Causes of Test Anxiety and Academic Stress

10 Ways to Overcome Test Anxiety

Causes of Test Anxiety and Academic Stress

Has this ever happened to you? You’ve been studying hard for your chemistry midterm, but when you walk into your exam, your mind goes blank. As you sit down to start your test, you notice your sweaty palms and a pit in your stomach. 

If these classic signs of test anxiety sound familiar, your grades and test scores may not reflect your true abilities. Learn ways to manage test anxiety before and during a stressful test.

What is Test Anxiety?

While it’s completely normal to feel a bit nervous before a test, some students find test anxiety debilitating. Racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, or feelings of dread can combine with physical symptoms a fast heartbeat, headache, or nausea. Whether it’s the ACT, an AP exam, or an important history final, test anxiety has the power to derail weeks and months of hard work. 

Test Anxiety Tips

According to the ADAA, causes of test anxiety may include a fear of failure, lack of adequate prep time, or bad experiences taking tests in the past. You're not alone! Here's what you can do to stay calm in the days leading up to and during your test.

1. Be prepared.

Yes, this seems obvious, but it bears repeating. If you feel confident that you’ve prepped thoroughly, you’ll feel more confident walking into the test. Need help reviewing tough concepts or question types? The test prep experts at The Princeton Review can provide that extra boost you need to feel cool and collected.

2. Get a good night’s sleep.

Cramming is never the answer, and pulling an all-nighter can exacerbate your nerves. Having adequate rest (9–10 hours per night) is ly to be more beneficial than rereading a text until dawn (But if you ARE up late studying and have a question, our on-demand tutors are there for you.)

3. Fuel up.

Eat a nutritious breakfast before the test and pack smart snacks for ongoing energy. Look for foods that offer a steady stream of nutrients, rather than a sugar high followed by a crash.

4. Get to class—or the testing site—early

Feeling rushed will only amp up the anxiety. Pack everything you need for the exam the night before and set the alarm, so you can get out the door on time.

5. Have a positive mental attitude .  

Bring a picture of your happy place or come up with a morale-boosting mantra “I can do this” or “I worked hard and deserve this.” Peek at your picture or recite your mantra, right before the test begins.

6. Read carefully.

Read the directions thoroughly and read all answers before making a choice or starting the essay. There is nothing worse than putting time into a question and realizing you are not solving for x, or the essay is off target. Slowing down can help you stay focused.

7. Just start.   

The blank page can maximize your anxiety. After you’ve read the directions, dive right in by making an outline for an essay answer. Or, find some questions you can ace to build up your confidence and momentum. You can always go back and change things later if needed, but a few quick answers can get the ball rolling.

Read More: 5 Signs You Need a Tutor

8. Don’t pay attention to what other people are doing.

Everyone else is scribbling away? Ack! What do they know that you don’t? It doesn’t matter. Pay attention to your own test and pace, and forget about the other students in the room.

9. Watch the clock

Realizing that time is almost up and there are lots of test questions left can make it hard to do anything useful in those final minutes. Stay on pace by scoping out the whole test before getting started. Mentally allocate how much time you’ll spend on each section. If there’s time to recheck, even better.

10. Focus on calm breathing and positive thoughts

Deep breathing can slow down a beating heart or a racing mind, so practice these techniques at home. The very act of concentrating on breathing and thinking can biometrically alter those anxious feelings.

Sometimes just remembering that some  test-taking anxiety is a normal part of school can help make it easier to handle. If you need a confidence boost, try a session with an online tutor. From PhDs and Ivy Leaguers to doctors and teachers, our tutors are experts in their fields, and they know how to keep your anxiety at bay.

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How to Reduce Test Anxiety for College Students

Causes of Test Anxiety and Academic Stress

August 30, 2019  |  Purdue University Global

A recurring dream many people have, whether or not they’re in school, is a test-taking nightmare. You show up for class, find out it’s test day, and you haven’t studied at all.

A common fear, test-taking frequently causes anxiety for college students.

This article identifies common sources of stress; how to reduce test anxiety before, during, and after taking a test; and the effects of stress and anxiety.

Common Sources of Stress for College Students

When we understand where stress comes from, it’s easier to avoid those triggers—or to at least recognize what’s happening, so you can use stress-reduction tools and techniques.

Academic Sources of Stress

In an article titled “Examining Perceptions of Academic Stress and Its Sources Among University Students,” in the journal Health Psychology Open, the authors identified four factors that contribute to students’ stress:

  • Pressure to perform
  • Perceptions of workload and examinations (for example, being worried about failing tests)
  • Self-perceptions, including self-confidence, confidence in career success, and making the right academic path and career choice
  • Time restraints, including having enough time to complete assignments, spend in classrooms or virtual learning environments, and balance other responsibilities

Sound familiar? If it’s any comfort, you’re not alone. Next time you are in class, whether it’s on-campus or online, take note of how many people are with you. Your fellow students, instructors, faculty, and staff have all experienced the above four factors that contribute to stress, at different times and to varying degrees.

Source: Gallup

CHALLENGE: Take a moment and list 5 to 10 things that are sources of stress for you right now. Be as specific as possible. For example, “If I fail this class, it will delay graduation,” or “I’m not ready to take this test.”

How many of the sources on your list are realistic fears, and how many are unfounded?

Realistic fears are rational fears. If you haven’t studied for a test, you aren’t ready for it. If you fail a test, you’ll have to work harder to pass a class. Realistic fears can be addressed by changing your behavior or your thinking. If you know you aren’t ready for a test, how can you rearrange your schedule, clear your calendar, and manage your time better so you can get ready?

