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The Four Faces of Test Anxiety

Adina Glickman

There are 4 kinds of test anxiety:

  1. Wayyyyy before the test
    This is also known as free-flowing anxiety, wherein just the thought of a test – even one that’s not going to happen except in your nightmares – makes your palms clammy and bends your belly into knots.
  2. Before the test
    This anxiety happens anywhere from several months to moments prior to an actual test on your calendar.
  3. During the test
    This happens, as you’d expect, while you’re sitting down with the test, trying to concentrate and work a problem, even when you get up to take a bathroom break.
  4. After the test
    Post-test anxiety, not to be underestimated, is what causes most students to abandon their exams in the professor’s distribution box outside their office to collect dust. Just give me the damn grade and don’t make me re-visit the pain.

cat freaking out

So, what to do about each of these different types of test anxiety.

Wayyyyy before: Anxiety has the potential to motivate good preparation, so use it that way. Good preparation can mitigate much of the irrational before-the-test anxiety you usually face. Good preparation consists of learning deeply. Learning deeply should make you able to answer these questions about what you’ve learned:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. How does it work
  3. Why is it important?
  4. How does it fit with the other things I’m learning

It also helps to have your study and preparation look similar. If the test is closed book, practice p-sets without your notes. If the test is essay-writing, practice writing. 

NOTE: It turns out testing is a great way to learn. When separated from its evaluative purpose, it’s actually more helpful to test yourself intermittently than to just study or go over problem sets. Part of this constitutes a sort of rehearsal, but at its core testing is a strenuous mental activity that helps solidify the information you’re learning. It also helps you screen through what you know well, what you know a little, and what you don’t know at all yet. (For more information about test preparation, read this.)

Stress can be attenuated in two waves: Before and During. Ideally, if Before is working well, During will go even better. But, as a fail-safe, I’ll talk about some strategies to help ease stress During the test as well as Before.

Before: Working with the material + Behaviorally preparing for the test
Before & During: Physiologically preparing for the test
Before & During: Psychologically preparing for the test

Working with the material

wringing out sponge

  1. If the test was on reporting your life story from the very beginning leaving nothing out, you would ace it. Not because you’re memorized your life story, but because you know it; you’ve told it before, and it’s meaningful to you. These are the two ingredients for managing test anxiety in the context of actually learning and working with the course material prior to the exam.
  2. Most people tend to see study as absorption and testing as production as if learningis being a dry sponge soaking up the material, and being tested on it is squeezing out the sponge to show what you absorbed. But since Stanford tests don’t tend to ask you to squeeze out what you’ve absorbed (they want you to USE it in some new and complicated way), your study needs to look much more like testing than the traditional spongy absorption.

Behavioral Preparation

When you’re preparing, select a problem or question that gets you thinking the way you’re going to need to be thinking during the exam. This can be your warm-up question. About 20-30 minutes before the exam, pull out that question and answer it. It shouldn’t be super challenging, or something that you don’t feel confident about. Then, when you sit for the exam, all the parts of your brain that need to be lit up are already lit up!

Physiological Preparation


A certain amount of anxiety is necessary for testing. It keeps you vigilant and focused. Too much distracts you and makes you move so fast you miss tiny but significant details like “but” or “and” while writing or carrying the 1. So getting the right amount of anxiety means formally telling your body that a test is not a life or death situation, and all of that adrenaline you’ve got coursing through your veins, producing your elevated heart rate, generating enough heat that your palms are sweating, and mixing with your stomach acid to produce what feels like lead butterflies is actually natural, okay, and if managed properly, can help you. First, breeeeeeeathe. Slowly in, and slowly out. This will get more oxygen to your brain where it is needed (since you are not in fact running for your life), will slow your heart rate, and will help you dissipate some of your adrenaline.

Psychological Preparation

This type of prep can take a long long time to master, so don’t be discouraged if just reading this doesn’t immediately transform you. Change and growth take time. Here are some things to try and to aim for.

  • Remember that this exam is not a measure of your intellect, nor is it a definition of you. It’s a snapshot of you, this day, having logged this much sleep, having had this much time to prepare, with this particular level of motivation, etc. And it’s a blurry snapshot at best. And even if you had a thousand crystal clear snapshots, the whole collection wouldn’t define you.
  • If you have some intrinsic interest in what you’re being tested on, remember that using your mind to solve problems and puzzles is actually pretty fun. That’s all a test is: a puzzle.
  • Getting less than an A+ does not constitute falling off a ledge. Lives will not be lost. While yucky things might happen (everything from your own disappointment to, in much more severe situations, having to re-take a course or take time off of school), this test will not kill you. It will not make your life either meaningful or meaningless. It will show you what more you have to learn. And isn’t that why you came to Stanford?

As usual, stay calm, and stay tuned.