Exam Anxiety


You walk into the exam room…confident that you know the material and can pull off a good  grade. You’re feeling a little nervous, but not any more than at other times in the past. The test arrives, your hand is a little shaky while you’re writing  your name down on the  answer sheet. The first two questions go fine. Then you read the third question. It seems to be
coming at you from about 45 degrees off from what you were expecting… Then it happens… Everything goes blank, and even the easy questions you know you know you suddenly can’t understand, let alone answer… Ten minutes before the test is about to end, you start to comprehend some of the questions. You answer some of the easy ones. Even  the difficult ones suddenly start to make sense. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Time’s up… (MichiganTech, 2000). 

Exam anxiety is a fairly common phenomenon that involves feelings of tension or uneasiness that occur before, during, or after an exam (Glendale Community College Counseling Center, 2000). Many people experience feelings of anxiety around exams and find it helpful in some ways, as it can be motivating and create the pressure that is needed to stay focused on studying. However, in some cases, anxiety can become so intense that it leads to disruptive symptoms that ultimately lead to a negative impact on one’s performance. In these cases, it is important for students to attend to their symptoms and find a way to cope effectively, so that their schooling does not suffer any further. 

As a first step, it is important to determine whether the anxiety is “true” test anxiety, or is due to a lack of adequate preparation (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center, 2000). The student will need to ensure that he/she spends enough time studying, has adequate study strategies, attends class regularly, and understands the class material. If these issues have been addressed and he/she still continues to experience intense symptoms of anxiety, then it is likely that he/she is suffering from true (or classic) test anxiety, and will need to target his/her particular symptoms directly.

Although anxiety can affect each person in different ways, there are several symptoms that are quite common. Some of these are emotional, which include feelings of fear, disappointment, anger, depression, or helplessness. Other symptoms are more behavioral, ranging from fidgeting or pacing to substance abuse or other self-destructive behaviors. There are also physiological symptoms, which include fast heartbeat, feelings of nausea, headaches, lightheadedness, sweating, and other disruptions in bodily functions. Finally, many people experience cognitive symptoms, such as negative thinking about oneself, racing thoughts, loss of memory, and “blanking” out (Glendale Community College Counseling Center, 2000).

Some of the strategies for coping with exam anxiety are quite practical and relatively easy to implement, such as avoiding caffeine, arriving early to the exam, avoiding people who speak negatively, meeting with the professor to discuss class material, getting a good night’s sleep, and reading exam directions carefully (Glendale Community College Counseling Center, 2000; University of Western Ontario, 2000). Students will also need to ensure that they are practicing good time management skills and managing their stress on a daily basis through exercise, good nutrition, social support, enjoyable activities, and balance in their lives.

One of the most important components in dealing with exam anxiety is stopping a negative spiral from occurring, which can happen when one sign of anxiety (e.g., trembling hands, negative thoughts about one’s performance) leads to a “chain of negative thoughts and images…each feeding on the one before and giving rise to another…” (Oregon State University: Distance & Continuing Education, 2000). This can lead to an increase in one’s anxiety level to the point where he/she can no longer perform at an acceptable level. There are many strategies that can be used to interrupt this cycle, such as breathing deeply; relaxing tense muscles; repeating positive, reassuring statements to oneself; taking a short break from the exam situation; and visualizing oneself doing well (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center, 2000).

Exam anxiety can be treated very effectively by continually practicing the above strategies. As some of these may be difficult to learn on one’s own, counselling may be helpful as the therapist helps you to learn which strategies are most appropriate for you, as well as assisting you in learning how and when to implement them. 

- Dr. Tamara D. Hanoski, R. Psych (2002)


1) Glendale Community College Counseling Center. (2000). Do you have test anxiety? [On-line]. Available:http://www.gc.maricopa.edu:160/counseling/test.htm
2) MichiganTech. (2000). Test anxiety [On-line]. Available:  http://www.counseling.mtu.edu/frameTestAnxiety.html
3) Oregon State University: Distance & Continuing Education. (2000). Tackling test anxiety [On-line]. Available:http://www.osu.orst.edu/dept/osustate/studentservices/anxiety.html
4) University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center. (2000). Test anxiety [On-line]. Available:http://www.couns.uiuc.edu/Brochures/testanx.htm
5) University of Western Ontario, London, Canada. (2000). Managing your test anxiety. Student development centre’s learning skills service[On-line].        Available: http://www.sdc.uwo.ca/learning/mcanx.html

*This article was originally published with Student Counselling Services at the University of Alberta,www.ualberta.ca/~uscs/managing_test_anxiety.htm