about it — and that's good news. Why? You control your thoughts.
Use test preparation to help control your negative thoughts
When you feel out of control and helpless, you're tapping into the negative side of stress, or distress. It's not possible to get rid of it entirely, but you can learn to manage it. You can even harness that adrenaline rush to sharpen your focus! Begin your test preparation by dispelling the myths and half-truths that you've been telling yourself about your exam. By shifting your negative thoughts to more positive ones, you start to take control.
Here's a sample of some typical self-defeating chatter:
I never do well on standardized tests. It's so unfair that I even have to take this stupid test. They're probably going to ask me all the stuff I don't know.
Now, try shifting your thoughts and looking at it from this angle:
I can't control what questions are on this test, but I'm confident that I'll do my personal best, because I'm well-prepared.
See the difference? This may take practice, but once you've gotten your thoughts under control, you can take a proactive approach to test preparation. Studies have shown that rehearsing a stressful event can significantly reduce fear. In that sense, you can think of test prep as a stress reliever!
Preparing for your test will make it seem more familiar and less intimidating. Face your fears by focusing on your weakest areas. You may still feel anxious, but you'll grow accustomed to the feeling, which means anxiety will no longer hurt your performance. Visualizing a successful testing experience can help you control stress and achieve success on the real thing.
You can help yourself to feel in control by actually taking practice tests prior to taking the real thing. Be sure to check out the free practice tests for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT available at Peterson's to build up your confidence before the real thing.
Part of test prep is having a plan for test day
You can minimize the risk of confronting anxiety on test day by having a plan.
- Make strategy your focus during the final days before the exam. Don't try to cram in a lot of new material.
- Don't even think of taking a practice test the night before! At that point, you need to remain calm and confident.
- Make sure you know where the test center is located.
- Pack your admission card, calculator, pencils, and directions to the test center the night before.
- Get a full night's rest and wake up early enough to have a light, healthy breakfast.
- Find your parking spot and breeze on in to the testing center.
Remember your test prep to help you reduce stress during the test
Remember: you've prepared, you know what you're doing, and you're not likely to be surprised by anything. Keep the exam in perspective — your life will not be wholly determined by your performance on any one test, not even one like the SAT, ACT, or PSAT. Besides, for some tests, you can cancel your scores and take the exam again if need be.
If a negative thought creeps into your brain during the test, quickly replace it with a positive one. Don't be too hard on yourself, either. A certain amount of anxiety is perfectly natural; it lets you know that you're focused on the task at hand.
After the test
Plan to do something relaxing when you're done. That will make the test seem less like "the be all and end all," and remind you that life goes on, regardless of your score. It really does!