One of my favorite college roommates I ever had happened during my freshman year. I roomed random and ended up with two girls who became my best friends for a lot of my college experience. One of my roommates, who I will give the nickname of Jill, was a valedictorian in her high school. She had great grades all throughout high school while juggling soccer and other extracurriculars. Her dad was really proud when he dropped her off for college.
At Brigham Young University, you don’t often take exams in your classrooms. Instead of a teacher passing out tests and collecting them during a class period, they send their tests to a testing center and give you a few days to get in to take it. The testing center is its own building completely; there aren’t any classes going on there. The building is purely made for exam purposes.
As I walked in for my first test at the testing center, I observed students lining walls and sitting on the stairs cramming before walking into their tests. I walked up the stairs that led to the line where you handed some employed students your ID card and picked up your test. They would then funnel you into one gigantic room filled with students taking tests. There were rows and rows of desks, and you simply chose a random seat and began. Other employed students were proctors and they paced up and down the aisles or stood to one side of the room to watch for any signs of cheating.
Later on in my college career, I learned that if you kept walking around a corner, there were more stairs that led to a much smaller room. The smaller room held desks and proctors, but the difference was that this room played classical music constantly. I loved that room, and I loved the testing center. I wasn’t distracted or stressed about timing. And I could go in on my own terms on any number of days. Whenever I entered the testing center, my mind knew it was game time and usually jumped into focus mode.
My roommate, Jill, was not so lucky.
What is test anxiety?
The definition of testing anxiety is “a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure, and catastrophizing, that occur before or during test situations.” It is a more specific type of performance anxiety. While this may seem like a silly idea to some, it’s as real as any other kind of anxiety for others. One symptom of testing anxiety is intense stress that can lead to negative performance. When a student is too worried about the stress itself, or when the fear of failure has nested in their mind, it makes it difficult to recall other information. It can be overwhelming enough to cause panic attacks. Physical symptoms may include headaches, overactive sweat glands, nausea, lightheadedness, or a rapid heartbeat. Emotional symptoms present themselves in the form of hopelessness, self-doubt, inadequacy, and even anger.
Test anxiety can be severe enough to cause students to score about 12 percentile points lower than their peers. This is the average; 12 percentile points doesn’t even represent the worst of it. Testing anxiety can cause further negative self-conditioning and deeply affect self-esteem and feelings towards school in general. Testing anxiety is correlated with higher drop-out rates.
Who are affected by test anxiety?
This unfortunate occurrence is not the result of a less prepared student. Young adults can study extensively and still experience the anxiety that can lead to failure. This anxiety interrupts attention and reduces memory.
While test anxiety has been present in students all over the world, it is found in higher quantities among gifted students or students who have disabilities. It is also associated with students who experience anxiety disorders in general. It affects 25% of students who are ages 13-18, and it affects 18% of adults. Testing anxiety increases when it is standardized testing.
My roommate Jill had never experienced testing anxiety until she came to college. She did fine throughout high school, taking tests in her classrooms and passing with flying colors. Coming to college caused her to feel anxiety in general as she faced bright students and compared herself. The fear that she didn’t actually deserve a spot at BYU occurred frequently. As she came to dwell on these attitudes, she took her first test at the testing center and failed miserably. From then on, the testing center itself became a beacon of fear for her. The testing anxiety would jump in whenever she so much as walked towards the testing center.
The fact that it was a completely new experience and environment to take tests in combined with the generalized anxiety she was having towards other aspects of school caused her to find failure over and over again with testing. This led to negative conditioning, and the cycle only worsened.
Beating Test Anxiety
My roommate Jill eventually found her footing. After a period of time and some major self-awareness and learning, she realized that she had testing anxiety. Because she had never experienced it before, it did not occur to her that she might be experiencing a fairly common trend amongst college students. As soon as she came to this realization, she was able to receive the help she needed.
If some of the symptoms above sound familiar to you, here are a couple of suggestions to help you overcome testing anxiety.
1) Check out your school’s resources.
Most colleges have dedicated resources to help you. This may include anything from counseling to free mental health classes. Take advantage of them; they will usually be free for you.
2) Talk to professors and see how they’re willing to work with you.
This particular suggestion can be hit or miss. Jill often tried to develop relationships with her professors so that she could help them understand what she was experiencing. Sometimes professors would be generous enough to allow her to take the exam in their classroom instead of at the testing center where she had developed strong, negative reactions. Other times, professors simply worked with her more closely so that she could feel more prepared. This may have looked like practice tests or sample questions that could help her know what she would be facing when she walked into the testing center. A little bit of familiarity can go a long way.
Lastly, some professors were even chill enough to let her retake the test with no penalties. While many of my high school teachers warned me that college professors could be scary, unrelenting, and unmerciful, I’ve found that a lot of them are also really cool. Though you do find some intense ones, other professors are as relaxed as the college students themselves. Get to know your professors. Find out how they’re willing to work with you on an individualized level.
3) Failure on some tests does not mean failure every time.
I failed tests in college. Most everyone fails tests in college. Hopefully, that takes a little bit of pressure off of you. I know many students coming from high school have never experienced a failed test before. Think of it as a rite of passage. Celebrate it if you must. Find a way to turn it into a positive experience so that you can keep a healthy outlook on tests and school in general. This helps you relax about it later. You can still bounce back and make a good grade in the class.
4) Check out a music room or look into accommodations in general.
Some testing centers will let you bring in food with special permission from the college. This is why checking out the college resources is so helpful. If you can’t bring in food, try gum. It gives you something else to focus on besides the test until you’ve found a little bit of peace.
5) Practice mindfulness, both during your test and at other, regular points in your day.
Mindfulness is simply taking note of exactly where you are in the moment. Don’t think about next week, tomorrow, what you’re going to do after the test, or even the next moment. Pay attention to exactly how you’re feeling right now. Practicing this concept outside of the testing center will help you be better at it during a test.
6) Going along with that idea, focus on only one question at a time. Don’t look at the rest of the questions. Pretend that’s the only question on the test. Take your time with it. Don’t worry about the rest of them. One question at a time.
7) Practice tips for generalized anxiety disorders.
For example, grounding is one practice that is extremely helpful. You take note of what you smell, three things you can feel (i.e. the hard back of the chair, the temperature of the room, the fabric of your socks), and five things you see. This can bring you back into the moment and gets rid of the swaying ground beneath your feet. It’s awesome. I’ve practiced this myself in certain situations.
8) Go to the Teaching Assistant study session.
TA’s are great resources because they are students who already took the class, know the professor well, and aced the tests. They know exactly what you’re going to be looking at when you walk into that testing center because they’ve taken the test, and they’ve probably already graded a few.
9) Last but not least, if all else fails, see a professional.
If your anxiety is truly that severe, there are people far more qualified than I am to push you in the right direction. There’s no shame in going to see a professional. It’s also kind of a rite of passage in college. Tons of people have utilized professionals for mental health; it’s not really a taboo anymore. They can really help you if you take one step of courage and get help.