Many leadership positions today require professional licenses and certifications. And, certifications often involve exams. But, are you like me? Do you get a serious case of “the nerves” when you have to take one of those exams? How does anxiety hinder your ability to perform your best? Do you:
- Reread questions?
- Stare at the page because your mind goes blank?
- Can’t remember the material even though you know it?
- Think about something other than the test?
- Tell yourself you can’t succeed?
- Compare yourself to other students?
- Feel anxious and unfocused?
Anxiety has so many ways of showing up that you can probably add more examples. But, there are just as many ways to cope with it. Although test anxiety is common and normal, you must manage it before it impairs your performance. The benefits of managing test anxiety include:
- Retaining more information in less time
- Taking tests and exams with more confidence
- Eliminating test-taking anxiety
- Improving your test scores naturally
- Increasing your concentration and alertness
- Letting go of unnecessary distractions
- Developing effective study rituals
- Improving your ability to recall information
It’s frustrating to learn the material, study long and hard, and then do poorly on a test due to excessive anxiety. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this problem and to be able to manage your anxiety. Here are some tools to use to help you reduce anxiety while taking tests. I often shared these tips with my students at the college where I taught. The students loved these tips!
First of all, anxiety is not your enemy. I know that may sound crazy but once you figure out how to focus your test anxiety, your problems will be over. You must use the stress and tension to your advantage, rather than let it consume you.
So let’s say you have a big certification or licensure exam coming up. Start early: Space your studying out over several weeks or even months. When you procrastinate and cram, you will create so much anxiety before or during the test that you cannot focus or retain anything!
If you study in advance instead of procrastinating, you’ll feel more confident when the anxiety hits. Get plenty of rest. You need to make sure not to stay up late because you’ll feel tired and that too will work against you. If you give yourself sufficient rest and keep away from stress, you won’t be distracted during the test. Don’t be late on the day of your exam. Worrying about getting there on time will cause stress and impair your performance.
Cramming really doesn’t work, it only causes information overload. You won’t have enough time to remember everything. Be well prepared in advance. Continually review class material. Don’t try to learn everything the night before. Avoid studying a day or few hours only before the test as this will cause you to panic. It will also result to stress and nervousness; eventually leading to test taking anxiety. Don’t study 20 or 15 minutes before the exam; instead use this time to calm down so your mind is fresh the moment you are taking the test or quiz.
Secondly, listen to your self-talk when you feel anxious. It’s important to evaluate how this inner dialogue is sabotaging you. *Ask yourself:
- What am I saying to myself that creates my anxiety?
- What are my core beliefs regarding my ability to perform?
- How do I view or react to tests? Do I view them as intimidating? Or a chance to prove myself?
Tune into your thoughts and beliefs, your negative, limiting self-statements and core beliefs underlying your anxiety. Then, write down the negative self-statements and core beliefs you’ve noticed. Come up with an opposing (positive) statement to each of those negative thoughts and beliefs. Challenge those negative beliefs with positive, empowering thoughts. For example, instead of beating yourself up about how dumb you are and how much you don’t know, start telling yourself, “I know all this material.” Thinking positive thoughts on the test relieves your anxiety.
Right before the exam, close your eyes and begin to breathe slowly and easily. Be sure to use deep breathing. This type of breathing helps to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety. Let every breath you take increase your confidence and intention to do well.
Take your positive responses that counter the negative self-statements you have regarding your studies and test-taking. Repeat them to yourself. Close your eyes and deep breathe for a few minutes. Let yourself calm down and feel your body relax. Repeat your positive self-statements several times. Emphasize those that are particularly powerful and helpful to you.
Now imagine yourself walking into a testing room and sitting down at your desk. Begin to breathe, and prepare yourself for the test by repeating your most powerful, positive self-statements. Then choose one of them that you can use during the test to calm any anxiety that may come up. Repeat this statement several times, and when you are ready, begin taking the test.
Imagine yourself feeling calm and confident as you read and answer the questions. Remember that the test is not bigger or more important than you. You have the tools to manage your anxiety. Your mind is clear and focused. You are remembering the material and your mind is giving you the information that you need.
Now slowly begin to come out of the relaxation by taking some long deep breaths and letting yourself yawn and stretch. Open your eyes, feeling relaxed and refreshed. Learning a new skill takes practice and repetition. Just remember these two things: It is possible to develop new beliefs, and you can learn to manage your test anxiety.
Here are some more tips on reducing test anxiety during an exam:
- Concentrate on one question at time and don’t worry about the rest of the numbers on the test. This will stop you from feeling nervous and having negative thoughts.
- Stay relaxed, if you begin to get nervous take a few deep breaths slowly to relax yourself and then get back to work.
- Read the directions slowly and carefully.
- If you don’t understand the directions on the test, ask the proctor to explain it to you.
- Skim through the test so that you have a good idea how to pace yourself.
- Write down important formulas, facts, definitions and/or keywords in the margin first so you won’t worry about forgetting them.
- Do the simple questions first to help build up your confidence for the harder questions.
- Don’t worry about how fast other people finish their test; just concentrate on your own test.
- When you still have plenty of time left, review your answers once more. This will give you the chance to correct any possible errors you’ve committed.
- If you don’t know an answer to a question skip it for the time being (come back to it later if you have time), and remember that you don’t have to always get every question right to do well on the test.
- Focus on the question at hand. Don’t let your mind wander on other things.
As the test approaches, start exercising to clear your mind. Get on your bike or the treadmill or put in an exercise DVD. Exercising before and after studying really improves each study session. Even if you follow all of the suggestions here, you will still feel nervousness when the test day arrives. This is natural and normal. But, moderate stress can trigger just enough adrenaline to help keep your mind sharp. When you realize that – your thoughts will begin to change.
On the day of the exam, show up early. This sets your mind at ease and helps you feel prepared. If the test taking anxiety is too much, remember that deep breaths will relax you back in to control. Remember you can work with the adrenaline and focus even better. Remind yourself that it’s just a test and your mind will reward you by working more freely. Tell yourself you will do your best and you will.
Be optimistic: Don’t set a goal that you know will be impossible for you to achieve. It’s not about getting perfect scores or being number one but instead being able to finish the test with a relax state of mind. Assure yourself that you can do it and you will.
If you encounter a very difficult question, don’t waste too much time trying to figure it out. What you need to do is go to the next item that is easier to answer so you’ll boost your confidence and regain your concentration. Just go back to the difficult question when you are done answering the rest.
At spaced intervals (such as two hours each week), study and learn chunks of the content of the exam for which you are studying. Read, discuss with others, apply the important information. Memorize whatever details are needed. This will help you to be really prepared during the day of the exam and lets you avoid test anxiety.
Take some notes that you can use as a review material. Jot down important points on index cards. Reading these notes will help refresh your mind in case you forget something vital about a particular topic.
Drink just a little coffee or tea before your test or quiz. These drinks will make you feel energized, thus resulting in better test scores. Just be careful that you don’t take in too much caffeine-it will escalate anxiety. If you have a caffeine allergy, eat fresh apples instead. They also have the same energizing effects.
Author, Trainer/Facilitator, Executive Coach
LPI (Leadership Practices Inventory) Certified Coach
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