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Use these 5 skills to cope with test anxiety in college

Quizlet HQ & Quizlet in Education ·
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Quizlet is proud to partner with real students and recent graduates to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Nicolette Kier, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh.

Many students experience nervousness before an exam. This is especially common in college math and science courses, where a large portion of your overall grade is based on just a few test scores.

Students who have prepared thoroughly usually feel less nervous and are able to perform well.

But there are students who feel so anxious that they can’t do well on their exams even if they studied hard. This is a clinical condition known as test anxiety.

Keep reading to learn:

  • the difference between nervousness and test anxiety
  • signs and symptoms of test anxiety
  • five practical skills for coping with test anxiety
  • how to get help if your test anxiety keeps you from passing your classes

Nervousness and test anxiety: What’s the difference?

Nervousness is natural. While it’s an uncomfortable emotion, it’s not debilitating. You can walk into your classroom nervous, sit down to a test, and still perform well (if you’ve studied). As you move through questions, you shake off your nerves, and finish off strong within an allotted time frame.

Test anxiety, on the other hand, is debilitating. You can do practice problems and flashcards until you know every concept that will be on the test forwards and backwards. You go to sleep knowing you’re ready. But when you sit down to test, you feel so much anxiety that you can’t focus on your exam. You know everything, but feel so overwhelmed that you can’t access any of the information you worked so hard to learn.

Test anxiety is a clinical, diagnosable disorder, with physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Symptoms range from stomach pain and nausea to brain fog and a feeling of inadequacy.

In severe cases, test anxiety can also induce a panic attack.

Skills for coping with test anxiety

Having test anxiety does not automatically disqualify you from performing well on exams. Here are five techniques you can use to calm yourself before and during your exam.

1. Self-soothing practices: Use soothing activities and objects to stay calm.

Self-soothing is a way to calm intense emotions so you can think clearly and rationally. You can use self-soothing techniques before and during your exam.

These may include:

  • playing soothing music before your exam
  • splashing cold water on your face before your exam
  • taking a short walk before going into your testing room
  • chewing gum before and during your exam
  • use a special pencil/pen to write your exam with (I personally love G2 pencils.)
  • using a coping statement, something like “I have prepared for this exam and am ready to pass.”

You can self-soothe with any object or action that calms you. The night before or after a test, you may also self-soothe with something like a bubble bath, a yoga practice, or just watching a funny TV show (after you’ve studied, of course).

2. Thought reframing: Avoid negative thought spirals.

If you have test anxiety, you have probably thought things like: “No matter what I do, I’m going to fail,” or “I don’t know anything,” right before an exam. These thoughts are, if you studied, untrue, and keep you from walking into an exam with confidence.

When you have thoughts like these, you can turn them into more realistic, helpful ones using thought reframing. There are two parts to this strategy: first, analyze your thoughts to determine how truthful they are, and then replace negative, untrue thoughts with more realistic ones.

For example, you may be sitting down to test, look at the first question, and then think: “I really don’t know anything, I’m going to fail.”

Ask yourself how true that thought is. If you went to class, did your homework, and studied for your exam, then there’s no way you know nothing.

Then, take your untrue thought and reframe it into something like: “I have prepared for this exam. I have put in the work, and this is the time to show it.”

A side recommendation for building your confidence during an exam: Start with the easiest question. Answer it as quickly and thoroughly as possible. This will reaffirm the fact that you know at least some of the material being tested.

3. Visualization: See yourself as successful to increase your confidence.

If you already see yourself failing an exam, it’s impossible to take a test with a sense of calm and confidence.

So, do the opposite: Visualize yourself succeeding. See your future self receiving a grade that reflects your understanding of course material. Don’t necessarily imagine yourself getting a perfect score. But recognizing yourself as a success, not a failure, provides a real confidence boost.

4. Grounding techniques: Keep yourself from spiraling.

Grounding techniques can be used when your heart starts to beat rapidly, you become lightheaded, or you disconnect from the present moment. The point of grounding is to stay connected to your body in the moment, rather than clinging to distressing thoughts and emotions.

These techniques include:

  • taking 10 slow, deep breaths
  • progressive muscle relaxation
  • holding onto your chair as tightly as possible
  • focusing on objects around you (your pencil, the wall in front of you, etc.)
  • clenching and unclenching your fists
  • noticing your body: wiggle your toes, roll your head back and forth, think about the weight of your body in your chair

Use whatever you can to keep yourself present in your body. This alleviates the physical symptoms of anxiety, and helps slow a racing mind.

5. Build a pretest ritual.

I have pretty bad test anxiety. My major classes also involved a great deal of testing. To get through it, I built a pretest ritual (and I received testing accommodations, but more on this below).

My ritual went like this:

I studied thoroughly. At some point, I knew I had learned everything I needed to, and I was ready. At that point, I stopped studying.

I packed my bag, which included my ceremonial testing pencils, spearmint gum, water, a granola bar and a jacket in case the room was cold.

I went to bed with enough time to start worrying, calm myself using self-soothing and grounding skills, and still get a decent amount of sleep.

In the morning, I had a light snack, treated myself to coffee, and did a cursory check to make sure I retained what I studied.

As I walked to my school’s testing center, I listened to my hype playlist. (I very much recommend creating your own pretest playlist, full of songs that make you feel confident and powerful).

I took two deep breaths, reminded myself how much I had studied, told myself that I was capable of excelling in the course, and opened my test packet.

Starting off on the right foot always made me feel more calm and put together.

What to do if test anxiety won’t go away

If your test anxiety is seriously impacting your academic career, and the above strategies aren’t helping, then it’s time to ask for outside help.

Almost all schools recognize the severity of test anxiety. Your school has probably designed accommodations to assist with test anxiety.

These accommodations include:

  • providing calming spaces outside of the classroom to test (usually in a designated testing center)
  • providing small rooms for individuals to quietly test in without distractions
  • providing extra time on exams to alleviate time-based pressure

If you have exhausted your other options for managing test anxiety, then it may be time to speak with your school about receiving testing accommodations.

To qualify for testing accommodations, most schools require you to get written documentation of a diagnosed anxiety disorder. If you do not have a formal diagnosis, you will have to go to a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. You may be able to receive testing and documentation of test anxiety at your school’s health center.

You must also meet with someone in your school’s disability resources office to determine which accommodations are appropriate for you. They will review your request for accommodations and approve those that are reasonable.

After this, you will have to register with the disability resources office. Every semester, you have to decide which classes you want to use your accommodations in.

The disability resources office at your school will then send letters to your professors disclosing your condition and your request to use your accommodations in their class. Professors almost always approve this request.

You must schedule your exams if you are taking them in a designated testing area outside of the classroom. Most schools have an online disability resources portal for students to schedule their exams. You will usually take exams at the same time as everyone else in your class.

Make sure to schedule your exams well in advance. If you don’t, you may have to test in the classroom with everyone else. It is especially important to schedule your final exams early, as everyone in your school is taking exams (in the classroom and in a designated testing area) at the same time. If you wait to schedule, you may have to test earlier than everyone else in your class, due to a lack of space in the testing center during your class’s scheduled testing time.

We here at Quizlet believe in you.

We understand the struggle of test anxiety. Hopefully this post will help you during midterms and all the way through final exams.


Nicolette Kier just made it to the other side of a degree in physics and writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She reaped the usual rewards of college: knowledge, a job, and debt. She thinks it was worth it.