Unfounded fears are that the stories we create in our mind that intensify our realistic fears. They sound this, “My instructor doesn’t think I’m very smart,” or “I’m not as smart as I thought I was,” or “I’m never going to get a job.” These fears can be irrational, and they can be tough to quash.

When stress triggers related to test taking show up, you can:

  • Remember past successes.
  • Put the test into perspective: how does it fit into the whole of your academic career?
  • Use visualization exercises to picture yourself calmly taking and passing the test.
  • Get a good night's sleep before the test.
  • Reduce caffeine on the day of the test.

For additional tips on managing stress, read “The College Student's Guide to Stress Management.”

Non-Academic Sources of Stress

Several non-academic stressors may be a factor in test anxiety in college students as well. The American Psychological Association reported in their most recent “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation” that the most common sources of stress are:

  • The future of the country: 63%
  • Money: 62%
  • Work: 61%
  • The political climate: 57%
  • Violence and crime: 51%

A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that the people in the study who gave up for five days had lower cortisol levels and increased life satisfaction.

Cortisol is your stress hormone; when you’re stressed, your cortisol levels are high. While this study was small (138 users) and limited to only , it has wider implications.

It found a connection between information overload and stress.

CHALLENGE: Can you do it? Three to five days leading up to a big exam, silence your social media, news, and other information-overloaded channels and focus only on your studies.

The news is going to happen whether you worry about it or not. Try letting it go and focusing on what you can control: your studies.

Before the Test

Prepare for your test by planning, scheduling, studying, and practicing.

  1. Plan: Create a study environment that allows you to focus on your studies undisturbed: remove distractions, use natural light (nature exposure is good for you!), and create a space that you enjoy for studies.
  2. Schedule: Time management can be a challenge for students and working adults. Many things demand our attention, and prioritizing tasks can be difficult. This article offers time management tips for college students, including blocking your day into time devoted to life, work, and classwork.
  3. Relax: One common technique for relaxation involves deep breathing, which is something you can do anywhere, any time. Take in a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, and then slowly exhale and feel stressors leaving your body. You’ll find other techniques for relaxation in our Health and Wellness Guide for Busy College Students.
  4. Study and practice: Don’t put studying off to the last minute; cramming adds to your levels of stress and anxiety.
  5. Prepare: On the day of the test, eat a good breakfast, dress comfortably, and set aside time for 15 minutes of physical activity, preferably in nature if weather permits. During this time, push away thoughts of test anxiety. Notice the birds, the colors of the trees, the freshness of the air.

During the Test

On test day, accept that you’ve done all you can to prepare, and you have to let go of what you don’t know.

If the test format allows it, answer all the questions you know first; then go back and work on the questions you feel less confident about.

Practice deep breathing, whether you’re in a classroom or taking a test online. Focus on positive statements such as, “This is only one test,” and “I know this material.” Create an imaginary bubble around your workspace, so you’re less apt to get distracted.

If you find yourself tensing up, do a head-to-toe body scan and relax your stress-holding muscles: relax your jaw, roll your shoulders and relax them, let go of tension in your spine, uncurl your toes, and shake out your hands. Smile, even if you have to force it.

After the Test

Congratulations. You’ve completed the test. Pat yourself on the back, but continue the techniques you learned in the previous section that pertain to redirecting and pushing away negative thoughts.

Remember this: One test won’t ly hurt, let alone ruin your academic career, so don’t sweat it.

A study reported in the Journal of Education and Practice has an interesting finding that supports this theory.

Nursing students with high test anxiety didn’t do as well as those who reported lower levels of test anxiety; however, there was little relationship between test anxiety and overall grade point average.

To manage your day-to-day stress and anxiety levels, you might try an app for stress management, such as:

  • Headspace
  • The Mindfulness App
  • Calm
  • Breathe

The apps are free and offer in-app purchases. Many of the free versions offer enough to get you started on a healthy meditation and relaxation practice. You might also review this list of 17 tech tools that help you boost productivity and manage time better.

Effects of Stress and Anxiety

The long-term effects of stress and anxiety can take a toll on your health, your relationships, and your overall well-being.

To learn how to deal with stress, take a page from your older, wiser, and more experienced relatives, mentors, and friends. AARP surveyed adults across multiple generations and found that the older we get, the better we are at handling life’s stresses.

This is relevant because we can learn from our older friends and relatives. The same AARP survey found that Baby Boomers’ top activities when they’re feeling stressed are:

  • Private prayer: 49%
  • Private meditation: 43%
  • Attend religious services: 19%
  • Walk for exercise: 19%
  • Surf the internet: 17%

The same AARP survey of younger generations found that younger generations were more ly than older generations to use negative coping mechanisms such as:

  • Sleep or nap: 40% of Millennials, 26% of Gen Xers, and only 20% of Boomers
  • Lose your cool: 36% of Millennials, 28% of Gen Xers, and 22% of Boomers
  • Eat comfort food: 39% of Millennials, 30% of Gen Xers, and 27% of Boomers
  • Drink alcohol: 18% of Millennials, 14% of Gen Xers, and 7% of Boomers
  • Abuse drugs: 6% of Millennials, 4% of Gen Xers, and 2% of Boomers
  • Smoke: 10% of Millennials, 6% of Gen Xers, and 5% of Boomers

The effects of stress and anxiety on our bodies and lives have been well-documented. The Mayo Clinic lists common effects of stress:

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

If your stress level is alarming and you aren’t able to self-regulate or reduce your symptoms, you might want to visit your doctor or the wellness clinic at your school or workplace. Visit to find resources in your community.

If one class in particular is causing anxiety, consider speaking to your instructor. Purdue University Global has an entire department dedicated to academic support.


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