Managing Test Anxiety for the ACT / SAT

Pexels user The 5th

Pexels user The 5th

Researchers estimate that between 10 and 40 percent of all students experience some test anxiety. According to Morgan Grotewiel, Ph.D., Adjunct Faculty in the University of Missouri-St. Louis Department of Counseling and Family Therapy, “Test-anxious people perceive testing situations as personally threatening, and they respond with intense emotional reactions.” This can range from little more than a few butterflies to sweaty palms, racing heart, tight chest, nausea, or even panic attacks.

If test anxiety is a problem for you, try these tips to keep your cool on test day.


Whether you’re getting ready for a classroom exam or a high-stakes test such as the ACT or SAT, study and practice are the best antidotes for test anxiety. Your confidence level is likely to be directly proportional to how well you prepare for the test. There’s no substitute for knowing the subject matter and being able to do the work.

Put the test in perspective.

Test anxiety is proportional to how important we feel a test is. You’re more likely to be stressed about a college entrance exam than a weekly English quiz. But even for the ACT and SAT, remember that one test score isn’t everything. Colleges take many factors into consideration when admitting students, not just test scores. Besides, you can retake the ACT and SAT if you don’t achieve your score goals the first time. And few, if any, high school and college classes rely on a single test score as the grade for an entire course.

It’s also important to remember that one test does not define you. Life will continue, no matter your score, and one day this test will be a distant memory. New opportunities will arise for you to demonstrate your competence.

Don’t procrastinate.

Begin preparing as soon as possible before the test. Waiting until the last minute is not only stress-inducing, but also ineffective for long-term learning. Being rushed and frantic on test day, cramming right before the test, losing sleep—all these ramp up your anxiety and make you feel frazzled.

Take a practice test.

If you’re getting ready for a standardized test such as the ACT or SAT, free practice tests are available online. Familiarizing yourself with the format, question types, and instructions will help you know what to expect and increase your confidence.

Visualize success.

Visualization exercises can help desensitize you to anxiety-inducing situations. Imagine yourself entering the classroom confident and ready. Visualize taking your seat and receiving the exam from the proctor. You calmly read each question, none of which you find surprising. You complete each answer confidently. You finish with time remaining, then carefully check your work until time is called. You hand in the test with satisfaction and a sigh of relief. As with your other preparations, begin practicing your visualization exercises as soon as possible before the test for the best results.

Avoid negative self-talk.

Replace negative thoughts with realistic ones. If you try to psyche yourself out with overly confident, unrealistic self-talk like, “I’m going to score better than anyone ever,” your subconscious won’t be fooled. So replace defeating thoughts, such as “I’m going to totally bomb this,” with “I’ll work my hardest and do my best.”

Make healthy choices.

Eat a well-balanced meal the evening before and the morning of a test. Get at least eight hours of sleep before the test. If you have trouble sleeping, listen to a guided meditation for sleep (many of these can easily be found on YouTube) or soothing music to help you relax. Use progressive relaxation techniques if you feel anxious: sequentially flex and then relax body parts from head to toe or vice versa.

Avoid unnecessary stress on test day.

Avoid personal drama with family, friends, even your BFF during the days and hours before the test. And be on time! Set two alarms extra early to allow plenty of time to get ready, drive to the testing center, find a parking space, and walk to the testing room with at least 10 minutes to spare. Allow time for the unexpected flat tire or traffic jam. The night before, lay out your clothing and the items you’ll need for the test (e.g., pencils, calculators, admission ticket, photo ID—if required).

Take precautions against anxiety during the test.

As you wait for the test to be distributed, take several slow, deep breaths. Once testing begins, write down the time the test will end on the cover of your test booklet or on the first page of the section you’re working in.

Keep an eye on your watch (yes, you’ll need to wear one to the test), and don’t spend too much time on any one question. If you get bogged down, skip that question and move on. Mark questions you skip to return to later.

Mark all of your answers directly in the test booklet and on your answer sheet. If you get mixed up on your answer sheet, you’ll have the answers in the booklet to go back to.

It’s okay to seek help.

Debilitating test anxiety can have long-term, detrimental effects on your academic career. Students who suffer from high test anxiety don’t score as well as their peers on tests and tend to receive lower grades. It’s a vicious cycle, as the more threatening a test seems, the worse the student scores, and the more test anxiety she has the next time.

If, after trying these tips, anxiety is still hampering your ability to do your best on exams, seek help from a mental health professional. In extreme cases, highly test-anxious students may be able to receive accommodations, such as extended testing time.

If you follow the suggestions we’ve given here, your anxiety level should be minimal. And the more positive testing experiences you have, the more your confidence will rise. For more advice for performing to your personal best on standardized tests, visit us at 

Use College Raptor to discover personalized college matches, cost estimates, acceptance odds, and potential financial aid from schools around the US—for FREE!

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Join thousands of students and parents learning about finding the right college, admissions secrets, scholarships, financial aid, and more.