I've had many a parent tell me, "I'm worried. My son/daughter is a smart student, but when it comes to the test there are a lot of issues. It's so long and tiring and they get nervous beforehand." Some even say, "My student is smart, but when it comes to any test s/he freaks out and forgets everything."
This is not an uncommon problem and it's important to recognize that. First, test results do not tell the whole story when it comes to a student's intelligence. In many ways, the results actually tell quiet little. This is often hard for students to accept since so much of school is reliant on "one size fits all" test taking, which is a definite mistake.
Second, it is possible to combat test anxiety. Test anxiety is like any other anxiety. Anxiety comes from a fear of change or a fear of failure. Both aspects are at play when the SAT or ACT is taken. It is a very different set up than students are used to and students are aware that their score will matter quite a bit for their future schooling career. It's no surprise that a degree of apprehension will grow in them come test day.
The first action to take when a student feels anxiety sneaking up on them is to take a breath and say, "This is normal." People tend to hide their anxiety, which makes us feel like we're the only ones who suffer from it. Not so! Some people suffer from anxiety a lot (such as yours truly) and others only suffer from it very occasionally. But everyone, and I mean everyone, feels the effects of anxiety at some point during his or her life.
Once you realize that test anxiety is normal there is a slight relief, but not enough of one yet. I've had students tell me that they open up their test booklets, feel the anxiety come on, and start telling themselves to calm down, to stop worrying, and to pay attention to the test.
This is a huge mistake.
Angrily telling anxiety to go away never works. It's similar to an insomniac telling themselves, "You have to go to sleep now! NOW!" It will only make the situation much worse. A better tactic is to say, "Okay, I'm having some anxiety. I knew this might happen and I'm just going to let it happen as I go forward." Then start doing what you have to do. Will the anxiety disappear completely? No. But starting your work will distract your brain a little and before long you'll be working hard, more and more of your thought process will be consumed with figuring out the test than with the overall anxiety.
Another type of test anxiety I hear about from students concerns individual questions. A student will tell me she's doing just fine and then she hits a hard question and it throws her off her game. This is a common story, especially on a larger test.
The key thing to remember is that tests are designed to trip you up, especially standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. Take the reading comprehension part of the SAT. The questions after a passage do not go from easy to hard; they're random. Having difficulty with one question is not a defeat; it's normal. Tests are supposed to be tricky! You're not a terrible student if a couple questions trip you up. The best course of action is to take in a deep breath and say, "Okay, time to go on to the next problem and put this one out of my head. Just because this one got me doesn't mean the next one will."
High school is a very stressful time of life. There's a lot of change, a lot of expectations, and a lot of confusion. Anxiety is a natural byproduct of these circumstances. The goal should never be to banish anxiety completely, that's not realistic, but to learn to manage it and go forward despite it nipping at your heels.
Last, should anxiety in general become all-consuming and you find yourself anxious about almost everything, then I encourage you to visit a physician who can give you a medical opinion. There is, of course, no shame in asking for help when it comes to anxiety.
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