The average student feels at least some level of anxiety before an important exam like the ACT or SAT. But for some individuals, that stress can be severe.
As many students still take these standardized and high-stakes college admissions tests even though some schools have made them optional because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important for test-takers to learn how to combat anxiety. The following seven strategies can help you overcome exam-related stress:
— Ensure that all your materials are ready.
— Do some exercise.
— Eat a filling and familiar breakfast.
— Look back at your starting point.
— Connect with an encouraging friend.
— Squeeze something.
— Control your breathing.
Ensure That All Your Materials Are Ready
Shortly after waking up the morning before your ACT or SAT, double-check that all your materials — your calculator, identification and pencils, for example — are ready to go. It is important to follow this step early in case you end up needing to buy batteries, pencils or the like.
It would be a shame to realize too late that you are missing something required to take the exam, so make sure to give yourself a wide berth to account for unforeseen mishaps.
Do Some Exercise
Multiple studies have proven that physical exercise is a remarkably effective antidote to stress. Harvard University Medical School declares that exercise “has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress.” The Mayo Clinic agrees, stating that exercise reduces the “negative effects of stress” while simulating the positive ones, like increased alertness.
Exercising the morning of your test could consist of a 20-minute yoga session, a short bike ride or a walk around the block. Whatever you do, make sure it is not too strenuous or a new routine that could leave you sore and exhausted.
Eat a Filling and Familiar Breakfast
You have likely heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The Department of Health & Human Services in Victoria, Australia explains what many research studies have shown — that breakfast “improves your energy levels and ability to concentrate in the short term” by replenishing glucose in the body.
The key, however, is to neither eat so little that you become hungry during the exam, nor so much that you are uncomfortable. Also, stick to breakfast foods you know. Avoid trying new foods that could upset your stomach.
Finally, drink only enough liquids with breakfast to stay hydrated. This can help you to avoid losing time on bathroom breaks or frantically waiting for official breaks.
Look Back at Your Starting Point
Do not study any material whatsoever on the day of your ACT or SAT. Looking at unfamiliar or difficult content can send you into a panic right before the assessment, which can adversely affect your score.
Instead of beating yourself up over your weaknesses, take a few moments to reflect on the progress you have made. Compare your first few practice test scores to your most recent ones, and allow yourself to feel proud of your improvements. Doing so can boost your confidence, which in turn can lead to a better score on the ACT or SAT.
Connect With an Encouraging Friend
Everyone knows that friendships enrich our lives. But did you know that there are also tangible health benefits to maintaining close friendships?
A psychological study published in 2011 in Developmental Psychology journal concluded that “having a best friend present during an experience significantly buffered the effect of the negativity of the experience on cortisol and global self-worth.” In other words, there’s evidence that the presence of a best friend can help ease the effects of negative experiences.
For this reason, shortly before the exam, consider reaching out to a friend who is in the same situation as you. Encourage one another and exchange jokes or motivating quotes to lighten the mood. You can even make plans for after the test, so you both have something fun to look forward to.
Did you know that many beloved orators hold something in their hand when they speak? Even professionals get nervous, and many choose to ease their anxiety in simple and inconspicuous ways.
You can do the same by squeezing a stress ball, eraser, paper clip or glob of putty before and during the exam, if permitted by test proctors. “The benefit of squeezing is that it releases some kind of energy — it also induces you to relax,” says Dr. David Posen, a stress expert, motivational speaker and author.
Control Your Breathing
Close your eyes and inhale deeply through your nose. Hold your breath for a count of four or five. Then, exhale evenly and completely, repeating this process several times.
Deep breathing may seem too simplistic or cliche to be useful, but it is in fact a proven technique for relaxing the muscles and energizing the brain. The University of Michigan Hospitals–Michigan Medicine explains about stress management and breathing exercises: “Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.”
Best of all, this technique only takes a moment, so you can use it just before your test begins or during a particularly difficult section.
At times, stress is unavoidable, especially when it comes to major exams. A little stress is a strong motivator, but a lot of stress is harmful and hurts your performance. Use these techniques to keep your balance.
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