Is Test Anxiety a real thing?

When they first contact me, many parents tell me that their kids are excellent students but poor test-takers, or that they have “test anxiety.” While I do believe that both teens (and adults) can get frazzled in stressful situations, my own belief is that true test anxiety, or test panic, is very rare. In my experience, the anxiety experienced by many students on the PSAT, SAT or ACT is actually the result of not being truly prepared for, or familiar enough with, these tests.

An Anecdote about Nerves

In addition to being a teacher, I have been a professional performer most of my adult life. While I know that nerves and opening night butterflies never really go away I also know that, if I am truly prepared (if I may know my lines and notes up and down, backwards and forward) I will settle in after a few minutes. Shoot, I’ll even be comfortable enough to deal with unforeseen situations that may crop up. If someone forgets a line or a prop breaks, I know that I can cope with it because I am prepared. I have been on stage many times before and have lived to tell the tale!

How to Deal with Standardized Tests

Standardized tests are not content-based, so kids cannot cram for them like they can for school exams. No, the ACT and SAT are “reasoning tests” that evaluate students’ ability to read carefully, think logically, and pick the best of several multiple-choice answers. Kids need to be able to switch easily between a literature passage and a scientific passage or, in math, from algebra problems to geometry problems to data evaluation and other odd-ball math problems. Since they don’t usually face this kind of thing in school, they should practice these sorts of questions on their own until they get comfortable with them.

Also, since the SAT and ACT are more strictly timed than school exams, students have to determine, beforehand, how much time they are going to devote, on average, to each question so they don’t panic and start to rush when the proctor announces: “Five minutes left!”

Keeping an eye on the clock… evaluating your progress… and determining whether you need to slow down or speed up…  whether to work harder on a given question or skip it altogether… all this comes through preparation and experience.

Thus, if students take the time to (1) familiarize themselves with standardized test questions, (2) time themselves while practicing reading, grammar and math test sections, and (3) bubble answers as part of this process… their standardized test anxiety should mostly disappear.