Test anxiety: the culprit behind your disappointing SAT/ACT score?

Almost every student has experienced that horrible feeling. You know, the one when you enter the classroom confident that you’ve studied enough to ace the test, then as soon as the test packet and answer sheet are placed in front of you, your mind goes blank.

If you just received your October SAT scores and aren’t particularly happy with the results, you might want to consider text anxiety as the culprit. Test anxiety is a common phenomenon, especially among students taking the SAT and/or ACT. Because of the pressure placed on college admissions, it’s easy to get stressed out during these exams. At ArborBridge, we understand that this test anxiety can keep students from performing at their highest potential. When our tutors notice signs of anxiety, they make sure to address it throughout lessons and practice tests to condition students for official exam-day situations.

Here are a few helpful tips for identifying signs of test anxiety and, more importantly, overcoming them.

Recognize classic signs of test anxiety

Review your score report post-practice test with your tutor and look for specific problem areas. Are you missing easy questions that you would otherwise answer correctly? It’s also important to talk about the actual testing experience with your tutor. Did you find yourself rushing, only to end up with a lot of extra time at the end of each section? Were you distracted by something in the room? Do you remember particular questions on which you second guessed your answer choices? Pinpointing these instances is the first step to recognizing that you might be experiencing test anxiety.

Desensitize students to test day situations

The most effective way to approach any type of anxiety is desensitizing a person to whatever he/she is anxious about. In test-taking situations, students could be anxious about a number of factors—time pressure, silence of the room, personal or parental expectations, or simply fear of appearing stupid. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists use desensitization as means of treating patients with phobias; the only way to overcome the fear is to face it, and continue to face it over and over again. The same goes for test anxiety. After you recognize that test anxiety could be an issue, you might want to begin tutoring in a different environment—one that is not familiar to you. Use a similar method for proctored exams. The point is to get you out of your comfort zone, so that the official testing environment won’t be as intimidating. Take practice tests in a public library, or somewhere that is quiet but also full of people. This will help to control nerves come test day.

Practice specific test strategies

Ask your tutor to create customized test-taking strategies for you that make you feel in control of the test. For example, instead of doing the ACT Science section in order, always save the Conflicting Viewpoints passage for last. Or, always do the grid-in problems on the SAT Math sections first to get them out of the way. These personalized strategies are great ways to help students feel like they “control” the test instead of letting the test take control of them.

Build muscle memory and habit-forming

Test anxiety is in fact a form of “choking.” While choking has a pretty negative connotation, it’s actually very common. It’s that moment in high pressure situations when you begin to overthink everything you do. By overthinking, you sabotage yourself. Athletes conquer choking by building muscle memory habits to fall back on. Instead of over-thinking when nerves kick in, they let their bodies and subconscious take over. For students, the same applies. Build a set of specific habits before and during every test. This could mean eating the same meal, doing the same mental pep-talk before walking into the test room, repeating the same process during every break (get water, go to the bathroom, eat a small snack, drink some more water, stretch, then sit down again), or repeating the same process for each section of the test (take a deep breath, flip through the section to get a sense of the layout, cross off questions to skip, then begin the section). Have a plan, practice it, and implement it come test day. For more information, here’s an insightful article on the science of choking under pressure.

Understand that you are not alone in experiencing test anxiety. Very rarely do students go into the test with full confidence. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t perform at your highest potential—hey, sometimes a little nerves are good, right? Continue to prepare in a way that’s best for you with your tutor, and above all, remind yourself that the SAT and ACT do not define who you are or what you’re capable of.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Megan Stubbendeck

About Megan Stubbendeck

Dr. Megan Stubbendeck is an eight-year veteran of the test prep industry with ten years of teaching experience. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Virginia, where she taught for three years in the History Department. She has been part of the test prep industry since 2007 and has earned perfect scores on the SAT, ACT, GRE, and multiple AP exams. As the CEO of ArborBridge, Megan oversees all aspects of ArborBridge operations and helped to create our innovative curriculum.

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