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Vanquish Your Fears: The Truth about Test Stress


Many things have changed in the nine years I have been tutoring high school students for their college entrance exams.  One thing has not changed:  Test Anxiety.   As a private tutor for some of the brightest minds in our classrooms today -- those who’ve achieved perfect scores and gone onto success at Stanford, Notre Dame, Harvard and Duke -- I feel compelled to share with you some important information on this topic.  You may agree or disagree with what I’m about to tell you, but make no mistake about this:  it’s all true.

Students who have worked extremely hard to maintain high GPAs usually experience greater test anxiety.  That is because diligence with homework, greater participation in class, and being a model student in school naturally results in a higher grade --often an A -- but does not indicate general aptitude on a standardized test.

In other words, a student’s GPA does not correlate directly to Standardized Test Scores.  It goes without saying that students who’ve worked their tails off in high school will expect their ACT scores to reflect their work ethic.  They do not.   In all but the most rigorous private prep schools, a high GPA is a great benchmark of a student’s work ethic, not his or her intelligence.

4 tips

So, what can you do as a student to mitigate test stress?  I employee four tactics when I’m working with a student to reduce anxiety come test day, and I will share them with you:

A.  Students who have panic attacks on test day often worry they might not know all the questions on the exam and fear they will disappoint themselves or their parents.  In most cases, these students genuinely don’t know the material!  When I sit down with a lovely girl who has a 4.0 GPA at a respected large suburban Minneapolis school district, sometimes it becomes immediately apparent that the student doesn’t know half the answers!  No wonder she’s nervous.  Poor girl.  The thought of showing up for a massive four-hour exam without preparing is enough to give anyone nightmares.  The simplest and best way to eliminate this form of anxiety is to actually study for the ACT.  It doesn’t matter whether you study on your own, buy an e-book, snag practice tests from your college counselor, attend a prep class after school, or get private tutoring.  STUDY for the test, just like you would an EP-Euro exam, an Algebra II Unit test, or an IB-Bio semester exam.  Familiarize yourself with the questions, and you’ll eliminate a great deal of nervousness come test day.

B.  Students who experience unusually high levels of test anxiety often cite time as the main problem.  Lack of it, to be exact.  There’s a pretty quick fix to this issue:  always put your cell phone next to you and start/stop the clock when you’re going through practice tests for the ACT.    Do not ever do an English section without starting and stopping the clock.  Never “practice” a 60 minute math section by taking 90 minutes to complete the test.  You’ll never get 90 minutes on a test -- why do it in practice?  In fact, it’s pretty pointless to be telling your parents or friends (or yourself) you’re studying for the ACT if every single question isn’t timed.  It’s just like the volleyball coach who says “you play like you practice”.  If your deep float serve goes long every time in practice, it’ll go long in a game.  If your team can’t get the rotation correct in practice, you’ll have rotation faults during your next match.  Same goes for the ACT.  If you work on practice questions without operating under timed conditions, you’ll always run out of time on test day!  Enough said.

C. Students who undergo instant anxiety when starting a standardized test usually comment that there were many unexpected surprises on test day.  Here are a few of the most frequent complaints voiced to me:

“I had no idea the test would take four hours.  I was starving!”

“The format of the test was confusing.  I couldn’t believe I had to do 60 math questions in 60 minutes -- it all happened in one chunk! Totally unlike the PSAT!”

“I never knew if the proctor would give us a break, and I had to go to the bathroom and couldn’t concentrate.”

“I wasn’t sure if I should fill in the last 4 ovals or leave them blank.”

I ran out of time!”

By now, you know how long the test will be (4 hours -- bring pockets snacks!), you know the exact format of the test and which order the subjects will be presented (English, Math, Reading Science, Essay, always in the same order), you know the proctor will give you a break after the math section and a second one after the science section, and you know NEVER to leave a blank.  There should be no surprises come test day.  After all, the ACT is a standardized test, which means it is a highly predictable test.

D.  The more students compare themselves with others, the higher the levels of test stress.  I know there’s trouble right away when a first-time student sits down with me and proceeds to tell me their friend Alex just scored a 30, Patrick landed a 31 and Nick pulled a 28, with a parting comment that “Nick’s not even that good of student!”  Comparing yourself to others’ ACT test scores is a losing game.  Someone in your school will always have a higher test score than you.  You’ll lose every time in that competition.  You might as well relax right now.  The important point to note here is that the ACT is not graded on the curve.  Ever. The ACT itself does NOT base your performance on how other students did that day on the exact same test.  Why should you?    

The best success story I had was with a set of twins (both nervous, both with very high GPAs) who started with composite scores of 20 and 21, respectively.    After sitting for the ACT six times -- yes six times -- their scores followed this pattern:  21, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29.  Both ended up with 29s and offers from selective schools!  They stopped comparing themselves to others -- and especially to each other-- and just focused on improving their own performance.  (Not everyone wants to take a test six times, let alone pay for it, but these girls worked hard for their results and were willing to use their baby-sitting money to pay for the $45 test fee on their 5th and 6th try.)

The best approach is to concentrate on improving YOUR score every time you take the test, even if it’s only by one point.  In many cases, once I’ve helped a student set goals for herself, she is able to relax on test day and can mentally tell herself, “I’m only trying to get one point higher today.  That I can do!”  This method works wonders.  

Pray.  Plan.  Prepare.