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Beating Test Stress

For years, more and more colleges went test optional. But the tide has turned. More and more selective colleges, including MIT, Dartmouth, Brown, and UT at Austin have reinstated test requirements, and that’s causing a lot of stress, especially for students who have a rough history with standardized tests. And let’s face it: that’s a lot of us.

If you’re stressing out about standardized tests, read on for some encouragement and concrete advice.


What is Test Stress?

Stress has a physical aspect. When we’re stressed, our breathing changes, our pulse rates increase, and we can even shake visibly. All of these things make it harder to do well on standardized tests, so it makes sense to identify the sources of our stress and so something about them.

When we’re stressed, we’re worried about a real-world situation. Worrying isn’t always bad. Sometimes a little worry can get us going and alert us that something important is happening. But other times, stress can get out of hand. If we’re too worried about how we are going to do on the test, we won’t be able to focus on the question in front of us. Sometimes people are so worried about making a mistake that they double-check and second-guess themselves and then run out of time or change correct answers to incorrect ones.


Fear of the Unknown

One important source of stress is uncertainty. It’s natural to be nervous when you don’t know what to expect and the consequences of failure are serious. The good news is that standardized tests are very predictable. They test the same things in the same way every time. That’s the point. As a result, if you learn what to expect and what to do, you’ll have a major advantage over everyone who doesn’t.

Lots of things in life are terrifying until you understand them. Seeing how tests are put together isn’t the total solution, but it is an important step.


Fear of Failure

Another important source of stress is the fear of failure, and that makes sense, because the tests are important. But they’re not everything, and for all you know, you’re going to do just fine. So ask yourself: how justified are my worries about my test score? Am I worried over nothing, because I’m probably going to do quite well, or are my worries based in fact, because right now I don’t have all the skills I need? Or am I somewhere in between?

To figure out where you really are with the test, take a released practice test. (If you’re not sure how to do this, reach out to me and I’ll help you out.) Start with either a practice SAT or ACT. Both are fine, but most people do better on one or the other. Stick to time limits, don’t do yourself any favors with the scoring, and see where you stand.

You might find out that you’re in much better shape than you thought. Or it could be worse, or somewhere in between, but at least you’ll know, and you’ll have time to do something about it. After you’ve taken one practice test (an SAT or ACT), consider trying the other so that you can compare the results.


Rational Fear

If your practice scores aren’t where you want them to be, don’t panic. The skills you need to succeed can be learned, and there are plenty of resources out there to help you, including self-study, courses, and private tutors. Improving your score may not be easy, but it can be done.


Irrational Fear

But what if your fears are way out of proportion, and you’re way more worried than you should be? In that case, dig deeper and ask yourself why that’s true. Here are some possibilities:

·       Perfectionism: if you expect yourself to be perfect, you’re always going to disappoint yourself, because we all make mistakes. Ask yourself how reasonable your expectations of yourself really are.

·       Catastrophizing: Sometimes, our assessment of a problem is accurate, but our sense of the consequences of that problem is way off. So ask yourself: if you don’t do well, what will really happen? Will it really be the end of the world? Probably not. Will you still be able to achieve your life goals? Probably. Oddly enough, if stress in in your way, accepting the possibility of failure will make you less likely to fail.

·       Insecurity: It your stress really about the test and college admissions? Or are you really concerned about how it makes you feel about yourself? Test scores are important, but they don’t test intelligence. In addition, while the skills measured on standardized tests are important in life, but they aren’t the only important things in life. Being proud of good scores is fine, and wanting to do better is also fine. But if you need to do well to feel good about yourself, then that the real issue. Don’t let tests run your life.


Beware Self-Defeating Thoughts

Many students convince themselves that they “don’t do well on tests,” thinking that they’re going to do badly no matter how hard they try. This idea is seductive because it lets them off the hook, and it’s dangerous because it also guarantees failure. If you’re convinced that you’re going to fail, then you most likely will, and if you feel that you were destined to fail, then it’s not really your fault, right? This is the kind of thinking you have to squash, on standardized tests and in life in general.


If you find yourself thinking that you’ll never succeed on standardized tests, confronting that belief is your first task. Is it really true? If you haven’t done well on standardized tests, what are the reasons? Were you unfamiliar with the test? Did you lack the skills that you needed? Did you make a lot of mistakes? Did you run out of time? Did you take it as seriously as you should? Or too seriously? The answers to these questions may be uncomfortable, but answering them will put you on the path to success.


Some things really are impossible. But you doing well on your test isn’t one of them. Be honest with yourself. Treat the tests seriously, but don’t let them dominate your life. And don’t defeat yourself before you even get started.

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