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Eliminating Test-taking Anxiety On The SAT

A little bit of anxiety is actually not a bad thing. That bit of excitement can actually help you perform better at a task. Most students have some level of test-taking anxiety, but some have more than others. It’s when the anxiety is so great that it actually begins to hurt your score that we need to deal with it.

There are some reasons for nervousness that can easily be avoided. For example, when you come to a problem that is giving you a lot of trouble there is no reason to get all nervous. Simply move on, and come back to it later if you have time.

Here are some of the best ways that you can keep test-taking anxiety from hurting your score.

(1) Be prepared: Being prepared for the test will go a long way toward reducing your test-taking anxiety. Start preparing for the SAT about three to four months before taking your exam. Make sure you learn as many SAT specific math strategies as possible.

Throughout these three to four months, practice SAT math problems for ten to twenty minutes every day right up until two days before the test. The day before the test you should take time out to relax. If you have taken the right amount of time to study, cramming the day before exam day could hurt your score because you will be increasing your anxiety level. Take off from studying the day before your SAT. This one extra day of studying will not improve your score.


Make sure you take at least four practice tests before the actual SAT. Use the second edition of the “College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide” for this purpose.

SAT-Official-Study-Guide-New

(2) Increase confidence: A lack of confidence manifests itself as anxiety. Being prepared will go a long way to increasing confidence. Your confidence will naturally increase as you get more and more SAT math questions correct. If you are a nervous test-taker, it is important that you are getting some questions correct during your short study sessions. I therefore recommend that at each study session you attempt some problems that are easy for you. For example, if you are currently struggling with Level 4 Heart of Algebra SAT math problems, then at your Heart of Algebra study sessions do a couple of Level 2 and 3 Heart of Algebra SAT math problems in addition to some Level 4 problems.

Remark: Remember that your score only improves by turning failure into success. So it is very important that you are getting some questions wrong. The particular strategy just mentioned is to make sure that your score is not lowered by test-taking anxiety.

(3) Know how to take the test correctly: When you walk in to take the SAT on test day make sure you have a plan for how you will take the test. You should have memorized all the directions and formulas given on the test. You should know exactly how you will pace yourself during the test, and how to check over your answers correctly.

(4) Take extra full length practice tests: A little extra practice may be what you need to gain more confidence and reduce anxiety. Do a few extra full length practice tests. You may want to add in an extra section to simulate the experimental section.

Basketball State

(5) Learn how to get yourself into test-taking “state”: Think of something that you know you are good at. Maybe it’s a sport, or playing a certain instrument. Think about how you feel when performing this activity. You probably have complete confidence in what you are doing, and performing this activity comes so naturally that you do not even need to think about it. When you are confident in your ability to perform a certain activity, you can enter the “state” necessary for performing that activity very quickly. If you are not confident in your ability, you may need to “warm-up” a bit before getting into state. Once you are in the appropriate state, anxiety no longer becomes an issue – at this point your performance is determined by your ability alone. “Warm-up” can be accomplished by beginning to physically perform the desired activity. But it can also be done just by thinking about performing the activity. You can use successful past experiences with the activity as reference points for your “warm-up.”

(6) Getting out of your head: Negative thoughts cause anxiety. Your thoughts have power over you. You can take back this power through some simple mental techniques. If you are experiencing high levels of anxiety, try one of the following:

  1. Focus on your breathing, and only on your breathing. Take deep breaths, and let those breaths be all that exist for you.
  2. Focus on a simple task. Put all of your mind and energy into that mundane activity – make it all that exists.
  3. Listen carefully to the sounds around you. Try to isolate each sound and listen to them individually. Then try to find the silence from where all of these sounds are emanating. Focus on that silence (note that it does not need to be silent for you to find this silence).
  4. When negative thoughts try to attack you just listen to them. Do not try to respond to them, do not judge them, just listen, and they will eventually pass through you.

Full Catastrophe LivingIf you feel that anxiety will affect your SAT score, then I recommend trying one of these techniques for at least a few minutes each day. Also try one of these meditations right before taking practice tests, and especially the morning of your SAT. Note that these meditative techniques take practice. They will become more effective the more you use them. To learn more about these types of meditation techniques you may want to take a look at a book called Full Catastrophe Living.

(7) Quick warm-up the morning of the test: Do a few math problems the morning of your SAT before taking the test. Make sure that these problems are not difficult for you. The purpose of this is not to practice; it is to get your mind into the correct state (see (5) above).

(8) Release some tension on the way to the test: In the car on the way to the exam let out a nice big scream. Get rid of all of that pent up anxiety. You may want to warn anyone else in the car before you do this. Tell them that Dr. Steve said that it’s okay.

That should be enough information to help manage your test-taking anxiety in the future. Remember that if you are anxious over the SAT, this means that you care about your performance on the test. The best way to get over this anxiety is with good preparation.

Best of luck,


Dr. Steve
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