SAT and ACT Prep: 10 Essential Tips to Ease Test Anxiety

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: June 1, 2021

Sitting for an SAT or ACT amid nervous students, serious proctors, and loudly ticking clocks can unnerve even the steadiest student. Suddenly, your heart is beating out of your chest, your palms are sweating, and you have a strong inclination to jump up and run out of the room. But wait! You take a deep breath, thankful that in addition to all your studying, memorizing, and strategizing, you also took time to prepare yourself emotionally by arming yourself with valuable tools like the ones you’ll find in this article.

How you show up on test day matters. While there are many things you can’t control – a heavy breather behind you, a pencil tapper next to your left, a question you have no idea how to answer – preparing in advance to tackle anxieties that may arise will give you the upper hand in managing the stress. Here are our top 10 tips for easing anxiety before and during test day.

The Month(s) Before the Test

Tip #1: Simulate

Fear of the unknown is a major culprit causing anxious feelings. That’s why we always emphasize the importance of taking practice tests under timed conditions. Make your practice session as similar to the real thing as you can. Use an answer sheet, take it in one sitting, and take the same short breaks you will get on test day. Practicing also familiarizes you with the test itself and the kinds of questions you will encounter. The more “unknowns” you can take out of the equation, the less scary it will be on test day.

For more pointers on preparation, see our Guide to Preparing for College Entrance Exams and our important tips on the proper way to take test simulations.

Tip #2: Research

Many students encounter test anxiety, and even if you’re not one of them, researching the topic may help you prepare for the unique SAT or ACT testing experience. You can find a wide range of coping strategies by looking for reputable resources online or by talking with friends about how they deal with it. You’ll find some ideas in this article, too. For instance, you might find it helpful to learn about mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, or body awareness techniques. Our advice is not to wait until test day to try them out. Some tools may work better for you than others. You can take them for a “test” run during one of your practice simulations or perhaps during your exams at school.

student meditating

The Night Before the Test

Tip #3: Organize

The last thing you want to be doing the morning of the test is running around frantically searching for your ID or calculator. Get everything together the night before, including your admission ticket, snacks, and water.

Tip #4: Rest and Relax

This is not the time for cramming. Use the night before the test to give your brain – and you – a break. That doesn’t mean go out partying with friends. Plan a quiet night so you can relax, unwind, and get to bed early for a good night’s sleep.Student Getting Organized for Test Day

The Morning Of the Test

Tip #6: Get a Good Start

Set your alarm so you have more than enough time to get ready so as to be awake, alert, and on time for the test. Dress comfortably in layers (hopefully you planned your outfit the night before) and eat a healthy, carb-rich breakfast.

Tip #7: Think Positively

It really makes a difference when you start your day off with positive thoughts (good advice for every day, not only test days). Even if you don’t quite believe it, tell yourself, “This is going to be a great day. I know I’m prepared and ready. It’s just a test and I’m going to do well.” It can also be helpful to imagine yourself at the end of the test feeling confident and happy with your performance.

Tip #8: Clear Out Your Fears

According to a team at the University of Chicago, another helpful way to combat test anxiety is to write down your fears on a slip of paper about 10 minutes before the test. If you feel you won’t be able to do it that close to test time, try it before you leave home. Include all your worries, fears, anxieties, and negative thoughts about taking the SAT or ACT. Then, crumple it up and dispose of it. Like clearing the cache on your computer, writing those worries down frees up space in your brain and helps you be more clear-minded for the test.Teenage Girl Writing Down Positive Thoughts

During the Test

Tip #8: Focus

Once the test starts, tune out all distractions and put yourself in your own bubble as you concentrate and take it one question at a time. To create positive momentum and confidence, answer the questions you know, checking them off as you complete them, and move forward. Skip over the more difficult ones, marking them so you know to return to them once you’ve answered the easier ones. Do your best to ignore everything else that’s going on around you and don’t compare yourself to others who seem to be going faster or slower. You really never know what’s going on with other students, so stay in your own zone, in your bubble.

Tip #9: Breathe

Your breath is probably your most vital tool. The good news: it’s always with you. If you find yourself distracted or getting lost, frustrated, or anxious, pause and take a moment. Count to 10 while taking long, slow, deep breaths in and out. You can also use your imagination to picture yourself in a beautiful, serene place you love. Then sit up straight, take another deep breath, exhale, and begin anew.Student Focused on Taking Test

After the Test

Bonus Tip: Celebrate!

Even though this comes at the end, don’t make it an afterthought. Plan ahead for how you will reward yourself for a job well done. That will keep you motivated and give you something wonderful to look forward to.

Meanwhile, if you need assistance getting ready for the standardized tests, we’re here to help. Contact a location near you.

Best of luck!

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